Paleo-Indians in Virginia

posssible migration paths to Virginia from Asia or even Europe
possible migration paths to Virginia from Asia or even Europe
Source: base map from Wikipedia

The first people to occupy Virginia, known as Paleo-Indians, came here from elsewhere - but where, and how did they get here? Perhaps they came to North American originally across the Bering land bridge. Perhaps 25,000 years ago, Siberians migrated into Beringia, where they stayed for 10,000 years during the during the Last Glacial Maximum. An ice-free corridor opened up down to California along the edge of the Pacific Ocean roughly 17,000 years ago, and as the ice sheets melted an inland route opened up roughly 13,000 years ago.1

An alternative possibility is that the first people in North America migrated along the Atlantic coastline, hunting marine mammals at the edge of the ice. The Clovis points found in some of the earliest archeological sites in North American, and perhaps the point dredged up together with mammoth remains off the coast of Cape Charles, might be consistent with the theory that North America was settled by people from the Solutré region in France.2

What we do know is that the first immigrant humans to settle in Virginia, arriving as early as 15,000 years ago, were hunters. Odds are, they traveled widely in family-based groups, acquiring food in various places and then moving to new places when local resources were exhausted. Shelter would have been very limited - some Virginia caves and rock overhangs were used,3 but there were few such sites especially east of the Blue Ridge). Hunting groups may have looked for places where windstorms had knocked down enough trees to create dry spots for a few individuals, and set up temporary camps with a natural wooden roof.

excavations at a former sand-mining site at Cactus Hill (Sussex County) suggest the first people in Virginia arrived before Clovis technology developed excavations at a former sand-mining site at Cactus Hill (Sussex County) suggest the first people in Virginia arrived before Clovis technology developed
excavations at a former sand-mining site at Cactus Hill (Sussex County) suggest the first people in Virginia arrived before Clovis technology developed
Source: Center for the Study of the First Americans

Weapons were made from stone, with shafts and handles of bone and wood. Each hunter may have made some sort of basket or backpack to carry their gear from campsite to campsite, before lightening the load and carrying only selected weapons for an actual hunt. Paleo-Indian camping gear would have included various tools, perhaps wrapped in skin "wallets" to prevent damage to the sharp edges. By one estimate, a family group used roughly 100 pounds of stone annually.4

Some stone was acquired from specialized quarry sites, but some tools were manufactured from whatever was available when it was needed during seasonal travels into different habitats.

Virginia's first hunters probably spent much of their time in the lowlands such as the Shenandoah Valley, since in the Pleistocene Epoch wild game may have been more limited on the wind-swept bare mountaintops or on mountain slopes with just a few scattered trees. Constant movement enabled the Paleo-Indians to find new herds of large (and small) mammals, as well as to gather some wild seeds and fruits.

The hunting bands may have killed mastodon, mammoth, moose, elk, and caribou in the spruce-fir forests and open grasslands that were common in Virginia at the end of the Ice Age. What could be a tool manufactured from the tibia bone of a musk ox has been excavated at Saltville, from a site where a single mastodon may have been butchered and burned 15,000 years ago.5

Archeologists are more confident about the evidence at the Coats-Hines archaeological site south of Nashville, Tennessee, concluding that Paleo-Indians butchered a mastodon there on the edge of a pond between 11,000 and 13,000 BC.6

hunting party killing a mastodon, perhaps for ritual more than meat
hunting party killing a mastodon, perhaps for ritual more than meat
National Park Service

However, the stereotype of the first Virginians being big-game hunters, traveling great distances in small hunting parties and spearing mammoths/mastodons for a meal every week, may be completely inappropriate for Virginia and even elsewhere in North America.

