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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, October 2020

Problems in North American Chronology, Part 5:
The “Points Equal People” Paradigm

by: Bill Branch

“Points Equal People”

In his same volume on the Archaic period east of the Mississippi, archaeologist Kenneth Sassaman draws critical attention to another popular idea of the mid-20th century, the idea that every different style of stone point represents a separate cultural phase or even distinct people. Sassaman characterizes this as the “one point type equals one culture” mentality, and an “empirically unsubstantiated notion.” [1] Dale L. McElrath, Andrew C. Fortier, and Thomas E. Emerson, editors of a 2009 collection of essays on the Archaic period cited by Sassaman, refer to this way of thinking as “points equal people,” and also regard it as a fallacy which has skewed our understanding of the past, including in regards to chronology. [2] Many archaeologists since at least the 19th century have nonetheless used differences in stone point styles as a basis to construct prehistoric chronological sequences.

According to McElrath et al., the “points equal people” approach is fundamentally based on identifying and dating prehistoric cultures based mostly on their point types, which by the 1930s had already been categorized into many different groups and types. [3] The order in which these points appear in the stratigraphy of the soil creates a sequence, and archaeologists try to establish time periods and assign cultural phases based on these stone points. While the stratigraphical evidence is important, the danger comes in applying this method simplistically without thinking critically about what is actually being represented by the artifacts in the soil.

Archaeologists coming from a sequential way of thinking have typically implied that hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years of “development” (or even “evolution”) elapsed between different types of stone points, even if no transitional forms are apparent to justify the idea of linear development from one to another. This way of thinking also assumes that prehistoric native communities would use one type of stone point for a certain purpose, and then eventually change to the exclusive use of some different, ostensibly more effective form of stone point for the same purpose. In other words, it is assumed that native communities did not use a variety of stone point types simultaneously, or at least that certain chronological periods can be defined merely by the presence of certain kinds of stone points.

The advantage of this approach is that field archaeologists can potentially date artifacts on sight just by identifying point types. The ability for field archaeologists to identify and date prehistoric sites so easily often proves more tempting than settling for the uncertainty better warranted by the totality of the evidence. When a field archaeologist recovers a prehistoric stone point and wants to estimate its age, it is far more tempting to accept the estimate of an outdated and faulty chronological model, than to settle for no estimate at all, or even to settle for multiple possible estimates, all subject to the same kinds of technical limitations. But if the object is absolute truth, whatever one defines that to be, then one must take the extent of the uncertainties into consideration and somehow eliminate or compensate for them, or else qualify all estimates for being based on layers of assumptions that cannot be easily proven. The original conception of the Archaic as an evolutionary stage is fully outdated, as documented by Sassaman, but a large body of archaeological research nonetheless remains based upon its premises and underlying assumptions of chronological sequences.

Jumbled Assemblages

The stratigraphy of the archaeological record itself argues against “one point type equals one culture” approach, as archaeologists regularly discover different varieties of stone points jumbled together within the same archaeological strata, or in reversed order, indicating that they were used and deposited all around the same time period. Returning to Robert Funk’s essay on the Paleoindian period in the Smithsonian’s Northeast reference volume, for example, Funk explains that some archaeologists view the Paleoindian and Archaic periods not only as partially overlapping periods, but as representing two independent, co-existing cultures of people. Why did certain archaeologists in Funk’s time believe this was the case? As he explains, this position developed “in part” because Archaic-type artifacts had been discovered below strata containing Paleoindian artifacts in some locations:

“A minority of eastern archaeologists favor the view that the Archaic tradition arose independently of the Paleo-Indian tradition, although they believe there was some interaction between the two. In part this hypothesis is based on the evidence for contemporaneity of notched points with Late Paleo-Indian styles in the Plains. Also, on some deep stratified Midwestern sites Archaic artifacts have been recovered in or below levels containing Paleo-Indian items (Logan 1952; Fowler 1959).” [4]

Proof of Archaic strata underneath Paleo-Indian strata at any occupation site is indicative that the Paleo-Indian occupation there was not ancestral to the earlier Archaic occupation underneath it. Since Archaic strata more often, but not always, appear on top of Paleo-Indian strata, the theory that the “Paleo-Indians” and “Archaic cultures” were two distinct groups of people existing simultaneously (or at least during overlapping periods of time) conforms to data from a greater number of archaeology sites than theories which cannot explain the reversals, as uncommon as they may be.

