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Rewriting Michigan’s archaeological history

A long, long time ago

Thirteen thousand years ago, most of Michigan was covered in a wall of ice up to a mile high. Archaeologists believed this kept some of the continent’s earliest people, a group called Clovis after their distinctive spear points, from settling in the region.

But an independent researcher along with University of Michigan researchers have identified a 13,000-year-old Clovis camp site, now thought to be the earliest archaeological site in Michigan. The site predates previously identified human settlements in the Michigan basin and potentially rewrites the history of the peopling — or settling — of the Great Lakes region.

The site was likely occupied by a small group of people, about six or seven, who briefly lived on a river in southwest Michigan toward the end of the Pleistocene. The finding also suggests this is the northwestern-most Clovis settlement in the Great Lakes region. The researchers describe their findings in a paper published in the journal PaleoAmerica.

A place right out of history

Clovis artifact in dirt

Independent researcher Thomas Talbot finds a flake of manufacturing debris, untouched for 13,000 years, at the Belson Clovis Site in St. Joseph County. (Image credit: Michigan Photography.)

The Clovis people were a Paleoindian culture who lived in the Americas between 13,000 and 12,500 years ago. Identified by their distinctive spearpoints, the culture quickly spread through North and South America. Most Native Americans today can trace their ancestry to these early inhabitants, according to Brendan Nash, a U-M doctoral student and an author of the paper.

In the paleoarchaeology world, Clovis technology can be easily identified by two characteristics of their tools: that they primarily used a high-quality stone called chert and that they used a distinct method of making these tools.

Previously, there was little evidence that Clovis settled in Michigan. The region was nearly uninhabitable at this time: Much of the state, except a triangular swath over southwest Michigan that extended toward the tip of the mitt, was covered by glaciers.

“As the glaciers were retreating, they created a predictable ice-front environment that was frequented by early humans’ favorite prey,” Nash says. “Early humans had a wolf model of subsistence: They traveled around in large groups and didn’t stay in any place too long. They were an apex predator and probably doing both hunting and scavenging, perhaps by running other ice age predators such as saber-toothed tigers and short-faced bears off their prey. What we have at the Belson site appears to be a short-term camp by a group that would likely split off from the main group seasonally.”

A once-in-a-lifetime finding?

Clovis spear points

Independent researcher Thomas Talbot and University of Michigan archeologists have found more than 20 Clovis tools and hundreds of pieces of manufacturing and refurbishment debris at the Belson Clovis Site in St. Joseph County. (Image credit: Daryl Marshke/Michigan Photography.)

Thomas Talbot, a self-taught researcher, found the first Clovis spear point in 2008, in the fields of a farm in early spring. He often walks the fields at this time of year, after the fields have been plowed, searching for Native American spear points.

He says there was no mistaking the point’s origin: It was made of a kind of chert preferred by Clovis in this region, and made using the same technological method so distinct to the Clovis people. The stone, called Attica chert, is found in one region in western Indiana and eastern Illinois, 120 miles away from the Belson site.

“Paleolithic pieces — not quite this old, but pieces that are similar — have turned up around Michigan, but usually they are pretty scattered, like maybe someone lost it while they were hunting or walking through,” Talbot says. “So although I thought it was really cool, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime finding. But other pieces started turning up, and by the end of the spring, it was pretty clear that I had Clovis components at this site.”

Clovis tools such as projectile points and hide scrapers have a very characteristic central channel through the length of the tool, called a flute. A Clovis person would have chipped stone outward from this central channel to create a place to attach the projectile point to its spear shaft. Also distinctive to the Clovis people is that they struck large flakes of material off the stone to create their points. The large, detached pieces had razor-sharp edges and would be used as expedient knives themselves.

In all, on his own, Talbot found about nine pieces from the Clovis era — including two pieces of the same spearpoint he found years apart. In 2019, Talbot met Henry Wright, U-M anthropologist and archaeologist, to show him the collection. Wright confirmed Talbot’s suspicions. The following summer, in 2020, U-M researchers led by Nash began the dig at Talbot’s site, now called the Belson Site after the family of farmers who own the land.

The Belson site is about 25 meters by 15 meters, similar in size to other Paleoindian camping sites. About 1.5 meters beneath the ground’s surface, the researchers found an intact horizon indicating the campsite. They also found more tools as well as flakes of material that indicate the camp’s inhabitants were making tools on site.

“Last year, with Brendan’s expertise and Henry’s guidance, we opened up the site and found two distinct artifacts well below the plow zone, which means they’re undisturbed. They’ve laid there for 13,000 years,” Talbot says. “That tells us we have at least a partially undisturbed Clovis component in Michigan, and that’s huge. That’s very big news that changes archaeology for the state of Michigan.”

To date, the researchers have found more than 20 tools and hundreds of pieces of manufacturing and refurbishment debris.

