Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/July 1899/The Antiquity of Man in North America


THE claim of satisfactory evidence of the extreme antiquity of man in the valley of the Delaware River has been soberly discussed and intemperately ridiculed until the public, both scientific and general, have become tired of hearing the subject mentioned; but this is no valid reason why the truth should not be ascertained. If man in a paleolithic stage of culture did exist on the Atlantic seaboard of North America, then we have a basis upon which to build—a tangible starting point from which to date a history of human activities on this continent. As it is, we have but an immense array of facts, largely unrelated, and the greater portion sadly distorted and misleading because of the reckless theories set forth with them by their discoverers, and undoubtedly there never has been, in the whole range of scientific agitation of a simple question, as great a volume of reckless assertion, illogical deduction, and disregard of exact statement. The main question was often wholly lost sight of, and the author's sole purpose that of demonstrating some one else in error. Predetermination on the part of many has been fatal to the value of their field work. Convinced on theoretical grounds, such are necessarily blinded when on the spot where positive evidence occurs. He who does not desire the object searched for seldom finds it; and, later in the day, pride declines to accede to the just demands of candor—the admission of having reached a wrong conclusion.

There probably would not have been as much attention paid to the subject of man's growth in culture on this continent had not the proposition of a sequence from paleolithic to Indian, with an intervening period, seemed to necessitate a dating back to the Glacial epoch, which naturally brought geological erudition to bear upon the question, and since then, most surprisingly, there has been confusion worse confounded, rather than a flood of light. Much has been written, but we can not yet be confident which author is most nearly correct; and the latest report, showing sad evidences of haste, is vitiated by evident determination to modernize every trace of man, whether the facts warranted such procedure or not.

What is held, primarily, to be an evidence of paleolithic man is a wrought stone implement, that in Europe was characteristic of his handiwork. Here, in the valley of the Delaware, this same form of implement has been confidently asserted to be a rejected piece of stone—usually argillite—that failed to lend itself to reduction to a finished blade or spear point. If this could be established as of invariable application, however the supposed "reject" occurred, then the whole matter would be brought to a quick conclusion. But the "reject" theory has utterly failed of establishment. The typical paleolithic implement is not characteristic of the refuse of an arrow-maker's workshop site, and the familiar arrow points of small size, nor even the long, thin blades of several times their length, were reduced from masses greatly larger than the desired form. The refuse of many a chipping site shows this conclusively; and, as hundreds of failures demonstrate, many an arrowhead was made from a pebble but a trifle larger than the finished object.

But admit, for argument's sake, the identity in shape of a "reject" and a "paleolithic" implement; this does not prove their identity in age and origin, and it is not an unwarranted or illogical suggestion to draw a distinction between the two, where the conditions under which they occur suggest a possibility of diverse history. Rather than demonstrating that all rudely chipped stones are "failures," it should be shown that paleolithic man, as we know of him in Europe, could not possibly have existed here. This has not only never been attempted, but the conditions during and immediately subsequent to the glaciation of the river valley have been asserted, time and again, to have been favorable for man's existence. Furthermore, it has not been shown that a typical paleolithic implement could not have been available on this continent, as it undoubtedly was in Europe, as an effective weapon, and it must be remembered that the fauna of the Delaware Valley was, in glacial times, very like that of parts of Europe in what we may call the reindeer period. Like conditions may not have produced like results in the case of early man, but what was practicable in Europe was certainly so in America, and the question resolves itself into that of determining if any trace of man that has been discovered in the valley of the Delaware can be dated back to a time preceding the Indian as he was when first he came in contact with the European. Did, in other words, the Indian bring his art with him from Europe or Asia, or did he experience a growth in culture from paleolithic simplicity to neolithic complexity?

