|16 September 2005
Illinois site shows life of Archaic Period
More than 9,000 years ago, nomadic hunters in Southern Illinois (USA) were handy with an atlatl, a Stone Age throwing gadget that gave their spears fast-ball speed. And when dense forests and the lack of meadow areas made deer harder to find, these wanderers adapted to eating more squirrels, fish and nuts.
During this era, there was no writing, pottery or known rock art in Illinois. The bow and arrow hadn't yet been discovered. Yet, as archaeologists have discovered, self-expression existed among these Stone Age people in the form of intricately carved designs on such mundane items as bone hairpins. And life could be quite comfortable, according to radiocarbon-dated charcoal and bones, which showed that the hunters relaxed around campfires, munching hickory nuts while their dogs stood guard.
These details from what is known scientifically as the Archaic Period were developed from more than 50 years of study of a Randolph County archaeological treasure that has long been famous in national scientific circles - the Modoc Rock Shelter. The Archaic Period lasted from about 8,000 BCE to 1,000 BCE.
Located beneath a sandstone overhang just off Bluff Road near the tiny hamlet of Modoc, the shelter was used over a span of 6,000 years, primarily as a hunting base camp. What makes the site about two miles southeast of Prairie Du Rocher unusual among rock shelters is that the refuse of ancient life was stratified and preserved within thin layers of flood-borne silt that piled up 28 feet deep. "Things were rapidly buried, so we have these little time capsules," said Bonnie Styles, an archaeologist who has written extensively about the shelter.
In the state museum's Research and Collection Center in Springfield, dozens of drawers and hundreds of boxes hold what was found at the shelter during excavations in the 1950s and from several digs in the early- to mid-1980s. In one drawer was a piece of dried mud. What makes this mud important is that it contains the imprint of a woven reed sleeping mat - evidence that basketry was known at the time.
Styles said that from the study of animal and plant remains from the shelter, she was able to conclude that sometime beginning about 8,000 years ago, the climate became much drier and the dense woods opened up, allowing for growth of brushy 'edge areas' where deer feed. And sure enough, she began finding more deer bones from these shelter layers. As the Mississippi River changed course and left behind shallow, fish-filled lakes, the hunters switched to eating more bowfins, brown bullheads and other fish.
Among the cultural evidence is a piece of a 6,000-year-old bone hairpin containing an intricate design. The same design has been discovered on artifacts from Archaic Period sites in Tennessee and Kentucky.
Sources: Associated Press, Belleville News-Democrat (11 September 2005)
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