Chesterton Tribune

Archeologist filling in the blanks in Northwest Indiana prehistory

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Where to find out more

For those wishing to read about the Middle Woodland (about 200 B.C. to A.D. 600) and the Mississippian (about A.D. 1000-1650) native Americans, state archeologist Bill Mangold recommends the books “People of the Lakes” and “People of the River” by William and Kathleen Gear. Locally, the Notre Dame University Department of Anthropology is a recommended resource.



“Archeology in northwest Indiana doesn’t have that big a history. Very little professional work has been done. We’re learning a lot, and there’s a lot more for us to find out,” according to Bill Mangold.

As one of four state archeologists with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Mangold has been studying this area’s ancient cultures for 30 years and will write his Ph.D. dissertation on the topic.

What archeologists do know is that the first native Americans, known as Paleoindians, migrated to northwest Indiana about 10,000 B.C. Before that, the region was under ice. “It’s a little hard to live on top of a glacier one mile thick,” said Mangold. “Once it receded, when the animals started coming in, so did man.”

The Paleoindians came from other areas of the United States, where man is thought to have existed since 20,000 B.C., Mangold told an Indiana Dunes State park audience Saturday.

Only a small portion of prehistoric culture survives like stone, bone and shell because the more perishable bark, hide, wood and feathers have decomposed long ago. Being nomadic, the first people had little and carried even less of it with them; sometimes they would leave buried caches, intending to return but didn’t, couldn’t, or forget where their things were.

In Spencer County, 10,000 of what appear to be some kind of ceremonial stones were found. Stone was sometimes buried to keep it moist and prevent it from becoming brittle.

The earliest writings have been lost. Prior to 300 years ago, when missionaries, soldiers and traders visited the area, written records weren’t preserved.

Mangold said there’s evidence Paleoindians hunted and butchered mastadon and mammoth by jabbing them at close range with spears, but this rarely occurred.

“They would eat off it until the meat was so putrid they couldn’t stand it,” said Mangold. If the hunters were experienced, their small groups occasionally also might eat caribou and six-foot-tall beavers, but their diet consisted mostly of plants, roots and nuts.

The first spear tips or projectile points, lashed with green hide to a stick, were flared inward at the bottom to better hug the stick. The point’s sides couldn’t be too sharp or it would split the hide as it dried and shrank.

The early projectile points, some quite large, also served as knives. Most were made out of chert, a dense quartz rock. Later projectile points were notched to allow the hide to shrink and not be cut by the sharpened rock.

A leap in weaponry came with development of the atl atl, a hollow tube into which the spear was placed. The weight of the tube, and additional stone weights, some decorated, which likely were attached to it, allowed more force to be applied to the spear throw, effectively doubling its distance.

“Now you don’t need to be right up next to a beast. It really revolutionized hunting,” said Mangold. Elk, deer and bear came into the diet.

In Central America, he added, the Aztecs later used a form of atl atl that could go through the breastplate of Spanish armour, through a soldier’s body and exit through his back armour. “It was a very deadly weapon.”

Now known as the Early Archaic people, native Americans of 7,000 B.C. were still mobile hunters and gatherers but traveled in larger bands, utilized caves and rock shelters, used cemetery and cremation sites, and used stone tools for grinding, cracking and crushing food.

By about 4,500 B.C., the Middle Archaic people used stone axes and pointed stone drills, and they stayed at campsites longer, often near a river. According to the DNR, the Bluegrass site in Warrick County contained human and dog burials, garbage pits and carved hairpins made of bone.

Over the last 20 years, Mangold said, technology has become so advanced “we can look at the edge of a tool and tell if it was used to cut plants, meat, hide, bones or wood. Every one gives us a different microsopic identification.”

The Late Archaic native Americans of about 4,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C. used stone, shell and copper beads to make necklaces. Populations increased, living in semi-permanent camps where regional and cultural boundaries were recognized and mussels were a favorite food. Trade networks were formed and the routes used for thousands of years.

Although archeologists aren’t sure for what they were used, primitive bird-shaped stones begin appearing. Mangold said some speculate the stones may have been tied to the head of the deceased to carry their spirit into the afterlife. Birdstones are one of the rarest artifacts in the Midwest with only two or three found a year.

About 1,000 B.C. there’s evidence of differential burial with some interred in mounds while others were cremated. “Whether they were a chief, a high priest or big merchant, we don’t know,” said Mangold of the mounds’ inhabitants. Log tombs were used for later burials.

Mangold said some of the eight to 10 burial mounds in Porter Township, adjacent to a proposed but never-built landfill now in litigation, were excavated in the early part of the century and documented in a 1932 publication.

Mounds can be the burial site of dozens of people or one. “If we find a tomb and it’s undisturbed, we leave it that way.” One mound in Ohio is over 100 feet high. Sadly, said Mangold, many mounds are plowed over during cultivation and eventually disappear.

About 600 B.C. clay pottery, later heavily decorated, is introduced to the native American culture. Ugly, thick and the size of small wastebasket, the pots are a revolution in cooking allowing people to boil water over a fire instead of dropping hot rocks into a water-filled hide pouch or woven basket. The rocks would burst, sending small grit into the food that ground down teeth.

“What really grinds teeth is corn. We can tell when it was introduced because corn has natural sugar and the cavities skyrocket,” according to Mangold. “After 800 A.D. corn becomes very important. Acres are planted and harvested and become the staple diet. Pumpkins, gourds, probably beans and sunflowers, their seeds ground primarily for oil, also are grown.”

Mangold said by 200 B.C., archeologists are pretty sure native Americans were using tobacco. Before that, they were smoking other things. Garbage pits are especially good finds, he added, because the charcoal can be dated with greater specificity.

Archeologists also work with forensic scientists. Mangold said, “Teeth grow like trees. They have growth rings. If you had a bad year, it would be seen in your teeth.” The teeth of one prehistoric person showed between age four and six they almost starved to death, he noted.

The bow and arrow didn’t come into use until after 500 A.D. After 900 A.D. it is more common to see arrow wounds. “In prehistoric times, warfare doesn’t come in until there’s something to fight over. Here, it would be land,” said Mangold. “People were forced to rely on someone else much more. There could be a tornado or flood. If you’re fighting, your neighbor is not inclined to help you.”

Mangold estimated Indiana alone is losing 1,000 archeological sites a year. “When the ground is disturbed, it’s disturbed forever. You can’t put it back like it was.”

He also believes modern landfills will become the archeological sites of the future. “There’s more computer power on your car today than was on the first space capsule. That technology will leave our fingerprint on things.”


Posted 10/1/2002