FAQ: What are the Archaic and Paleoindian periods?

These broad periods were conceived of as "stages" of cultural development thought to be part of a predictable evolutionary progression: Paleoindian-->Archaic-->Formative-->Classic.

The Paleoindian period or era was thought to begin about 13,500 years ago (11,500 B.C.) with the Clovis culture, which was followed by Folsom and various other early cultures until about 10-11,000 years ago (8,000-9,000 B.C.). Paleoindian cultures are known for their distinctive lanceolate spear or dart points ("Paleo" points) and were characterized by archeologists as mobile big-game hunters. Big game hunted by Paleoindian peoples included the mammoth, bison antiquus, and various other now-extinct ice-age mammals. In fact, some have argued that Paleoindians caused the extinction of these animals. This view is contested and humans seem unlikely to be the principal cause of ice-age extinctions (climatic change was much more important).

Today, there is increasingly good evidence of earlier cultures in North America prior to Clovis and we now know that Paleoindian cultures were more complicated (and interesting) than mere hunters of big game. In fact, Clovis culture is now seen as being broadly based on a variety of game and many plants and not nearly so mobile as earlier archeologists had envisioned.

Paleoindian cultures were succeeded by Archaic cultures across all of North America between about 10,000-9,000 years ago. The Archaic era or period lasted thousands of years during which prehistoric peoples developed highly localized and successful cultures based on a broad range of hunting and gathering. Instead of lanceolate projectile points, they made many different styles of barbed and broad-bladed dart points used with the atlatl or spear-thrower. They also used many other kinds of stone, wooden, and bone tools. Instead of being highly mobile, Archaic peoples lived in increasingly smaller territories and learned to exploit all kinds of local resources. In many areas, plant foods were particularly important and this ultimately led, in some regions, to the development of agriculture.

In many regions of North America, especially the Eastern Woodlands and the American Southwest, (not to mention Mesoamerica -- modern Mexico and points south), the Archaic period was succeeded by what was once called the Formative era. Formative cultures were characterized by village life, dependence on agriculture, and pottery making. Yet, in some regions, central and south Texas for instance, the Archaic period really never ended until historic times. In the region that includes Pavo Real, the introduction of the bow and arrow around A.D. 600-800 is said to usher in the Late Prehistoric period. Yet the basic lifestyle remained Archaic and included many elements that had been part of all cultures dating back to Clovis (if not earlier). It is this realization that led to the rejection of the simplistic notion of unilineal cultural evolution and successive stages of cultural development (Paleoindian-->Archaic-->Formative-->Classic). But the terms Paleindian and Archaic are still useful to refer to broad time periods.



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