Stone points associated with the Archaic period have not only been found below Paleo-Indian deposits, but also mixed in with the strata of Woodland and Mississippian artifacts. In another case, a Paleo-Indian point was found on a river terrace dated more recently than the point itself. These discoveries and others like them have led archaeologists to propose a number of speculative theories in an attempt to avoid larger reconsiderations of existing academic paradigms.

Others, including another contributor to the Smithsonian’s 1978 Northeast reference volume, John W. Bennett, found similar stratigraphical problems in other prehistoric periods. Bennett was writing as early 1952 that he believed a “Middle Woodland” culture of the northern Mississippi Valley was not chronologically confined to a Middle Woodland period at all, but was in fact a discrete culture of people that survived in some places all the way into the colonial era. [5] Problems with chronologies of the Woodland, Mississippian, and early contact periods will be discussed separately later, though the stratigraphical issues they face are in many cases the same essential problems as those affecting the dating of the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods, with simplistic models being contradicted by unexpected and conflicted stratigraphy between various sites

Angel Mounds, Indiana

One example of anachronistic discoveries comes from the Angel Mounds site along the Ohio River on Indiana’s southern border. In the fall 2013 issue of the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Edward Hermann described the anomalous presence of Paleo-Indian and Archaic type points at the large Mississippian complex, including a Paleo-Indian point dated older than the terrace upon which it was found. Archaic points were found both above and below Mississippian points during excavation, and Archaic points were also found inserted intrusively into a Mississippian-era mound surface, including one Archaic point that was in the bottom of a Mississippian post mold. The Mississippian period is supposed to have developed thousands of years after the Archaic ended, so finding numerous stone points attributed to the Archaic period on top of Mississippian strata defies the standard model of prehistoric chronology.

Hermann sought to explain the presence of Archaic points on top of Mississippian earthworks by hypothesizing that the Mississippians “curated” Archaic and Woodland points as though they were native mdisplay pieces, or perhaps items of spiritual significance. Alternatively, he speculated on the possibility that “pre-Mississippian points were brought to the site in older fill used to make the mound.” [6] In other words, Hermann believes the Archaic points may have been scooped up by accident in the baskets of dirt used to build the mound. Not considered is the idea of “Archaic” and “Mississippian” being two contemporary cultures, the younger and more populous of which (the Mississippians) invaded and took over settlements of the older, less numerous people. As there is no real effort to prove or disprove such theories beyond asserting them baldly, they remain speculative. Nonetheless, the problem calls for some definitive resolution, as Hermann himself admits that such chronologically out-of-place discoveries have “been reported at other sites in the region and around the world.” Making these discoveries at Angel Mounds even more remarkable is the fact that they predate the geological dating of the very terrace upon which they were discovered:

“The majority of projectile points found at Angel Mounds are triangular points typical of the Mississippian period. However, Paleoindian and Early Archaic projectile points predate the terrace on which the site is situated. Contemporary geoarchaeological practices were employed to date the landform and confirm that later groups must have brought the ancient points to the site. Evidence of curated ancient projectile points from Angel Mounds may be the result of collecting behavior not unique to the time period; such behavior has been reported at other sites in the region and around the world. Although we may never know the reason Angel Mounds people curated these tools, ethnographic and archaeological evidence suggests that the tools might have been associated with special properties or powers, been seen as curiosities, or presented the practical benefit of easy re-use. The evidence presented reminds us that multicomponent assemblages do not always indicate multicomponent sites.…

“Multicomponent sites in southern Indiana are common….However, the presence of artifacts older than the landform itself is not, although it has been reported.” [7]

Hermann is correct when he states “we may never know the reason Angel Mounds people curated these tools,” as there is no scientific method by which the curation hypothesis can be tested in the first place, despite Hermann taking it for a foregone conclusion. Many archaeologists have complained for decades about the lack of testable hypotheses in the field of archaeology (which in effect must have some predictive power before excavations at a given site begin, rather than only theorizing about what is found after the fact; see, for example, “The Nature and Nurture of Archaeoastronomical Studies” in Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America, 1975 [8]), but skipping over the scientific method is unfortunately an even more common occurrence precisely when it is most needed: when conventional paradigms are challenged by such unexpected discoveries. Rather than inaugurating additional investigations in the field, it is far more common to encounter exactly the kind of easy response which Hermann provides: an untestable, speculative hypothesis taken as a foregone conclusion, thereby alleviating any perceived challenge to the status quo.