The whole subject hinges on the distribution of these traces of man. If from the first day of his occupancy until the European replaced the Indian the immediate valley of the river had undergone no change, then the imperishable relics of the first and last savage would remain associated, and position alone would tell nothing concerning any particular object's age or origin, but, at the present day, except the contents of graves, not a stone implement of the Delaware Indians rests where chance or the intention of its one-time owner placed it. Indeed, save a few bowlders of the largest size, few natural objects on the immediate shores of the river are as first seen by William Penn and his associates. This fact has not been duly considered, and unwarranted conclusions have been published as established truths—all, of course, eliminating antiquity from the Indian history of the region. The fact that a so-called paleolithic implement was found lying on the surface of the river's shore has resulted in a pen picture of a modern Indian attempting to fashion a blade and tossing the pebble aside in disgust. Why, indeed, could not an Indian walk on exposed gravel and pick up a pebble as well as we can to-day?

There are two considerations to which we must give heed when this question is asked. We are, in the first place, tacitly informed that the Indian was given to chipping stone in this haphazard way to supply a sudden need upon the spot, all of which is not only not a reasonable assumption, but absolutely incorrect, as argillite bowlders and pebbles, which are not abundant in the gravels, were not habitually used, but, instead, the mineral was systematically mined and selected with skill, so that failures were reduced to a minimum. Then, again, if the object as found has been lying undisturbed on the river shore for centuries—two centuries at least—why is it that the chips are not there also? These are never found under such circumstances. In fact, they are very rarely found at all in the gravel where the implement itself occurs, and in numbers they exceed the "reject" or finished object at least as ten to one. Furthermore, we are asked to believe that the river shore where we find rude implements is the same to-day as when the Indian wandered along it centuries ago. Fig. 1 shows clearly how the never-resting tidal flow wears away the shore, carrying sand and fine gravels from one point and spreading it elsewhere to form a sand bar, it may be, and turning the channel from one side of the stream to the other, and so exposing long reaches of the shore to wasting, that for many a year had been fixed and apparently secure. Often the mud is entirely removed from the underlying gravel, and abundant traces of Indian occupation are brought to light, and, less frequently, so strong a current attacks a given point that even the gravel is moved and deep holes are formed, to be filled in time with the wasting shore from a point perhaps a mile away. This is the story of the river of to-day, and so it has been for centuries; and yet we are asked to believe that we can fill the moccasin prints of the Indian by walking now along the water's edge. I submit that it is asking a great deal too much.

It has been suggested that rudely chipped implements, when found on the gravelly shore of the river, have fallen out from the bank and rolled down from where they had long been lying. This is not at all improbable; but how does this modernize the object, when the gravel extends quite to the surface? The pebbles and bowlders at the top of the bank are clearly as much a part of the deposit as are those at its base, and while the surface may be—is, in fact—less ancient than the deeper gravels, still they can not be dissociated; and it is a significant fact that we find, on the gravel at the foot of the bluff or other exposure, only the rude argillite objects at the water's edge or on the fiat laid bare at low tide, and not

PSM V55 D345 Wasting river shore due to tidal flow.png
Fig. 1.—Wasting River Shore due to Tidal Flow.

a general assortment of the Indian's handiwork, including pottery; and we must not overlook the fact that the "gravel-bed" implements bear evidence of all the conditions to which the gravel itself has been subjected—this one stained by manganese, that incrusted with limonite; this fresh as the day it was chipped, because lost in sand and water and not subsequently exposed to the atmosphere; that buried and unearthed, rolled, scratched, and water-worn until much of its artificiality has disappeared. The history of almost every specimen is written upon it, and not one tells such a story as has been told about it by the advocates of the "Indian-reject" theory.

