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Paleo-Indian Period


Paleo-Indian Period (15000 – 7000 B.C.)

The Paleo-Indian period spans from approximately 15,000 B.C. to the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age about 7,000 B.C.  The period marks the first colonization of the New World by Homo sapiens.  It is generally agreed that these early people came to the Americas from Asia, either by way of a landbridge (Figure 3) that formed across the Bering Strait or possibly by use of simple water-craft which they could paddle from island to island.  We are certain that these early inhabitants migrated to the New World because even after a century of intensive research, no discovery has ever been made of earlier human ancestors.  Scientists believe that the Paleo-Indians may have followed herds of large animals such as mastodons, mammoths, camels and bison as they crossed the Bering landbridge from Siberia to Alaska.  The landbridge was made possible by the formation of huge glaciers and ice sheets which caused water levels to drop more than 150 feet. As water levels fell the Aleutian Islands, which spread across the Bering Strait, would have been joined together, linking Asia to America.
Evidence of these climatic and geological events has been noted in many countries.  In Belize, the Blue Hole at Lighthouse Reef with its underwater cave system is now submerged some 400 ft below sea level.  During one of several Ice Ages this cave, like the Beringia landbridge, was above ground level because stalactites which adorn its ceiling could only have been formed by drip water laden with calcium carbonate deposits.  Elsewhere in Belize sea shells and marine fossils have been found in the Crooked Tree area, and in the Orange Walk and Cayo Districts.   Beringia was also not the only landbridge formed in the New World.  Millions of years ago, North and South America were not connected as they are today.  Central America existed as two islands: one made up of Chiapas, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize and the other island consisted of present day Chiriqui Mountains of Costa Rica and Panama.  The animals of North America evolved separately from those of the southern continent.  Eventually, and as a result of tectonic activity, these islands became attached to the North and South American continents.  With the formation of this other landbridge animals that were previously isolated on these two continents began to migrate from the north to the south and vice versa with mingling at its greatest in Central America.

But who were the Paleo-Indians and why did they come to the New World?

Anthropologists and Archaeologists believe that they were of Asiatic origins and that they migrated to the Americas in pursuit of the large Pleistocene animals that they relied on for subsistence.   From Alaska these early hunters spread to the south, moving into Canada, the United States and Mexico and eventually reaching South America by 10,000 B.C.  Because of their nomadic way of life, these early ancestors left few clues to assist us with determining their cultural lifestyles.   The few campsites that have been found suggest that they had few material objects – mostly wooden, bone and stone tools.  Their most diagnostic hunting implement was a fluted projectile point that is generally referred to as a Clovis point.  These characteristic “spear” points have been discovered throughout the United States and Canada and as far south as Panama.  In the Maya area only few examples have been found.  The first was discovered in the 1960’s at San Rafael near Guatemala City.   About a decade later two other sites in highland Guatemala, Los Tapiales and in the Quiche Valley near Huehuetenango, produced similar remains.  In the Yucatan, at a site known as Loltun Cave, archaeologists also found evidence that these early people may have been using the entrance to the cavern as a campsite.  Deep below the present ground surface they discovered several stone tools along with bones of extinct mastodon and horse.

What about Belize?

For a long time we had no evidence to suggest that these Paleoindians were ever present here.  The first clue came to light in the early 1960’s.  Two bones discovered by farmers near Santa Familia, Cayo District were identified as those of an extinct giant sloth.  Cut marks on the bones further suggested that the animal may have been killed by hunters who subsequently cut the bone to get to its protein rich marrow.  Conclusive evidence for Paleoindian presence in Belize, however, was not recovered until the mid 1980’s, when a farmer near Ladyville discovered the first fluted projectile point in the country.  A few years later a farmer in the Toledo District found another fragment of a similar spear point.  Since then, teeth of an extinct mastodon have been discovered in Bullet Tree Falls and simple stone tools associated with extinct horse remains have been recovered in a cave in the Cayo District.  What these scant pieces of evidence tell us is that here too in Belize early humans arrived between 10,000 and 7,000 B.C.  With their few stone tools and other implements they gathered edible plants and fruits, and they hunted the large animals that once were present along the open savannas and river valleys of the country.  Because they moved around on a regular basis, they constructed no permanent houses and it is for these and other reasons that traces of our earliest Belizean ancestors will continue to be difficult to discover.