Nevertheless, lacking any better methods, archaeologists have become so dependent upon the premise that different kinds of stone points can be uniquely attributed to a single time period (so that they can estimate dates, regardless of how unfounded they are) that it is common to find sites dated only by the kind of stone points found there. This is probably the most flimsy, or as Sassaman puts it, “empirically unsubstantiated” of all the different dating methods one could employ, and yet, when little or no other evidence presents itself, archaeologists will undoubtedly continue to use this method and its outdated assumptions anyway.

Distorting the “Big Picture”

The fallacious methods used to estimate dates for individual sites accumulate and compound their errors to distort the broader archaeological context. As McElrath et al. explain, archaeologists extrapolate sequences of stone points from one or a few sites to generalize sequences over much larger areas where less data is available:

“…[R]esearchers find it acceptable to extrapolate dates and interpretations from neighboring, or even distant, regions to “fill in” local sequences of cultural expressions; given such practices, one should not be surprised to find broad homogeneity characterizing interpretations of the archaeological record of the Archaic period.…

“To some degree, such generalizations result from the paucity of Archaic archaeological manifestations.…Much of the Archaic chronology is built on the radiocarbon dating of geomorphological rather than cultural units, with all of the uncertainties such contexts engender. This testifies to the need to excavate larger samples from Archaic-period sites to generate sufficient cultural material for dating.” [9]

Unpacking these statements, McElrath and his colleagues echo three themes of the present essay: (1) there is a relative “paucity” of physical evidence attesting to the Archaic period, (2) much (if not all) of the Archaic period as envisioned by archaeologists emerges from the need to “fill in” gaps in prehistory between the Paleo-Indian and Woodland periods, and (3) dates provided by radiocarbon techniques, despite early enthusiasm, have numerous limitations and are not as absolutely reliable as many people tend to assume.

At the beginning of the introduction to their collection of essays, McElrath et al. dedicate a section to discussing problems they encountered while trying to place the essays’ data and conclusions into a common, interconnected chronology. Despite their efforts, the editors failed to create such a chronology, and in explaining their failure, they placed most of the blame on irregularities in the radioisotope dating technique in particular:

“Although advances in radiocarbon dating have overcome initial concerns…the process is still plagued by contamination of samples, issues of context, and variation between labs and, surprisingly, in results between specific techniques…In addition, variations in atmospheric carbon have generated problems that were not apparent at first glance. So, archaeologists not only are faced with issues of sampling and instrument limitations in the accuracy of sample measurement but also with the fact that samples of substantially differing ages can each have multiple “intercepts” [ie, multiple tentative datings].…

“Regardless of the reason, there can be little doubt that many Archaic-period material expressions remain poorly dated at the regional level.…[T]he vagaries of the dating methods employed thus far have left considerable latitude for interpretation of the archaeological record.… “Problems associated with dating artifacts, recognizing contemporary assemblages, and taxonomic organization of material remains have proven more difficult to resolve than one might have imagined, despite the advent of radiocarbon dating.…These concerns are increased when one considers that most artifacts are dated only by association. Because of these constraints, archaeologists have made only erratic progress in transforming diagnostic artifact markers into reliable regional chronologies.” [10]

Though all of these criticisms and more are legitimate issues with radiocarbon dating techniques, the problems inherent to dating Archaic artifacts are deeper than radiocarbon methods alone, and go back to the original conceptualization of the period as a developmental “stage” spanning the time between Paleo-Indians and Woodland cultures, as discussed earlier. One must also remember that the dates geologists and others assigned to the end of the Pleistocene had reached a level of consensus before radiocarbon tests were later calibrated to these dates. Many developments in geological and archaeological dating have unfortunately been accepted only after being calibrated or otherwise made to conform to pre-existing models of the past, thereby nullifying whatever value the newer techniques might have had in offering independent analyses.