A caveat

Researcher records notes

Independent researcher Thomas Talbot records his findings on the Belson Clovis Site in St. Joseph County. (Image credit: Daryl Marshke/Michigan Photography.)

Nash says there is a caveat to their findings. The Belson projectile points are similar to another set of early projectile points called Gainey, which also have a flute running up the center of the spearpoint. But the Belson projectile points exhibit the large flaking characteristic of Clovis technology, whereas Gainey points are shaped by many strikes that take off smaller flakes of material.

“The peopling process of the Great Lakes was always thought to have been later, and that the Great Lakes was really just the northernmost region of a bunch of other group’s ranges,” Nash says. “Michigan culture history has always been thought to be piecemeal of other place’s culture histories that happen to be coming into and out of Michigan periodically.

“Now what we’re seeing is that we’ve got a presence that is as early as other sites in North America, and it has the same technology. Now we can not only move Great Lakes culture history back a little bit, but we can also say, ‘Maybe it has its own story that’s not just the butt end of the story of every other region. There might be something really unique about its peopling process.’”

Soon, a lab in Colorado will be doing a protein residue analysis that may be able to identify which animals or plants the spear points may have been used on, which could tell the researchers what prey the people were hunting, Nash says.

Talbot wishes to thank the Belson family for access to their property.

(Lead image: University of Michigan archeologist Brendan Nash screens excavated soil for manufacturing debris and Clovis tools on the Belson Clovis Site in St. Joseph County. Credit: Daryl Marshke/Michigan Photography)

Comments

  1. Jim Crowfoot - 1971 MA and 1972 Ph.D

    This new and very interesting discovery again should focus Michigan residents on the long history of Native Americans and the area that came to be named Michigan. With this focus I hope that this discovery will again and more strongly than previously bring our attention to European colonization in which White people took ownership of the lands and natural resources of this area that colonists and their governments claimed ownership and control for themselves and from which they forcefully and violently expelled the long time indigenous peoples who had settled in this geographic area and provided human stewarding for it over thousands of years.
    My question is what do we White people who now “own” these lands owe to the indigenous people from whom we took/stole them? What haven’t we learned from these cultures? What haven’t we taught all of our children about this colonization process and these original human occupants of what we came to claim and name “Michigan”?

    Reply

    • Paul Csicsila - 1969

      It would also be interesting to know from whom the Clovis people “stole” the land now called Michigan. Unless one believes that the Clovis or other indigenous people were born in “Michigan”, they had to come from somewhere to occupy the land and possibly displace others. The history of the human race is rife with war and conquest between tribes and cultures with the victors claiming ownership of the lands and waters on all continents to include all races. White people did not invent this process nor be exclusive in its implementation.

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    • Richard Brouwer - 1962

      We do not have access to historical records of how native groups or tribes prior to the European colonization of America took or bartered or otherwise negotiated territories with and from each other. We do have an historical record available to us, so the moral question remains, “Since we now know what we did, what do we do about it?”.

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    • Carolyn Poissant - 1981, 1987

      Great questions Dr. Crowfoot. The best answers I would think need to come from consultations with First Nations / Native American tribal groups, (Anishinabe, Neshnabek, i.e. speakers of Algonkian derived languages) https://www.michigan.gov/som/0,4669,7-192-29701_41909—,00.html ) and researching the treaties that were formulated regarding lands in the Great Lakes region. Yes, there were conflicts among the tribes in the pre-European age, but the “white man” was not here 13,000 years ago when the ancestors of current tribes first entered the North American continent from northern Asia. There is a reason the tribes are called referred to as Native Americans.

      Reply

  2. Paul Csicsila - 1969

    Always interesting to learn about early humankind, particularly in my home state of Michigan. This article also mentions that Michigan was covered by a wall of ice up to a mile high 13,000 years ago. I would like to know the scientific theory about the “Global Warming” event that melted these huge glaciers and how the current “Global Warming” event is different; i.e., naturally occurring vs man made. I cannot imagine what greenhouse gases the Clovis people were producing 13,000 years ago that would have helped to end the Ice Age.

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    • Richard Futyma - M.S. 1977, Ph.D. 1982

      The last ice age was slowly coming to an end well before 13,000 years ago. Changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was probably a minor factor in bringing about that end. The scientific theory that comes closest to explaining the regular, repeated cycling between glacial periods and interglacial periods (such as the one we are now in) is the Milankovitch theory, which involves changes in the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, the tilt and precession of its axis, as well as other orbital variations.

      Reply

      • Mick Kennedy - 1991

        But Milankovitch cycles can’t explain all climate change that’s occurred over the past 2.5 million years or so. And more importantly, they cannot account for the current period of rapid warming Earth has experienced since the pre-Industrial period (the period between 1850 and 1900), and particularly since the mid-20th Century. Scientists are confident Earth’s recent warming is primarily due to human activities — specifically, the direct input of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

        So how do we know Milankovitch cycles aren’t to blame?

