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Prehistoric Patterns of Change Previous Next
Digital History ID 3563


Near Kit Carson, Colorado, archaeologists made an astonishing discovery. There, they found stone spearheads alongside the bones of extinct long-horned bison--evidence of a huge bison hunt around 8200 B.C. During this hunt, Native Americans drove some 200 bison into a gully before killing the animals. To butcher and carry away the 60,000 pounds of meat must have required at least 150 Indians working closely together.

At Bat Cave in southwestern New Mexico archaeologists made another important find. There, they found evidence that around 3000 B.C. Indians had learned to domesticate corn, the first grown north of Mexico. It was a primitive form of corn, with stalks barely an inch long and no husk to protect the kernels. Still, it was a sign that these people were no longer wholly dependent on wild food sources; they were now able to supplement their diet by cultivating crops.

It is from discoveries like these that archaeologists reconstruct the prehistory of North America's Indians. They have found that the earliest New World pioneers hunted large mammals--bison, caribou, oxen, and mammoths--with stone tipped spears and spear and dart throwers, known as atlatls. Between 6,000 and 12,000 years ago, however, many large animal species became extinct. Archaeologists do not agree why these animals died out. Some argue that it was the result of overkilling; others attribute it to climatic changes: rising temperatures, the drying up of many lakes, and the loss of many early forms of vegetation. As a result, the ancestors of today's Indians had to dramatically alter their way of life.

As the larger mammals died out and the Indian population grew, many Indian peoples turned to foraging, gathering plant foods, fishing, and hunting smaller animals. To hunt small game, these people developed new kinds of weapons, including spears with barbed points, the bow and arrow, and nets and hooks for fishing. This era, known as the Archaic period, offers many examples of these peoples' increasing technological sophistication, evident in the proliferation of such objects as awls, axes, boats, cloth, darts, millstones, and woven baskets.

Following the Archaic period comes the Formative period, when some foragers began to domesticate wild seeds. By 3000 B.C., some groups of Southwestern Indians had already begun to grow corn. The rise of agriculture allowed these people to form permanent settlements.

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