Origins in Evolutionary Stages Again

Classifying stone points into lots of different categories and sequences by their shapes and other attributes became more popular in the mid-20th century in conjunction with evolution-based culture histories. Such sequences conformed to Childe’s ideas of group evolutionary stages following the ice age. In that paradigm, Native Americans cultures “evolved” in stages that were identified by their point styles, providing the justification for developing a point-by-point chronology. Different styles of stone points were assumed by default to represent different developmental periods that fall into some more or less linear, stratigraphical sequence. The idea that prehistoric cultures could fashion and use multiple styles of points simultaneously presented an unwelcome complication to this way of thinking, and yet, as Sassaman explains, the persistence of such complications eventually persuaded most archaeologists to reject the entire evolutionary stage paradigm. Nevertheless, the point-based chronologies which field archaeologists had established for this “one point equals one culture” framework were retained, perhaps only for lack of alternatives, and a need to “fill in” what would otherwise be gaps in the prehistoric timeline.

Sassaman began studying North American archaeology as a student in the 1970s, and noticed problems inherent to the field while still an undergraduate. Describing his experiences with the prevailing school of thought at the time, and the way in which he later distanced himself from it, he explains how artifacts dated within the older paradigm “were long thought to be sequential, or evolutionary,” but upon closer inspection were proven to come from the exact same period of time (emphasis added):

“I have since been studying Archaic-period archaeology almost exclusively for thirty years.…I was exposed to all manner of theory and method.…In pursuing what appears to be a straightforward cultural-historical endeavor, I have encountered many reasons to be critical of knowledge claims taken for granted. Among them are repeated encounters with the vestiges of cultural evolutionism, where developments are presumed to follow an upward trajectory toward greater scale and complexity.…Refined chronology has enabled us to recognized contemporaneity among forms that were long thought to be sequential, or evolutionary, as in the presumed sequence from stone to clay vessels.…

“Once sequences of presumed evolutionary change are flattened to reveal the multiculturalism that actually existed, culture history, at least old-fashioned culture history, becomes a liability. The crux of its shortcoming is the empirically unsubstantiated notion that cultures consist of self-contained, internally homogenous, and self-replicating forms of human organization. In Archaic archaeology this way of thinking is manifested in the “one point type equals one culture” mentality (see McElrath et al. 2009). Idealized culture types, based largely on stone tools, were to be found in the unilineal sequences of deeply stratified floodplains and caves…

“…As the long-standing icon of founding people, Clovis is generally regarded as the ancestral base for all Archaic peoples in the Eastern Woodlands. We now know with some degree of certainty that people who made and used Clovis points were preceded by others, some necessarily ancestral to Clovis, but also likely others of completely separate heritage.…As I argue in this book, demographic adjustments attending restructuring of the early Holocene landscape included a series of rather large-scale and long-distance migrations.” [11]

The corrections that Sassaman proposes here may seem minor, and they are perhaps rather understated, but they have far-reaching consequences for both native origins and models of prehistoric chronology. By recognizing Clovis and Archaic populations as potentially having different ancestries, he leaves room for both additional origin migration theories for prehistoric populations, as well as the possibility of Clovis and Archaic populations co-existing simultaneously as two distinct and more or less unrelated people.

More Numerous Populations and Contemporaneity

The appearance of Archaic artifacts below Paleo-Indian artifacts at certain sites, as mentioned previously, is an example of physical evidence suggesting that Clovis and Archaic populations may have been contemporaries during some overlapping period rather than two stages in a linear, developmental sequence. Sassaman, in the quote above, suggests the possibility that Clovis and Archaic could have belonged to a separate ancestral lineages, and argues that the nomadic, prehistoric communities of the Archaic period were far more connected through extended trade networks and other types of relationships, and migrated much more widely, than previously thought. Whether future studies definitively clarify these issues or not, if it cannot be ruled out that Clovis and Archaic populations existed simultaneously, then the “one point type equals one culture” paradigm is arbitrary even on the scale of entire prehistoric eras, or at least the extent to which one was supposedly an evolutionary advance over the other.