Much has been written on the natural history of the gravel that is so marked a feature of the river valley, particularly at the head of tide water, and almost every essay differs in more or less degree from its fellows in the matter of the gravel's age as a well-defined deposit. Its origin no one can question, nor the agencies by which it was brought to where we now find it. Ice and water did the work, nor have they ceased entirely to add to the bulk transported in strictly glacial times—perhaps it were better to say in superlatively glacial time, as the river even now can be positively glacial upon occasion, as Fig. 2 demonstrates. The main channel has often been completely blocked with ice and the water forced into new directions and spread over the lowlands or flats, which it denudes of its surface soil, and once within recent years the stream found an old channel, deepened it, and for a time threatened to leave a flourishing riverside town an inland one. Ice accumulated in this way year after year must necessarily affect the river's banks, and yet the extent of "damage" is trifling usually, in comparison with that of the water, particularly when agitated by passing steamboats or violent winds; and now, too, the ice of our present winters does not transport coarse pebbles to any significant extent. I am convinced of this since the examination I gave acres of ice, when the river was gorged with it, some years ago. It was possible to walk for miles over the ice, as shown in Fig. 2, and to see it under exceedingly favorable circumstances, and a most careful search failed to reveal a stone larger than a pigeon's egg incased in this ice, which was all gently floated from far up the stream and stranded here; and where piled up upon the shores it usually remains until melted, and really acts as armor plate, protecting the ground from abrasion when the floods incident to the "break-up" prevail. Such are the present-day considerations, and they have a direct bearing upon the question of man's antiquity here because, first, the river valley has not varied for huidreds of years, except in becoming wider, the low shores receding, and the stream becoming broader and more shallow. In earliest Indian times the river was subject to freshets and ice gorges as now, but never did the water become so dammed up as to overflow the broad plateaus, areas of glacial gravel, that at the close of the Glacial period were within the boundary of the river. The Delaware was a very different stream then—crescendo for thousands of years, and diminuendo for thousands since—until now it barely hints at what once was. But not even in the height of its glacial activity was the climate so severe that the waters contained no fish, nor the forests of the high surrounding hills harbored no game. Never was it as bleak as the arctic region of to-day, and as man maintains a footing there, why should he not have done so here, where life was ever more easily sustained? True: but did he live here in glacial time?

It has been stated in the most positive manner, which only positive evidence could warrant, that so-called paleolithic implements have not been found in situ in gravel deposits at a distance from the river, and such, if there were such, as appeared to be in the gravel, were recent intrusions. This statement, in its several parts and its entirety, is absolutely incorrect, and no excuse can be offered for its publication. It is to be explained, however, because avowedly predetermined. Wherever the glacial gravel of the Delaware tidewater

PSM V55 D347 Ice-Gorged River.png
Fig. 2.—Ice-Gorged River.
Reproducing on a small scale the conditions of the Glacial epoch.

region is found, there paleolithic implements occur, as they also do on and in the surface of areas beyond the gravel boundary. We accept, notwithstanding the unscientific source of the suggestion, the statement that post-glacial floods inhumed all traces of man found beneath the superficial soils, and find that, if these traces are considered in that light, some mysterious power was behind the senseless flood, and always buried argillite paleolithic implements far down in the gravel, and then selected argillite artifacts of more specialized forms for the overlying sands and reserved the pottery and jasper arrow points for the vegetation-sustaining soil. This, as stated, is absurd, but such is the order of occurrence of the traces of early man in the upland fields, and these are to be considered carefully before a final conclusion can be reached. The broad, elevated plateau extending eastward from the present bank of the river offers facilities for studying the evidences of man's occupancy in this region such as are to be found in few localities. The principal reason for this is that almost no local disturbance has occurred since the original deposition of the sand that overlies the gravel and underlies the soil. The natural history of these underlying sands has recently received a good deal of attention, because, unlike the deeper gravels, there is perfect accord as to the occurrences therein of artificially chipped objects; and the suggestion that they are of intrusive origin being set aside as untenable, the geologists are now divided on the question whether the sand is wind-blown, a modified dune, and so not necessarily old even in years, or the result of intermitting overflow of water, usually carrying a considerable amount of sand and often heavy with washings from some distant clay bank. The objections to the "eolian" theory are that pebbles and bowlders, even of considerable weight, are scattered at all elevations through the sand, and these pebbles, as a rule, do not present any evidence of exposure to eroding sands, but are smooth and glassy, or the typical water-worn pebbles of a brook or the river bed, and more significant is the fact that the sands themselves are of different degrees of fineness, layer upon layer, and are nowhere clean or free from clay; and finally the thin layers of clay are clearly continuous over such extensive areas that in no sense can they be called segregations of that material. On the other hand, a carefully instituted comparison of the sand from the surface of the field to its junction with the gravel proper shows its identity with a deposit made by water in comparatively recent times. No difference whatever could be detected. The sand dune, modified by rains and finally leveled to a plain, presents, in section, no such appearance as the sands that overlie the gravels of glacial origin. Without a scintilla of reason, however, many geologists declare that no deposit of sand can be of any geological significance if it contains traces of man not clearly intrusive. The latter fact necessitates the former claim, all of which, I submit, is nonsense.