Killing a mammoth/mastodon may have required separate family groups to unite in the effort, and there were easier sources of food that exposed hunter-gatherers to lower risks. A megafauna kill could have been a rare ceremonial event with great social and symbolic significance rather than just a routine hunting exercise. If mammoths/mastodons were not hunted for food, one possibility is:7

Paleoindians took a lot of big game, but possibly not annually and probably not primarily as a means of providing their day-to-day sustenance. Instead, we suspect that the hunting of proboscideans by Clovis peoples, and the somewhat later mass communal drives of bison, were activities whose primary purpose revolved around the social and political affairs and aspirations of men... and, rather than being the center-piece of Paleoindian food provisioning, their indulgence in big-game hunting was heavily underwritten and perhaps even made possible by the food-getting activities of others, quite likely the women.

As best we can tell, the Paleo-Indians were not living as isolated bands of people, and did not avoid contact with others family groups. They were social animals, similar to modern humans - otherwise, the rapid spread of the Clovis point design would not have been possible.

Population levels were low, based on the small number of artifacts recovered from that time compared to the later Archaic Period. During the Paleo Period within Virginia, different small family units with shared family connections may have gathered occasionally in three-eight large macrobands, centered on quarries at Flint Run Williamson, for hunting large game or restocking the stone tool kit. Each family unit may have had roughly 25 members. Groups who lived together were based on family connections; only later would different families share the same space and develop into tribal groups.

The initial interactions between bands of strangers must have been stressful, not unlike a "first date" today, but the need to find mates outside the family would have spurred regular social interaction. When groups met, it is reasonable to assume they traded information and also special objects, such as shiny shells and stones preferred for making tools, with other hunting bands. Some caches of unused and unusually large Clovis points appear to be ceremonial stones, rather than functional spearpoints.8

Clovis points
Clovis Points, with distinctive "flute" of stone chipped out of the center at the base
Source: National Park Service, Southeastern Prehistory - Paleoindian Period

The roaming family units may have used gaps through the Blue Ridge as the geographic locators of where to meet, with repeated visits to the eastern edge of the mountains.

Archeologist Mike Johnson has suggested that macro-bands (groups larger than single families, but not organized into tribes independent of family kinship) may have used the passes through the Blue Ridge to identify "meet-up" sites. Two candidates for gathering to trade, socialize, and find new partners are Smith Mountain Gap (Pittsylvania County) and Thoroughfare Gap (Prince William County).

Some of the oldest human-created artifacts in Virginia have been revealed at excavations at the eastern edge of Smith Mountain Gap, on the eroding shoreline of the pumped storage hydropower reservoir between Smith Mountain Dam and Leesville Dam. That location provided an easy-to-identify slot in the Blue Ridge, recognizable from as far as 30 miles away on the eastern side. Before the Roanoke River was dammed, anadromous fish such as Atlantic salmon would have swum far upstream, providing an extra food source for a rendezvous there in May/June.

Travelers from the east could have brought brightly-colored shells from the Atlantic Ocean, located 40 miles further east from the current shoreline. During the Ice Age, sealskins were readily available at the latitude of modern VIrginia. Ocean-based items would have been especially valued by Paleo-Indians living west of the Blue Ridge.

Travelers from the west could have brought trade items from the Mississippi River valley, via the Kanawha River connection to the Ohio River. Perhaps the item of greatest interest would have been different forms of stone valued for utility (after being worked into tools) or for other cultural reasons. Paoli chert from the Big Sandy River drainage in Kentucky has been identified at Leesville Lake; Paleo-Indians transported it there for a reason.9

Paleo-Indians may have used gaps in the Blue Ridge as easy-to-recognize locations for meeting with other traveling bands
Paleo-Indians may have used gaps in the Blue Ridge as easy-to-recognize locations for meeting with other traveling bands
Source: Global Land One-km Base Elevation Project (GLOBE), State Topography Image: Virginia

