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Ancient Bone Tool Sheds Light on Prehistoric Midwest

A prehistoric bone tool discovered by University of Indianapolis archeologists is the oldest such artifact ever documented in Indiana, the researchers say.

Radiocarbon dating shows that the tool – an awl fashioned from the leg bone of a white tail deer, with one end ground to a point – is 10,400 years old.

The find supports the growing notion that, in the wake of the most recent Ice Age, the first Hoosiers migrated northward earlier than previously thought. Sites from the Paleoindian and Early Archaic eras are more common in surrounding states such as Illinois and Ohio, which were not as heavily glaciated as Indiana.

“Indiana has been such a void,” said Associate Professor Christopher Schmidt, director of UIndy’s Indiana Prehistory Laboratory and president of the Indiana Archeology Council. “This bodes well for the future.”

The tool was found in 2003 in northwestern Indiana’s Carroll County by students participating in the university’s annual summer archeology field school. Schmidt has directed ongoing excavations since 2002 at the site near the small town of Flora, where a glacial lake attracted mastodon, giant beaver and smaller wildlife for thousands of years.

Stone tools thought to be from the same era have been found in Indiana, but because they are not made from organic materials, their age cannot determined precisely, only inferred from surrounding materials and comparison with similar artifacts. Tools made from biodegradable materials, such as bone, rarely survive intact from such ancient times.

Scratches and notches on the 5-inch bone awl indicate it probably was used in conjunction with a stone knife to punch holes in leather, perhaps for clothing. The nature of the activity suggests that the lifestyle of its users was more settled than nomadic.

“This tells us they’re pretty well established in northern Indiana,” Schmidt says. “This isn’t just people passing through. This is people settling down, making homes.”

The tool has undergone further analysis by Christopher Moore, who was among the UIndy students who found the tool and is now a graduate student at the University of Kentucky.

Moore and Schmidt describe the bone tool in the context of similar artifacts from around the country in an article titled “Paleoindian and Early Archaic Organic Technologies: A Review and Analysis,” to be published in an upcoming edition of North American Archaeologist.

The people who lived in Indiana 10,000 years ago are not well known, Schmidt says. No burials of this age have been found, and only a few sites this old have been documented.

“That’s what makes this site so interesting,” Schmidt says. “It gives us a glimpse into life not long after the glaciers had receded. It shows us a lake that was rich with life, some of which would soon go extinct, some of which is still with us today. And, despite the changes, it is clear those first people in Indiana were hardy and later flourished.”

Schmidt also offered praise for the residents of the Flora area, a close-knit German Baptist community that adheres to traditional farming practices but has been enthusiastic and generous toward the archeologists working in their midst.

“This particular dig has been wonderful because the people of Flora have been so gracious and supportive of our efforts,” Schmidt says. “They helped us at every turn. They gave us food, helped with our pumps, and even jumped into the pits to help with the digging.”

Dr. Christopher Schmidt | Newswise Science News
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