Stone points alone are not a reliable indication of cultural kinship, age, or chronology, and do not necessarily follow one another in any particular sequence at any one site. The stone material itself cannot be radioisotope dated, and the contexts and dates of organic materials recovered near the points are often questioned, debated, and revised as well. Different points may have been introduced at different locations at different times by invasions or other forms of mass migration, or by changing trade routes, or any number of other factors, rather than there being some uniform, point-by-point “evolution” in stone technology across an entire region. Two different prehistoric cultures in a certain area, manufacturing different styles of points (such as the Mississippians and Archaic or Adena-Hopewell tribes) may very well have been contemporary rivals exchanging territory over a period of time, as was often occurring during the colonial period. Any discernible sequence left behind would then have more to do with military circumstance than any particular cultural development evolving at those locations, for example. And when the phases of prehistoric cultures overlap one another rather than succeed each other, it tends to shorten the overall time line as well.

On the smaller scale, in the subdivisions of time within each prehistoric era, the “points as people” paradigm still does not offer a reliable means of measuring any sort of evolutionary development, other than to say that the artifacts “transition” out of and into the archaeological contexts of the preceding and succeeding cultures in the stratigraphy, respectively. Within the Woodland period, for example, a sequence defined by layers of points unearthed at one site might contradict the same kinds of points in a different order at another site in the same region, leading archaeologists to argue over whose position better explains the available data. It makes little sense to claim point type ‘B’ appears 200 years after point type ‘A’ when their relative order is reversed in the strata of another, nearby site. These kinds of complications are what led archaeologists such as John Bennett to conclude that certain cultural “phases” in the stratigraphy were entirely distinct populations from those before and after them, and not part of any coherent chronological sequence that could be observed from a single site.

McElrath et al. give examples of various other kinds of revisions that had recently taken place in prehistoric dates based on point types:

“Points that had been assigned to a broad Late Archaic–Early Woodland time span have recently proven to be restricted, on the basis of good contextual data, to one or the other period, at least in some regions (e.g., Emerson and Fortier 1986). Other examples abound. Dalton points were once chronologically grouped with side-notched varieties because of their co-occurrence in mixed deposits in cave and rockshelter sites, but their unique occurrence on open-air sites in the Southeast led to their recognition as an earlier horizon marker (Goodyear 1982). Kramer points, which were thought to bridge the Terminal Archaic – Early Woodland transition, are now definitively associated exclusively with Early Woodland times (in fact, with one specific Early Woodland culture—Marion), at least in the Midwest.” [12]

The editors go on with additional examples, but all of these issues might have been foreseen if more critical thought was directed at the “points equal people” mentality at an earlier date. While the idea of identifying prehistoric cultural groups by their stone points has a great deal of value, the approach is far too simplistic and arbitrary to provide reliable information, and its original theoretical basis from the mid-20th century is long outdated. Like many other dating methods, points can provide a relative sequence of events, as far as which artifacts appear earlier and which appear later, but they cannot offer absolute dates in calendar years without employing some other dating method.


[1] Kenneth E. Sassaman, The Eastern Archaic, Historicized (Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2010), ProQuest ebook edition, 6.

[2] Dale L. McElrath, Andrew C. Fortier, and Thomas E. Emerson, “An Introduction to the Archaic Societies of the Midcontinent,” in Archaic Societies: Diversity and Complexity across the Midcontinent (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), 3.

[3] McElrath, et al., 6, 11.

[4] Robert E. Funk, “Post-Pleistocene Adaptations,” in Northeast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978), 19; Wilfred D. Logan, “Graham Cave, an Archaic Site in Montgomery County, Missouri,” Missouri Archaeological Society Memoir 2 (Columbia: Missouri Archaeological Society, 1952); Melvin L. Fowler, “Summary Report of Modoc Rock Shelter, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956,” Illinois State Museum, Report of Investigations 8 (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1959).

[5] John W. Bennett, “The Prehistory of the Northern Mississippi Valley,” in Archeology of Eastern United States, James B. Griffin, ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 108–123.

[6] Edward Hermann, “Pre-Mississippian Projectile Points in Mississippian Context at Angel Mounds,” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 38, 2 (Fall 2013), 195.

[7] Hermann, 189, 198.

[8] Jonathan E. Reyman, “The Nature and Nurture of Archaeoastronomical Studies,” in Archaeoastronomy in Pre-Columbian America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975).

[9] McElrath, et al., 4.

[10] McElrath et al., 4–5, 16.

[11] Sassaman, 5–8.

[12] McElrath et al., 12.

Thursday, February 22, 2024