Smith Mountain Gap offered a meeting spot in Paleo-Indian times for travelers from moving east (up the Kanawha/New rivers) and west (up the Roanoke River) to trade sealskins, seashells, and unique forms of stone
Smith Mountain Gap offered a meeting spot in Paleo-Indian times for travelers from moving east (up the Kanawha/New rivers) and west (up the Roanoke River) to trade sealskins, seashells, and unique forms of stone
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The predictive model allows archeologists to target specific sites for research, rather than rely upon chance discovery. Specific criteria entered into a Geographic Information System (GIS) can suggest where, 10-15,000 years ago, traveling bands of hunters would have said "let's meet there, to trade and party" at a particular time of year. Even without GIS technology or archeological expertise, it is possible to recognize distinctive locations. For example, a sandstone outcrop offering a spectacular view from the west side of the Blue Ridge near the Loudoun/Clarke county line known as Bears Den may have been a gathering point.

Paleo-Indians may have walked from the Shenandoah River to Bears Den, following the topography the way Route 7 does today
Paleo-Indians may have walked from the Shenandoah River to Bears Den, following the topography the way Route 7 does today
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

The first Virginians moved often through the course of a year. Groups living near a source of stone for their tools (Paleo-Indian quarries) may have traveled less than groups living on the Coastal Plain, where there were fewer rocks that were easy to fracture into tools that held their sharp edges. Paleo-Indians in Virginia probably:10

relied on a shifting settlement pattern and collecting strategy which consisted of family groups that set up central base camps from which they made periodic trips out to short-term extraction camps to collect resources and hunt until the resources of a certain area became exhausted, at which point the band relocated.

Why do we think the Paleo-Indians relied upon temporary base camps, then moved when the foraging became too difficult? Our best clue is the tools used by the hunters and remnants of their camps, including a few seeds and bones charred by campfires. The stone tools have survived unchanged over the centuries, unlike clothing, food, or even bones. Archeologists assign different names to different stone tool designs, and recognize cultural changes between different time periods/places by variations in the specialized designs of stone tools.

Evaluating population changes based on changes in stone tools and pottery requires determination of dates when new technologies were introduced/developed at a location. Top layers of soil are younger than layers deeper down, so an artifact found at depth is typically older than an artifact found on the surface.

Bioturbation of soil by burrowing animals can confuse the picture, and items tossed into human-dug pits can appear to located at an "older" depth. Archeologists are careful to document the different layers of soil when excavating a site, looking for organic material associated at a common level with tools and pottery. Radiocarbon dates of charcoal from a hearth can be used to determine the age of stone tools found at the same layer, or stratum. Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) can be used to date when certain minerals were last exposed to sunlight on the surface.

Human-shaped stone tools used on the tips of spears and other devices for killing animals are called "points." Other stones were shaped to serve as knives, scrapers, awls (needles), and other purposes.

Palmer/Kirk and other notched points developed in Archaic Period
Palmer/Kirk and other notched points developed in Archaic Period
Source: National Park Service, Terminal Paleoindian Occupations in the Southeast (10,800-10,000 rcbp, ca. 12,900-11,450 B.P.)

Native Americans also shaped antlers, wood, and shells. A small amount of copper was used for jewelry, but Native Americans in Virginia never developed a technology based on metal. They lived within a Stone Age culture until the Europeans arrived.

NOTE: Arrowheads are all "points," but not all points are arrowheads. In Paleo-Indian times, there were no bows and arrows. Bow and arrow technology had not been invented when the first humans walked into Virginia. For over 10,000 years, until the bow and arrow was developed in the Woodland period, stone/bone projectile points were attached to spears and atl-atl shafts in Virginia rather than to arrows.

Once pottery was invented, the designs and styles of bowls and other items provide additional clues to Indian lifestyles before contact with Europeans. In centuries to come, future archeologists might study the cultural differences between Singapore and Norfolk during the 21st Century by examining the different types of computer chips found in our landfills.

Intact, undamaged tools from the Paleo-Indian period are rare. Many have been reworked, with flakes of stone chipped away to repair a tool after damage. In most cases, broken tools and pottery are discovered by archeologists; intact points and pots are rare, in comparison to items discarded after breakage.

