by John Strong

It must have amused the Shinnecock to have seen local people get excited about the 350th anniversary of Southampton coming up in 1990. Their history can be traced back more than 10,000 years to the first hunters and gatherers who found their way onto the island. These Paleo-Indian peoples left behind few signs of their passing, but the meager evidence is nonetheless conclusive. Evidence of their presence is limited to a small handful of uniquely formed projectile points (Saxon, 1978). Distinctive flutes had been chipped away from the base, perhaps to accommodate a shaft. This style, named Clovis for the site in New Mexico where they were first discovered among the bones of a mammoth, is generally associated with the Paleolithic period. Although it is less precise as a chronological indicator for eastern North America, Clovis points clearly indicate the presence of human occupations as early as 8000 B.C.

For about two thousand years or so the point was in use among hunting and gathering bands across North America. The discovery of these points in Bridgehampton and Three Mile Harbor indicates clearly that Indian peoples were living here by 8000 B.C. and probably even earlier. It is of some significance that three of the fluted points found on Long Island were made from local quartzite. Walter Saxon in his study of Long Island fluted points concluded that " . . . the Paleo Indian utilized the island long enough to experiment with and adopt, to some degree, the local materials and that possibly there was a real, however small, Paleo-Indian occupation on Long Island" (Saxon, 1978: 259).

Unfortunately, we know very little about these early people. None of the points were found by modern archaeologists in a supervised dig. We can assume with some assurance that these bands lived like others who shared the "Clovis culture" in North America. Their tool kit would have included gravers, knives, scrapers, drills and choppers. Little can be discerned about the social structure of these peoples from the sparse data base. The general assumption is that they lived in small bands of 25-50 people who shared a kinship connection. The size of the community was probably determined by the number of young men necessary for an effective hunting team.

In his review of New England archaeology, Dean Snow developed an imaginative model for Paleo-Indian communities based on archaeological data and ethnographic information from contemporary hunter-gatherer communities. He suggests that there may have been a three-tiered social structure: the nuclear family, the band and the multi-band congregation (Snow, 1981). The vital center, of course, was the family. Bands were likely to be composed of families who had a kinship connection. Members of the band marry outside their own band (exogamous marriage pattern) establishing avenues of kinship with neighboring bands. It is through these ties that temporary multi-band congregations are organized for specific functions such as seasonal hunting parties, religious celebrations, and trade. We have no way of determining how accurate Snow's model is for the Paleolithic period on Long Island, but it is a fairly accurate description of the Long Island Indians when the whites arrived in the seventeenth century.

The recent discovery of Clovis burials in Montana gives us some tantalizing clues about Paleo-Indian religion (Carlson, 1978). Two individuals were buried with grave offerings which included a six-inch Clovis point and oval stones. The bodies and the grave goods had been sprinkled liberally with powdered red ochre. This powder is believed to have been a powerful symbol representing the vital life blood of man. The red ochre ceremonial became a fixed part of Eastern North American death ritual during the Archaic period. The Montana burials demonstrate that the practice actually originated during the Paleo-Indian period. It may well be that this ancient custom was carried into the New World across the Bering Straits. There is considerable evidence of its use in Old World paleolithic burials.

We have no Paleo-Indian burials on Long Island, but the presence of red ochre in the archaic burials here strongly suggests that the custom may have its roots in the Paleo-Indian cultures.

With the gradual melting of the glaciers, a number of significant ecological changes occurred throughout the Northeast which were in process until around 3,000 B.C. (Funk, 1978). Although there is some debate about specific environmental changes, it seems likely that the warming climate encouraged the northward spread of deciduous trees bearing a bountiful variety of protein-rich nuts such as black walnut, pignut, butternut, and chestnut. The forests also provided a supply of fruits and seeds which soon became a regular part of the Indian diet. These changes in climate are often related to changes in culture, although the relationship is not always clearly evident. William Ritchie (1965) established the following chronological sequence for the northeastern Atlantic coastal region based on his years of experience as archaeologist for the State of New York:

  • Paleo-Indian Period (Clovis culture) 7,000-3,500 B.C.
  • Archaic Period (hunting-gathering-fishing) 3,500-1,300 B.C.
  • Transitional Period (stonepots to ceramics) 1,300-1,000 B.C.
  • Woodland Period (horticulture) 1,000 B.C.-1,600 A.D.