The World of the Grandfathers

The World of the Grandfathers

Drawn from a series of Nature of New York lectures in 2004 and 2005 by Dr. Anne-Marie Cantwell (Rutgers University)
Unearthing Gotham: Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Sites.


“The land of North America is literally made up of the bones and blood of generations and generations of Native American peoples. Modern Americans should learn to see them as grandfathers.”
–Ruben Snake, Winnebago spiritual leader

Many people think of New York as young, only a few hundred years old. They see the history of the region beginning with the Dutch occupation of Manhattan Island. The written history does begin in 1609; however, when the Dutch arrived, they were new people in a very old land. Archeology gives us a window into this distant past, the world of the grandfathers..

Paleo-Indian Period Professional Custom Writing Services from the Experts!
11,000 to 10,000 years ago

The story of New York begins in Port Mobil, Staten Island along the Arthur Kill. When the fence was being built around the oil tank farm, amateur archaeologists found fluted spear points. Fluted spear points (thinned in the middle to enable attachment to a spear

Approximately 11,000 years ago, Port Mobil was on a commanding rise of land 75 feet above sea level (today, it is 9 feet above sea level). The Arthur Kill was a small brackish stream. Inner and outer New York Harbor were part of a vast coastal plain. The coast was about 120 miles to the east. Glacial lakes had formed with the recent end of the ice age. Mastodons, mammoth, caribou, marten and hare roamed the mixed pine forests. It was a hospitable place to stay for a while and move on. While it is tempting to imagine the Native Americans hunting the mastodons and mammoth, there is no evidence linking North Eastern Paleo-Indian hunting sites to them (though there is in other parts of the continent). More likely they would have hunted smaller prey such as caribou, marten, and fox, and ate Hawthorne plums, grapes, and seeds.

Over time, the amateur archaeologists found over 100 artifacts at and to the north of Port Mobile. These spear points, knives, hide and antler scrapers are indicative of small family groups that would have camped and moved on. The men would have been hunters, and the women would have processed the hides to make clothes, tents, and bedding—all of which were essential to survival in the still cold climate.

There are real limits to our knowledge of these people. We don’t know their name, how they looked, or what they called this area. However we do know that they were here 11,000 years ago and can justly claim to be the first New Yorkers.

Clovis Points

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Archaic Period
10,000 to 8,000 years ago

About 10,000 years ago begins a very long period that archaeologists call the Archaic Period. The millennia following the ice age were a period of dramatic change in the environment. The sea was rising and the coastline was moving west (It would still take 6000 years before it reached its present location). There were offshore islands. Glacial lakes were turning into swamps and the larger animals like the mastodons and mammoth that had dominated the landscape became extinct. Moose and caribou were moving north. The forests were now mixed pine and oak. Within this newly diverse environment, the area became even more hospitable. New technologies were developed, and the diet and culture of the inhabitants also changed dramatically.

There is only one important site currently known from this period, also in Staten Island. The burnt, broken stones at the site prove that “ stone boiling” had been invented. Stone boiling is a cooking process. Rocks about the size of an apple are heated in a fire. The hot stones are picked up with two sticks and placed in a bladder or basket of water to heat the water. This is a very laborious, inefficient way to cook; nevertheless, it is a major technological step.

Middle Archaic
8,000 to 6,000 years ago

8,000 years ago, the area had become yet more attractive. Deciduous forests of oak and chestnut filled with deer, bear, raccoon, turkey, and migrating birds predominate, supplying a richer more varied diet. For example, nuts are one of the nutritious new additions to the native diet from the deciduous forest. Another development of this period is the first evidence of use of coastal resources in the region. This is from shell pits in archaeological sites along the Hudson River. This human relationship with coastal resources will continue and develop up until almost the present.

Late Archaic
6,000 to 3,700 years ago

6,000 years ago there were a lot more people living throughout the Northeast in general and in New York in particular. There were many sites in upper Manhattan. Inwood in northern Manhattan had been occupied more or less continuously for millennia. Shellfish middens (heaps of discarded shells) from this period are common, indicating that shellfish were now a significant component of the local diet. Throughout the eastern part of North America at this time there were major technological advances. Axes, plummets (weights for fishing), and “banner stones” all appear in Manhattan for the first time—see images of these types of tools here. The axes are clear evidence of woodworking, probably to make canoes. The banner stones were used as weights and guides for spear throwers. The spear thrower (atlatl) is a stick with a catch for the rear end of the spear effectively adding another joint to the throwing arm, which increases the hunter’s leverage. Spear throwers greatly increase the lethality of the spear as a hunting weapon. It is probably no coincidence that deer become numerous in archaeological digs of the period.

The Woodland Period
Early Woodland

At this point, the terminal moraine separating Staten Island and Brooklyn broke. The Hudson River settled into its present course, and approximately 3700 years ago the modern coastline more or less takes shape. New York is now truly a coastal area. It is essentially the coast that Verrazano will visit in the 1520’s, and Henry Hudson will see in 1609. There are now major Indian settlements along the coasts and inlets. Unfortunately, hundreds of these archaeological sites have been buried beneath the highways and bridges built by Robert Moses.