A stone knife may be resharpened only so many times to generate a new sharp edge, before the tool is worn out and thrown away because too much rock has been chipped away to permit further use. In addition, there is much stone litter from chipping a tool out of a core or blank of raw stone. Lithic scatters ("debitage") are waste rock, discarded as a point was shaped.

From a naive collector's point of view, broken items are of lesser value than an intact spear point or pot. From an archeologists perspective, however, broken items and even debitage can offer valuable insight into the culture of the time and place. The Clovis points may have been produced only during a short window of time 11,000 years ago that lasted just 200 years,11 but finding a broken base of a point with the distinctive flute provides valuable information about when a site was occupied.

Nonetheless, there is an obvious distinction in our appreciation of broken vs. intact artifacts, and a sense of shock when excavation or handling damages items of great age. Virginia archeologists maintain a survey of over 1,000 fluted points, to document the remnants of the Clovis culture in the state. The description of Point #583, which was located near the Meherrin River five miles east of Emporia, notes it was:12

"...found in 1977 by a farm laborer, dropped and broken into two pieces." And that happened after it had existed unbroken for 10,500 years!

One of the oldest point designs, the "Clovis" points, are common throughout Paleo-Indian sites across the Southeast. The namesake discovery site is the town of Clovis in New Mexico, but Clovis points are found in some of the oldest archeological sites in Virginia. When we find the same style of point in many different locations, that suggests bands of hunters traveled widely and interacted with each other regularly; communities were not isolated by separate languages or hostile behavior, and technology was widely imitated as people moved from place to place.

Clovis and other point styles from the Paleo Period
Clovis and other point styles from the Paleo Period
Source: National Park Service, Terminal Paleoindian Occupations in the Southeast (10,800-10,000 rcbp, ca. 12,900-11,450 B.P.)

The initial developers of the Clovis points held no patent, the technology was shared; the same Clovis point designs were crafted by many different family groups. Physical and cultural barriers were not high enough to cause separate, independent technologies to develop in isolated locations. Hunters and gatherers ranged across fields and forests across much of North America, and the spears tipped with Clovis points (bayonets) were equally useful in hunting large wild animals throughout Virginia. As one author noted:13

In an unknown place and for an unknown reason the Clovis point was invented. This most likely occurred in the forests of eastern North America where the spear points have been found in most abundance... The remarkable speed with which they spread across the whole continent, presumably as an idea rather than as objects [i.e., the points were not manufactured in just a few places, and then distributed across North America by trade or migration of a few groups with the new technology], testifies to the close links between communities that had been essential for survival as the ice age came to an end. Indeed, the numbers, design and distribution of such points suggests to me that they were used as much for building social bonds between groups as for acquiring food from the landscape.

Not only can we classify the designs of the tools - we can also identify some quarry sites where tools were made. Paleo-Indians discovered the jasper outcrop on Flint Run, and family groups regularly visited the site to restock their tool kit for another season of hunting and gathering.

The chalcedony outcrop at the Williamson site in Dinwiddie County supplied some of the first Virginians. The jasper outcrop at Brook Run in Culpeper County may have been discovered and utilized by Paleo-Indians. We find evidence from just later Archaic people at that site, but the evidence of the first users of that stone may have been destroyed by the extensive quarrying later in the Archaic Period.14

The oldest known structure (house? tool-making factory?) in Virginia was found at the Paleo-Indian Thunderbird site (designated as 44WR11) on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in Warren County. Dr. William Gardner and his wife Dr. Joan Walker excavated the site for 15 years, starting in 1971. Jasper was quarried there, and various points, scrapers, and other tools were manufactured from the chunks of rock removed from the quarry.

