Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/January 1883/Traces of a Pre-Indian People

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637024Popular Science Monthly Volume 22 January 1883 — Traces of a Pre-Indian People1883Charles Conrad Abbott



BY the cautious archæologist all evidences of ancient man in Eastern North America—exclusive of true palæolithic implements—are wisely referred to those Indian tribes that, to within a comparatively recent period, were the sole occupants of the territory named. Perhaps, however, the time has come when it may be asked if all the traces of prehistoric man, gathered along our northern Atlantic seaboard, are of one origin. In other words, have traces of a people later than American palæolithic man, and earlier than the Indian, been discovered?

When we chance upon a stone arrow-point lying in the soil, it is a very different object to the archæologist than the same specimen would be lying in a cabinet. In the latter case, it is an example of man's primitive handiwork merely; in the former, it is not only the production of a skilled worker in flint, but evidence that on the spot where found man once tarried, if he did not dwell there, and that for him a necessity for weapons existed. Further, if but a single specimen be found, we may conclude that it is the point of some arrow vainly shot, or the head of a lance that has been broken and lost. But if, on the other hand, instead of one, we find a hundred scattered over a few square rods of ground, then we have evidence not simply that arrow and spear heads may be of various shapes and sizes, but that where they occur was once a village, it may be, or a battle has been fought at this point, or possibly that here an arrow-maker once plied his calling, the more definite decision being reached whether we find pottery and domestic implements also, or weapons only, or mingled with a multitude of the flakes of such mineral as that of which the weapons are made. Thus it will be seen that the practical results of an archæologist's labors are to be derived from field-work only, not from simple closet studies. He must seek out these hidden village sites, dig in their weed-grown corn-fields, and invade their cemeteries, if he would learn where they lived, where and how they toiled, and finally where and in what manner they were laid to rest.

Of a series of nearly twenty-five thousand implements and weapons of stone gathered from one limited locality by the writer, more than four fifths have been placed together in a public museum. In looking at them collectively, perhaps the most noticeable feature is that of the marked difference in finish and material. Of the chipped objects, such as arrow-heads, one instinctively separates them into finely wrought objects of jasper and quartz, and ruder specimens made of a slate-like rock.

The question is simply, Has this feature any ethnological significance? It is the purpose of this essay to determine this.

The bare fact that one arrow-head is roughly fashioned and another beautifully wrought has no significance beyond the fact that there were skillful and clumsy workmen in every tribe—professionals and amateurs. On a closer examination a fact becomes apparent, however, that should be critically regarded, and this is that the rudely made objects are almost wholly made of the same mineral, while the finely finished objects are of one of three closely allied minerals. The exceptions are too few to have any bearing on the question. Chipped implements of Indian origin, such as occur in every nook and corner of the Atlantic coast States, are made of flint in some one of its many forms, as jasper, chert, chalcedony, agate, horn-stone, or they are of quartz. I do not deny that they are also of other materials, hut that more than ninety-nine hundredths are of this material—flint. In the valley of the Delaware River there are found, also, enormous numbers of similar objects, of quite uniform pattern and rudely finished, made of a mineral characteristic of the locality—argillite. This term, "argillite," as employed by Professor M. E. Wadsworth, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to whom specimens of implements were submitted for examination, is used to designate all argillaceous rocks in which the argillaceous material is the predominant characteristic; slate, or clayslate, clay-stone, etc., are simply varieties of it, the term "slate" being only rightfully used when slaty cleavage is developed. The argillite out of which these specimens were made has no trace of cleavage.

The question may now very pertinently be asked, Why may not the Indians have used both minerals, flint and argillite, the one as frequently as the other?

There are no reasons why, indeed, they might not have done so; but, on the other hand, evidences that they did not are not wanting, if the circumstances under which the objects are found have been rightly interpreted.

The celebrated Swedish naturalist, Peter Kahn, traveled throughout Central and Southern New Jersey in 1748–'50, and in his description of the country remarks:[1] "We find great woods here, but, when the trees in them have stood a hundred and fifty or a hundred and eighty years, they are either rotting within, or losing their crown, or their wood becomes quite soft, or their roots are no longer able to draw in sufficient nourishment, or they die from some other cause. Therefore when storms blow, which sometimes happens here, the trees are broke off either just above the root or in the middle or at the summit. Several trees are likewise torn out with their roots by the power of the winds. . . . In this manner the old trees die away continually, and are succeeded by a younger generation. Those which are thrown down lie on the ground and putrefy, sooner or later, and by that means increase the black soil, into which the leaves are likewise finally changed, which drop abundantly in autumn, are blown about by the winds for some time, but are heaped up and lie on both sides of the trees which are fallen down. It requires several years before a tree is entirely reduced to dust."