Professor Cantwell sees this as the beginning of the history of modern New York. The defining characteristic of the woodland period for archaeologists is that pottery has replaced stone bowls and baskets. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of pottery as a technological innovation. Unlike stone boiling and grilling, pottery allows routine boiling and simmering of food. This means stews and soft foods become available. Infants can be weaned earlier. Invalids can be fed soft foods during illness so that they can recover. Whether or not those explanations are the precise causes, the effect on the population is dramatic.

Middle Woodland 2000 to 1000 years ago is a remarkable period, more for what is not happening in New York in contrast to other areas of the country. In the mid-west, there are the mound builder cultures. There is clear evidence of hierarchy. Chiefs are buried with hundreds of beads and copper jewelry in what are clearly public works projects. It is a stratified society. On the other hand, in New York, while people are buried in graves, there is none of the sophistication or the artwork seen in the mid-west.

Strangely, it is not as if the mid-west is that far away or that the New York peoples were unaware of it. By canoe and portage, the trip would take about three weeks. There are some signs that some rituals practiced in the mid-west were practiced here too. In the Bronx, mica plates, common in the mid-west, have been found. Modern Native Americans report that mica was used in mortuary rituals and in divination. Stone pipes from the mid-west, used in smoking rituals, are also found.

However, what had developed in New York (and coastal New England) was a different kind of society. It was apparently egalitarian. And if the material culture was plain, the environment was exuberant. A key feature of the New York area is the variety of habitats in close proximity. Within a half-day walk, one could forage in salt marshes, hunt game in forests, or fish in rivers, or ponds. There was a virtually unlimited supply of oysters, an extremely valuable food resource in winter, as well as 600 pound sturgeon and myriads of other fish filling the rivers and bays. Game and migratory birds were plentiful. There were nuts and seeds and grapes. Some experts have argued that Middle and Late Woodlands coastal New York provided at least as much food as intensive agriculture with none of the work. Mothers used moss to diaper their babies. Bark was used to build houses and canoes.

It sounds like Eden. The original Dutch settlers were overwhelmed by the abundance they found. Of course, it wasn’t Eden. No place is. There were also lean times and disputes. Nevertheless, the environment was such that there was no need to have a hierarchy to organize the means of production and distribution. No need for elite individuals to run things. No evidence of major group conflicts. While the lifestyle and material culture was minimal, there was a ritual culture shared with other North American Native Americans. We can only assume that they were aware of more elaborate lifestyles but chose not to emulate them. The environment made a more complex and hierarchical society undesirable.

These Northeastern Coastal Native Americans were laying down the basis for a lifestyle incomprehensible to the Dutch and other Europeans who encountered them.


Fish Pipe

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Late Woodlands
1,000 to 400 years ago

When we talk about the Late Woodlands, we can finally give the peoples who lived in coastal New York a name. They spoke a dialect of the Delaware language, Muncie. Sometimes these people were called Lenape, Leni Lenape, or Muncie.

Bows and arrows, a big improvement over spears, appear for the first time. Pottery gets bigger with thinner walls, holding up to two-and-a-half gallons. The question that archaeologists ask is: “ what exactly were they cooking in these big new pots?”

At this time in the interior of the Northeast in the Mohawk Valley, maize, beans, and squash (“The Three Sisters”) cultures developed. They were militaristic societies living in large, palisaded fortress villages.

There is no evidence of these palisaded fortresses along the coast. It was not even clear whether they were growing any corn at all. Some archaeologists had argued that the switch to agriculture only occurred after the Europeans arrived. In Staten Island, however, the dig at Bowen’s Brook, excavated in 1904, provides a clue as to what they were eating in New York in the Late Woodlands. There, an amateur archaeologist named Alanson Skinner found over 100 six by six foot storage pits full of all kinds of stuff, much of which was sold off by the workmen. However, Skinner found a corn cob which he sent to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in Manhattan. A few years ago, the corn was carbon dated. It came from between 1270 and 1400 AD. The evidence therefore suggests that they did grow some corn but not much.

Another clue as to the Late Woodlands diet comes from a small sample of skeletons from the largest Native American cemetery on Staten Island, Burial Ridge. Burial Ridge, which is now in the National Register of Historic Places, was excavated at the turn of the century by the AMNH. It had been occupied for millennia. Three human skeletons and a dog were dated to the Late Woodlands period. The human skeletons and the dog skeleton were analyzed chemically to determine their diet. (Interestingly, there are several sites from this period which have dog burials.) The results showed the vegetable portion of the diet consisted of temperate vegetables (probably not corn) and also that they ate a lot of seafood. Significantly, the dogs and the humans apparently had the same diet.

Another bit of evidence is the size and general health of the skeletons. They did not have cavities and were in generally good health when they died. Health, especially dental health, in agricultural societies is bad compared to hunter gatherer societies. This is universal. When a population converts to an agricultural diet, their stature diminishes, infections increase, anemia and malnutrition become common. This is another bit of evidence against extensive agriculture in New York prior to contact. The evidence shows that these peoples knew about agriculture, but as with the hierarchy and elaborate social structures of their inland brethren, they chose not to adopt it.


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©SPS CUNY Last modified: Thursday, March 8, 2018, 11:47 AM


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