        First, Milankovitch cycles operate on long time scales, ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. In contrast, Earth’s current warming has taken place over time scales of decades to centuries. Over the last 150 years, Milankovitch cycles have not changed the amount of solar energy absorbed by Earth very much. In fact, NASA satellite observations show that over the last 40 years, solar radiation has actually decreased somewhat.

        Second, Milankovitch cycles are just one factor that may contribute to climate change, both past and present. Even for Ice Age cycles, changes in the extent of ice sheets and atmospheric carbon dioxide have played important roles in driving the degree of temperature fluctuations over the last several million years.

        The extent of ice sheets, for example, affects how much of the Sun’s incoming energy is reflected back to space, and in turn, Earth’s temperature.

        Then there’s carbon dioxide. During past glacial cycles, the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere fluctuated from about 180 parts per million (ppm) to 280 ppm as part of Milankovitch cycle-driven changes to Earth’s climate. These fluctuations provided an important feedback to the total change in Earth’s climate that took place during those cycles.

        Today, however, it’s the direct input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels that’s responsible for changing Earth’s atmospheric composition over the last century, rather than climate feedbacks from the ocean or land caused by Milankovitch cycles.

        Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has increased 47 percent, from about 280 ppm to 412 ppm. In just the past 20 years alone, carbon dioxide is up 11 percent.

        Scientists know with a high degree of certainty this carbon dioxide is primarily due to human activities because carbon produced by burning fossil fuels leaves a distinct “fingerprint” that instruments can measure. Over this same time period, Earth’s global average temperature has increased by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), and is currently increasing at a rate of 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) every decade. At that rate, Earth is expected to warm another half a degree Celsius (almost a degree Fahrenheit) as soon as 2030 and very likely by 2040.

        This relatively rapid warming of our climate due to human activities is happening in addition to the very slow changes to climate caused by Milankovitch cycles. Climate models indicate any forcing of Earth’s climate due to Milankovitch cycles is overwhelmed when human activities cause the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere to exceed about 350 ppm.

        Scientists know of no natural changes to the equilibrium between the amount of solar radiation absorbed by Earth and the amount of energy radiated back to space that can account for such a rapid period of global warming. The amount of incoming solar radiation has increased only slightly over the past century and is therefore not a driver of Earth’s current climate warming.

        Since 1750, the warming driven by greenhouse gases coming from the human burning of fossil fuels is over 50 times greater than the slight extra warming coming from the Sun itself over that same time interval. If Earth’s current warming was due to the Sun, scientists say we should expect temperatures in both the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and the next layer of the atmosphere, the stratosphere, to warm. Instead, observations from balloons and satellites show Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere have warmed but the stratosphere has cooled.

        Finally, Earth is currently in an interglacial period (a period of milder climate between Ice Ages). If there were no human influences on climate, scientists say Earth’s current orbital positions within the Milankovitch cycles predict our planet should be cooling, not warming, continuing a long-term cooling trend that began 6,000 years ago.

        Reply

    • Ross Secord - 2004

      The report of ice a mile thick in Michigan at 13,000 years is probably in error. Ice was rapidly melting at this time and probably had largely retreated from the state. A 2016 article in Nature has a map showing it gone from the lower peninsula by ~12,600. Nevertheless, it was that thick 10,000 years earlier. Climate changed from glacial to inter-glacial intervals during the Ice Age, controlled partly by earth’s orbital cycles, as mentioned by Dr. Futyma. However, carbon dioxide levels also moved with the cycles, apparently in a feedback loop. As it warmed from changes in the orbital (eccentricity) cycle, CO2 and methane were released (just as they is now from feedback loops and melting permafrost), adding to the warming. What is important to realize, though, is that CO2 levels from human activities are now much greater than they have been for the last 800,000 years (based on air trapped in ice cores), and probably the last two million years. They are well above the cyclic levels for past inter-glacial intervals, so there is no basis for arguing it is normal background climate change. We are rapidly taking the planet back to a time when is was much warmer, and are not prepared for the consequences.

      Reply

  3. Judith Floyd - 1964

    Loved finding this article—such a great Michigan story plus great to learn more about the earliest Michigan history. I attended an online class (sponsored by Elderwise I think) about the Clovis people. I hope paying attention to what happened in North America prior to European exploration will be taught to all our youngsters.

    Reply

  4. Robert Caplan - 1971

    This discussion suggests two forces on where we have been, are, and are going — (1) human sense of responsibility and (2) evolutionary impact on human thought and action. Nothing new there. Does thinking about (1) help inform (2)?

    Reply

  5. Clayton Lewis

    Wonderful article! I did not know about the Clovis people in Michigan. Thank you.

    Regarding global warming and the melting of glaciers, NASA points out that the Milankovitch theory does not explain our current very rapid rise in temperature:
    https://climate.nasa.gov/blog/2949/why-milankovitch-orbital-cycles-cant-explain-earths-current-warming/

    Reply

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