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What if you were told that everything you thought about the past was wrong; profoundly, fundamentally wrong? The past that Tim Timreck, Smithsonian Museum research associate and filmmaker exposes as profoundly wrong are long-held anthropological theories of eastern North American Native civilization, including when and how Paleo-Indians arrived in Vermont.

Timreck’s film “Before the Lake was Champlain” was shown at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, as part of ECHO’s Indigenous Expressions Speaker Series leading up to the Champlain Quadricentennial Celebration during July 2009. This film is the first of three in a project called the Hidden Landscape series (requires Flash player to view), exploring recent discoveries that are radically changing the accepted version of Paleo-Indian history in eastern North America. The film uses documentation from the Smithsonian Museum Human Studies Archive that preserved 30 years of research and field work on this subject from several scientists. What Timreck is achieving with his series is the piecing together of individual research from many scientists and interviews with indigenous peoples from around the world, to develop a revolutionary theory about Paleo-Indian cultures.

Paleo-Indians (ancestors of modern Native Americans) lived in North America thousands of years ago, and were historically stereotyped as nomadic bands following herds of animals, with little technology and primitive cultures. They were thought to have traveled to western North America from Asia via a land bridge across the Bering Straight 12,000 years ago. Several archaeological discoveries in the last 30 years including delicate bone needles for sewing and intricate bead jewelry began to tell a different story, of people that were highly skilled, formed sophisticated cultures, and lived in North America much longer than 12,000 years ago.

Ramah Chert

Because the original theory of human migration to North America dated back only 12,000 years, it was thought that Paleo-Indians arrived in Vermont much later. However, there have been discoveries of arrowheads made from a type of rock called Ramah chert—dating from 11,000 years ago—found in hillsides several miles away from the current shoreline of Lake Champlain. (During the last glacial period, the weight of the glacial ice was so heavy that it lowered the height of land. This caused Lake Champlain to flow south instead of north, and salt water via the St. Lawrence Seaway flowed in, altering the freshwater lake to a saltwater sea, while melting glacial ice raised the water level.) The lake became a marine environment, and the arrowheads were most likely used to hunt sea mammals and fish that inhabited the “Champlain Sea”.

The discovery of this particular type of arrowhead began to alter the perception of Paleo-Indians from nomadic game hunters to fishermen and whale hunters. Paleo-Indians must have traveled great distances on the ocean to acquire this special type of chert for their arrowheads. The ancient quarry where Ramah chert was excavated is only located in Ramah Bay, Labrador, an approximate 1600 mile boat trip from Vermont.

Had the last glacial period changed the environment to such an extent that Paleo-Indians adapted to a life of ocean traveling and sea hunting? New evidence suggests the answer is yes, and by 7500 years ago Native people had a fully evolved maritime culture, complete with ocean-worthy vessels, harpoon-like tools with fluted projectiles, the ability to make waterproof clothing from animal skins, and the construction of stone mounds to bury their dead.

The Paleo-Indians most likely arrived here by means other than the Bering Straight land bridge. The Ramah chert arrowheads have been discovered as far away as France, suggesting that people traveled along an ice bridge spanning from Europe to North America, hunting the ocean along the way. There is no longer certainty about the direction people came from when they migrated to this continent, but they did arrived here much earlier than 12,000 years ago.

After listening to Tim Timreck’s lecture, my appreciation grew for the dedication of the scientists making these important discoveries, and for Timreck’s persistence in setting the record straight. There is still so much that may never be known about the original Vermonters however, but I love a good mystery.

Sources of Information

1. The Hidden Landscapes website: http://www.hiddenlandscape.com/

2. ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center: http://www.echovermont.org

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