Fig. 3 illustrates how artificially chipped pebbles occur in this underlying sand. The upper portion shows the superficial soil removed to its point of contact with the sand. This is determined by the change of color from dark brown to light yellowish brown, and it is generally so very abrupt a change that no doubt arises as to where the soil ends and the sand begins. The sand proper is shown by the position of the object—the measuring rule and trowel. It will be noticed that the implement is lying flat, as such an object would almost necessarily be if transported by water, and not perpendicular, as would be the case if it had fallen down some root-hole, animal's or insect's burrow, or opening in the earth from any cause, and now obliterated.

PSM V55 D349 Argillite implement in glacial stratified sand.png
Fig. 3.—Occurrence of an Argillite Implement in Glacial Stratified Sand.

The presence of these artificial flakes, blades, and other forms of simple implements can only be explained by considering them as a constituent part of the containing bed, having been brought hither by the same agency that brought the sand, pebbles, and clay. When standing before a newly made section of this implement-bearing deposit it is easy to picture the slow progress of its accumulation. The broad plain has been subjected to overflow, now of water bearing only sand, and then of muddy water; now with current strong enough to roll small pebbles from some distant point, and then periods when the sun shone on the new deposit, dried it, and the loose sand was rippled by the wind. Floods of greater volume occasionally swept across the plain, and ice-incased pebbles were dropped upon its surface, and with this building up of the plateau to a higher level there were also brought to it traces of man's handiwork. Of this, I think, there can be no doubt now. Years ago I endeavored to show from the distribution of rude argillite implements of specialized forms, as arrow points and small blades, trimmed flakes and scrapers, that these objects were older, as a class, than jasper and quartz implements and weapons, and that pottery was made only in the rudest way before "flint" chipping—jasper and quartz—was established. The more exhaustively this subject was followed up, the proposition became more evidently true, and to-day it is unqualifiedly confirmed by the results obtained from systematically digging deeply over wide areas of country. The fact that argillite continued in use until the very last does not affect this conclusion.

As the high land, now forty or more feet above the river and beyond the reach of its floods of greatest magnitude, was once continually overflowed and gradually built up by the materials the water spread upon it, it is evident that the conditions were materially different when such things happened from what now obtains, and the whole configuration of the country to-day points to but the one conclusion: that these plateau-building floods occurred so long ago as when the river flowed at a higher level and possessed a greater transporting power than at present. This, it is true, was long after the coarse gravel and huge bowlders were transported from the hillsides of the upper valley but it was before the river was confined to its present channel, and more significantly before what may be called the soil-making period, itself of long duration and the time of the Indian as such. Not an argillite chip from the sands beneath the soil but streaks of the distant day when this plateau was an almost barren plain, and man saw it, roamed over it, and perhaps dwelt upon it, when but the scantiest vegetation dotted its surface, and only upon the hills beyond its boundary were there trees and herbage.

Even if we consider the agency of the streams that now are but insignificant inflowing brooks in spreading, during their freshet stages, sand over level areas, we must still go back to a time when they were streams of infinitely greater magnitude than they have been for many centuries, and before, too, the Indian was a skilled chipper of jasper and a potter of taste, else why the absence of these products of his skill in the deeper sands? It matters not how we look at it, whether as geologists or archæologists, or whether it is all post-glacial, or the starting point is still so distant as ice-age activities, the sequence of events is unaffected. We still have paleolithicity in the gravel, argillite and the discovery of pottery synchronous with the deposition of the gravel-capping sand, and, lastly, the Indian.

The record is not a difficult one to read, and never has been, and the manifold attempts to modernize all traces of man on the eastern coast of North America can safely be relegated to the limbo of misdirected energy. Studied in the proper spirit and after the needful preliminary study of archæology as a whole, the student will find himself, when in the field—ever a more desirable place than the museum—face to face with evidences of an antiquity that is to be measured by centuries rather than by years.