This quotation from Kahn has a direct bearing on that which follows. It is clear how, to a great extent, the surface-soil was formed during the occupancy of the country by the Indians. The entire area of the State was covered with a dense forest, which, century after century, was increasing the black soil to which Kahn refers. If, now, an opportunity offers to examine a section of virgin soil and underlying strata, as occasionally happens on the bluffs facing the river, the limit in depth of this black soil may be approximately determined. Microscopical examination of it enables one to determine the depth more accurately.

An average, derived from several such sections, leads me to infer that the depth is not over one foot, and the proportion of vegetable matter increases as the surface is approached. Of this depth of superficial soil probably not over one half has been derived from decomposition of vegetable growths. Indeed, experiment would indicate that the rotting of tree-roots yields no appreciable amount of matter. While no positive data are determinable in this matter, beyond the naked fact that rotting trees increase the bulk of top-soil, one archæological fact we do derive, which is, that the flint implements known as Indian relics belong to this superficial or "black soil," as Kahn terms it. Abundantly are they found near the surface; more sparingly the deeper we go; while below the base of this deposit of soil, at an average depth of about two feet, the argillite implements occur in greatest abundance. The accompanying diagram more clearly sets

forth the conclusions at which I have arrived, after years of careful study of this subject. By this it will be seen that, as the depth increases, the number of ordinary flint implements of Indian origin decreases; and that the reverse is true of the palæolithic implements which are a feature of the gravel-beds; and is true of that intermediate form which is characteristic of the stratum of sand capping the gravels and blending insensibly with the surface-soil. This intermediate form, which is always made of argillite, is both in workanmship and design a marked advance over the palæolithic implements, and yet is so uniform in pattern and so inferior in finish, when compared with the average flint implement of the Indian, that it has been assigned to an earlier date than the latter, and considered the handiwork rather of the descendants of palæolithic man.

What is held to be convincing evidence of this has already been given in the statement of the relative positions of the two forms—Indian and pre-Indian—as seen in sections of undisturbed or virgin soil.

Negative evidence of the soundness of this view is had in the character of the sites of arrow-makers' open-air workshops, or those spots whereon the professional chipper of flint pursued his calling.

In the locality where the writer has pursued his studies several such sites have been discovered and carefully examined.[2] In no one of these workshop sites has there been found any trace of argillite mingled with the flint-chips that form the characteristic feature of such spots. On the other hand, no similar sites have been discovered, to my knowledge, where argillite was used exclusively. The absence of this mineral can not be explained on the ground that it was difficult to procure, for such is not the case. It constitutes, in fact, a large percentage of the pebbles and bowlders of the drift, from which the Indians gathered their jasper and quartz pebbles for working into implements and weapons.

If the absence of argillite from such heaps of selected stones is explained by the assertion that the Indians had recognized the superiority of jasper, then the belief that argillite was used prior to jasper receives tacit assent. If, however, it was the earlier Indians who used argillite, and gradually discarded it for the various forms of flint, then we ought to find workshop sites older than the time of flint chipping, and others where the two minerals are associated. This, as has been stated, has not been done. Negative evidence this, it is admitted, but, when considered in addition to the positive evidence of position in undisturbed soil, it has a value that must not be overlooked. Sufficient positive evidence to clear away all doubt of the presence of an earlier people than the Indian on the Atlantic sea-board of America will probably never be forthcoming, yet, to the minds of candid inquirers, there is a degree of probability in the interpretation of known facts that closely hugs the bounds of certainty.

Wholly convinced that valid reasons have been given for assuming that the chipped stone implements made of argillite are older than the similar patterns of weapons made by the Indians, it is desirable to determine whether these ruder objects are the handiwork of the ancestors of the Indians of historic times, or that of the descendants of palæolithic man, and therefore the relics of a preceding, prehistoric race.

A forcible objection that has been urged against the assumption, as it was held to be, of a pre-Indian occupancy of our sea-coast, is the difficulty of realizing that a people sufficiently advanced to make so well-designed a weapon as the argillite spear-head should not have utilized stone in various other ways to meet their wants, precisely as the Indian did subsequently. No other form of implement than these spear-heads was clearly associated with them, except when found on the surface, and so not clearly separable from the true Indian implements associated therewith. Recently, the occurrence of a stone hammer, traces of fire—charcoal—and a flat stone bearing marks of a hammer or rubbing-stone, at a depth of nearly three feet below the surface, has rendered it quite probable that a proportion of the surface-formed relics of these patterns should be regarded as of other than Indian origin. If we examine a series of the stone implements of the only other American race—the Esquimaux—we will find that not only is the variation in pattern very considerable, but that precisely such forms of domestic implements as are now in use in the Arctic regions, among the Chukches, are common "relics" in New Jersey. In his recent volume of Arctic explorations, Professor Nordenskiöld describes a series of stone hammers and a stone anvil, which are used together for crushing bones.[3] Every considerable collection of stone implements gathered along our sea-board, anywhere from Maine to Maryland, contains numbers of identical objects.