Close examination of a point discovered at Thunderbird showed evidence that it had been used on some form of cat (perhaps a saber-toothed "tiger"), and points found at the nearby Fifty Site showed evidence of rabbit and bear. Clearly Clovis-era points were not used exclusively for hunting mammoths and mastadons...15

The National Park Service designated the Thunderbird Archeological District as a National Historic Landmark in 1977, and for several years a museum and archeological park located at the site provided public education. The museum is gone and the archeological site is now subdivided and surrounded by modern houses. After excavations were completed, four lots were purchased by Archeological Society of Virginia and are the only part of the 1,800-acre site now protected by easement.16

the Paleo-Indian Thunderbird quarry is located on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River
the Paleo-Indian Thunderbird quarry is located on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River
Map Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Wetlands Mapper

About 15 miles away, on Spout Run near the Shenandoah River in Clark County, a series of concentric stone circles (designated site 44CK151) was claimed to be a 12,000-year old observatory. If it was built in the Paleo-Indian period to mark the summer/winter solstices and fall/spring equinoxes, it is a unique site in Virginia. The arrangement of those stones could also be natural, and modern scholars have no way of knowing if the first inhabitants created slar observatories.

The archeologist studying the site, Jack Hranicky, has suggested that after quarrying jasper for tools at Thunderbird, Native Americans walked down the Shenandoah River and held some sort of cultural ceremonies at the Spout Run site. Petroglyphs in the shape of foot prints could be intended to mark where to stand in order to observe an equinox. Understanding such a site - or even accepting that humans arranged the rocks there to create a solar observatory - will always be challenging, because the evidence could be interpreted in many different ways.17

The end of the Paleo-Indian period, and the start of the Archaic period, is marked by new designs of points. The distinctive Clovis and Dalton "flute," the flake removed from the center, is replaced by notches on the side, perhaps reflecting a different technique for attaching the point to a wooden shaft.

At the end of the Ice Age, human travel and settlement patterns were affected by the emergence of new habitats and new food sources. In Virginia, large mammals such as the mastodon were replaced with deer and other smaller game animals. Deciduous forests replaced open grasslands, offering nutritious hickory nuts and even acorns. Estuaries on the Coastal Plain stabilized, followed by an increase on accessible oysters, clams, and crabs. Anadromous fish swam up river valleys to the Fall Line, offering yet another source of protein and fat.

Changing habitats may have encouraged foraging in more areas, expanding the number of ridgetops and valleys visited by hunting and gathering parties. as people moved into areas formerly unoccupied, family groups may have become more isolated. Interaction between groups may have been blocked by evolving religious or political barriers, and the emergence of separate languages.

Finding different designs in different locations that were occupied at the same time period suggests that the occupants of those two places were isolated by physical or cultural barriers, allowing time for flintknappers in different groups to evolve separate styles. For example, access to the Thunderbird quarry may have been limited by new boundaries between foraging groups that emerged about 10,000 years ago. That constraint could have spurred a hunting band to use chert from Back Creek, north of modern-day Winchester.

(A workshop location where chert was reduced to cores and some finished points, later labeled the Fout Site, was destroyed when the Virginia Department of Transportation expanded US 522. Fortunately, the site was excavated by archeologists before the highway bridge over the creek was built, though the information from the 1969 dig was not finally published until 1996.18)

Fout Site (44 FX 3), a chert quarry workshop first used in Early Archaic Period
Fout Site (44 FX 3), a chert quarry workshop
first used in Early Archaic Period
Map Source: US Geological Survey, National Map

The presence of a significantly new stone tool or pottery design in a location could also suggest human migration. New designs may appear quickly, without gradual changes in the preceding design, when a place is occupied by a new group. Immigrants bring new cultural patterns.

By tracing the locations of archeological sites with a specific design, it is possible to show the migration paths of the past. In the Paleo-Indian Period, groups interacted often enough to have a common way of making Clovis, Dalton, and Cumberland points across Virginia. In the Archaic Period, however, population expanded and point styles - many with notches on the corner - became more regional.

