The Paleoindian Period, also called the Lithic stage, from about 16,000-8,000 BC, refers to a time at the end of the last ice age when humans first appeared in the archeological record of North America.
Evidence suggests that groups of hunter-gatherers migrated across the Bering land-and-ice bridge between Siberia and Alaska when the sea level was several hundred feet lower than it is today. Paleoindian campsites in central Alaska date back to 11,800 BC, which are much older than sites in the lower 48 states. This route brought the first groups into what is present-day Montana, where the oldest known human burial associated with early Paleoindian tools was discovered in 1968.
The Bering Bridge existed from 45,000–12,000 BC when groups of hunter-gatherers migrated. These people were followed by animals, both of which migrated across the continent.
One of the original groups to enter what is now Canada and the United States was the Clovis culture. They encountered and hunted many species of large, now extinct mammals. They felled these “megafauna”, named such due to the large size compared to modern beasts, with spears tipped with stone points. These animals included the mastodon, mammoth, horse, tapir, ground sloth, great bison, giant beaver, giant tortoise, American lion, short-faced bear, and saber-toothed tiger.
Early Paleoindian stone tools have been found with the bones of many extinct mammals in many states.
Archaeologists divide the Paleoindian period into three subperiods: early, middle, and late. The subperiods are well represented on the basis of stone tools found on the surface of farm fields and on river gravel bars. Within this time frame, several cultures and traditions have been identified including the Clovis Culture and Folsom and Dalton Traditions.
The early part of the period is identified with the fluted spear point, while the middle and late portions are represented by a succession of fluted and non-fluted spear points.
The Paleoindian period ended about 10,000 years ago as the culture evolved into what archaeologists term the Archaic Period.
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated January 2020.