While many of these hammers and mortars are unquestionably of Indian origin, no valid reason can be urged that a proportion of them are not of the same origin as the argillite spear-heads. Indeed, grooved stone hammers have been found quite deeply imbedded in the sand—as deep as the usual depth at which argillite arrow-points occur; but this, of itself, is scarcely significant. So unstable is the surface of the earth, where sand prevails, that the actual position, when found, of any single specimen, is of little importance. It is only when thousands have been gathered with great care, and under the most favorable circumstances, that any inferences may be drawn. This is true of the argillite arrow-heads, of which thousands have been gathered, and presumably true of the hammers and mortars, because such implements are common among an American race which uses also such spear-points as are so abundant in New Jersey. The similarity between a Chukche spear-point figured by Nordenskiöld[4] and an Esquimau spear figured by Lubbock[5] and the New Jersey specimens is very striking. Of course, such similarity may be considered as mere coincidence, but that it has an important bearing on the question becomes evident when the many circumstances suggestive of a pre-Indian race on the Atlantic sea-board are collectively considered. Singly, any fact may be held to be of little or no value; but when many of like significance are gathered together, they are self-supporting, and the one central fact becomes established.

Basing the supposition that palæolithic man was not the ancestor of the American Indian, because there is evidence warranting the belief that "the Indian was a late comer upon the extreme eastern border of North America—indeed, the oldest distribution of the American races does not antedate the tenth century," and therefore "the appearance of the Skrælling (Esquimau) in the Sagas, instead of the Indian, is precisely what the truth required"[6]—basing the supposition thereupon, it was suggested[7] that in the Esquimaux we should find the descendants of that oldest of all mankind—homo palæolithicus.

Having given the strictly archaeological reasons for dissociating certain of the stone implements found in New Jersey, let us now briefly refer to the historical evidence bearing upon this question. Have we any references to Esquimaux dwelling in regions significantly south of their present habitat? If there are such, then it is at once evident that the weapons and domestic implements of such people must now be buried in the dust of their ancient southern dwelling-places, and, these same spots being subsequently tenanted by the Indian, his handiwork must also be mingled with that of his predecessors.

The literature of this subject can be sufficiently outlined by reference to two authors. Major W. H. Dall, in "Tribes of the Extreme Northwest,"[8] remarks: "There are many facts in American ethnology which tend to show that originally the Innuit of the east coast had much the same distribution as the walrus, namely, as far south as New Jersey." I submit the rude argillite arrow-heads found in certain localities in such abundance, and at a significant depth, as an additional fact, tending in the same direction.

In Rev. B. F. De Costa's admirable résumé, of Icelandic literature[9] there is given abundant evidence—ay, proof—that the people dwelling along the coast of Massachusetts, 900 to 1000 a. d., were not the same race that resisted the English on the same coast six centuries later. The descriptions of the people seen by the Northmen show that, of whatever race, they were well advanced in the art of war, and used not only the bow, but hatchets and the sling. They were "men of short stature, bushy hair, rude, fierce, and devoid of every grace."[10]

It need, therefore, only be remembered that the relationship between the true palæolithic implements and those of more advanced finish and design is evident to every one who carefully examines a complete series. At the same time, the student is confronted with reliable historical evidence of the occupancy of the Atlantic sea-board by the Esquimaux as far south as New Jersey.

Does not the impression derived from strictly archæological studies, that all the stone implements of our Eastern sea-board are not of one origin, go far to confirm the position of the historical student that an earlier race than the Indian once resided here?

De Costa remarks: "During the eleventh century the red-man lived upon the North American Continent, while the eastern border of his territory could not have been situated far away from the Atlantic coast. In New England he must have succeeded the people known as Skrællings. Prior to that time, his hunting-grounds lay toward the interior of the continent. In course of time, however, he came into collision with the ruder people on the Atlantic coast, the descendants of an almost amphibious glacial man."

This "amphibious glacial man," I submit, is he who fashioned the rude palæolithic implements, that, with bones of extinct and Arctic mammalia, are now found in the glacial drift of our river-valleys; and his "descendants," a rude people, with whom the Indian finally came in contact, were those who fashioned the plainly finished argillite arrow-heads and spears that are now, in part, commingled with the elaborate workmanship of the latest race, save one, that has peopled this continent.

  1. "Travels into North America," by Peter Kahn (English translation), London, 1771, vol. ii, p. 18.
  2. "Primitive Industry," chapter xxxi, p. 453, Salem, Massachusetts, 1881.
  3. "Voyage of the Vega," New York, 1882, p. 483.
  4. Ibid., p. 571.
  5. "Prehistoric Times," second edition, London, 1868, p. 493, Fig. 218.
  6. "Popular Science Monthly," vol. xviii, No. 1, p. 38, November, 1880, New York,
  7. "Peabody Museum Report," vol. ii, p. 252, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  8. "Contributions to North American Ethnology," vol. i, p. 98, Washington, 1877.
  9. "Pre-Columbian Discovery of America," Albany, 1868.
  10. "Popular Science Monthly," November, 1880, p. 38, New York.