Archaeology talk digs up big turnout
TYRONE—If turnout at the Tyrone Fire Hall last Wednesday, April 30, is any indication, Yates and Schuyler County residents are more than a little curious about the pre-European history of the Finger Lakes.
More than 220 people showed up to hear a lecture by Dr. Kurt Jordan on the most recent archaeological findings from sites around the lakes. The Dundee Area Historical Society along with the Yates and Schuyler County Historical Societies organized the discussion jointly. A ham dinner was served by the Classic Café.
Dr. Jordan’s lecture was at times academic, but always playful. Jordan laid a concrete base for attendees to understand what archaeologists do, how they frame and interpret their findings, and how they build upon the findings of others.
Jordan explained archaeologists interpret life patterns through details, by analyzing the “portable […] and non-portable traces of human history.” They carefully sift through fire pits, storage pits and garbage dumps to uncover what’s been left behind—bones, tools, musical instruments, utensils. But what archaeology is not so good at is interpreting those facets of historical life that leave few physical remnants: belief systems or politics.
With those limitations in mind, Jordan placed local archaeological findings on a timeline spanning more than 13,000 years. The lecture briefly outlined all evidence archaeologists have uncovered about the Paleo-Indians and, in later eras, the Haudenosaunne (the term by which the Iroquois Six Nations refer to themselves) who have had a presence in the lakes since at least 11,500 BCE (Before Common Era, it refers to the same date as BC would).
Based both on carbon dating and the presence of fluted spearheads, Jordan showed that from 11,500 to 8800 BCE, Paleo-Indians (Paleo means “old” and indicates the ancestors of American Indians) lived here in the wake of the glacial retreat that gouged out the then-shallow and warm Finger Lakes. The land was then essentially tundra, and Paleo-Indians, who were highly mobile, hunted caribou and mega-fauna (likely wooly mammoth, eight-foot giant beavers). From 8800 to 3800 BCE, as the tundra grew into coniferous forests, food resources actually lessened—and archaeological findings are nil as a result.
From 3800 BCE to 2000 CE, extensive archaeological evidence has been uncovered at three Finger Lakes sites in particular: Lamoka Lake, Brewerton (near the outlet of Oneida Lake), and Vine Valley. Ongoing research at these sites since the 1960s has uncovered many projectile points, fishing gear (hooks, net weights), and many different kinds of animal bones: bullhead catfish, deer, passenger pigeon, squirrel. Turtle-shell rattles and bone flutes were found that date back as early 3000 BCE. There is even evidence of long-distance trading in the form of copper from Lake Superior and a marine shell from the Atlantic Coast.
The findings also suggest steady migration back and forth from lakesides to wooded interiors, a pattern that continued into the late-Woodland—between 900 and 1350 CE. This is the epoch in which agricultural evidence was first found in phytolith remnants (a silica plant deposit) on soapstone and steatite cookware, and traces of gated villages and longhouses have also been uncovered.
The pattern of impermanent settlements still continued into the Haudenosaunne-era, from 1350 to 1779. During this period, village sizes grew to support two to three thousand people who relocated every 10 to 30 years. According to Jordan, migrating communities can be traced up and down the lakes in “site sequences”—meaning the travel patterns of specific villages can be traced over a century or more.
Much of Jordan’s analysis was concerned with findings that either complicate or contradict the standard textbook on Finger Lakes pre-history, William A. Ritchie’s 1966 “Archaeology of New York State.” For example, one of the most exciting new theories questions when agriculture was first adopted. The phytolith testing mentioned above, unavailable in Ritchie’s time, pushes the beginning use of domesticated crops back 400 years or so. Similar testing also suggests that Paleo-Indians in the early-Woodland period likely used wild rice presumably as a substitute for beans—the latter a crop that Ritchie and others believed occupied a far more important place in the Paleo-Indian diet than evidence now suggests.
Jordan also pointed out much of Ritchie’s work actually fell below the careful standards necessary for accurate archaeological preservation. For example, Ritchie’s crews failed to always sift soil, so small species’ bones may have been lost. Likewise, Ritchie seems to have made interpretative assumptions about artifacts not found at sites but in amateur archaeologists’ parlor collections. Jordan argued this kind of slipshod workmanship means correctives are required, even if difficult.
Jordan ended with a broader though all too brief corrective: the Haudenosaunne are not relics of history. The Cayuga and Seneca Nations are a thriving community with thousands of members still living in the Finger Lakes. Their culture has evolved and changed, and much of their traditional territory has been taken. But, Jordan emphasized, they are still here, and still deserving of respect and community acceptance.