The First Virginian

Native Americans - The First Geologists in Virginia

Archaic Indians in Virginia

Woodland Indians in Virginia


edge of the Atlantic Continental Shelf, where first PaleoIndian camps may be located underwater today  (note the latitude of the southern border of Virginia)
edge of the Atlantic Continental Shelf,
where first PaleoIndian camps may be located underwater today
(note the latitude of the southern border of Virginia)
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


1. Nicole Misartia, Bruce P. Finney, James W. Jordan, Herbert D.G. Maschner, Jason A. Addison, Mark D. Shapley, Andrea Krumhardt, James E. Beget, "Early retreat of the Alaska Peninsula Glacier Complex and the implications for coastal migrations of First Americans," Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 48 (August 10, 2012),; John F. Hoffecker, Scott A. Elias, Dennis H. O'Rourke, "Out of Beringia?," Science, Vol. 343 no. 6174 (February 28, 2014), (last checked February 28, 2014)
2. Bruce Bradley and Dennis Stanford, "The North Atlantic Ice-Edge Corridor: A Possible Palaeolithic Route to the New World," World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 4 (December 2004), (last checked July 3, 2012)
3. Michael B. Barber, David A. Hubbard, Jr., "Overview of the Use of Caves in Virginia: A 10,500 Year History," Journal of Cave and Karst Studies Vol.59, No.3, p.132, (last checked July 4, 2012)
4. Gardner, William M., "An Examination of Cultural Change in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene (circa 9200 to 6800 B.C.)," in Paleoindian Research in Virginia: A Synthesis, edited by J. Mark Wittkofski and Theodore R. Reinhart, pp. 5-52. Archaeological Society of Virginia Special Publication 19: Barbara E. Luedtke, "Quarrying And Quantification: Estimates Of Lithic Material Demand," Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1979), pp. 261, (last checked July 4, 2012)
5. Clayton E. Ray, Byron N. Cooper and William S. Benninghoff, "Fossil Mammals and Pollen in a Late Pleistocene Deposit at Saltville, Virginia," Journal of Paleontology, Vol. 41, No. 3 (May, 1967),; Charles O. Handley Jr., "Terrestrial Mammals of Virginia: Trenfds in Distribution and Diversity," Virginia Journal of Science, Vol. 43 No. 1B (Spring 1992),; Albert C. Goodyear, "Evidence for Pre-Clovis Sites in the Eastern United States," in Paleoamerican Origins: Beyond Clovis, Peopling of the Americas Publication, 2006 (last checked June 6, 2012)
6. "Coats-Hines Archaeological Site," National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Tennessee Historical Commission, December 17, 2010 (last checked July 9, 2012)
7. Speth, J.D., et al., "Early Paleoindian big-game hunting in North America: Provisioning or Politics?," Quaternary International (2010), (last checked July 3, 2012)
8. J. David Kilby, "An investigation of Clovis caches: Content, function, and technological organization," PhD dissertation, The University of New Mexico, 2008, d=79356&RQT=309&VName=PQD (last checked July 3, 2012)
9. Mike Johnson, presentation to Northern Virginia Chapter of Archeological Society of Virginia, November 16, 2015; The Datum Point, newsletter of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Archeological Society Of Virginia, June 2012, p.5, (last checked May 11, 2014)
10. Robert Hellman, "Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park Cultural Overview," National Park Service, 2003 (last checked July 4, 2012)
11. Michael R. Waters, Thomas W. Stafford Jr., "Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas," science, Vol. 315 no. 5815 (February 2007), p.1122, (last checked July 3, 2012)
12. Ben McCary, "Survey of Virginia Fluted Points, Nos. 537-603," Quarterly Bulletin, Archeological Society of Virginia, Vol. 34 No. 3 (March 1980), p.175
13. David Reich et al., "Reconstructing Native American population history," Nature, July 11, 2012, (last checked July 12, 2012)
3. Steven Mithen, After the Ice: a Global Human History, 20,000-5000BC, Harvard University Press, 2004, p.245
14. G. William Monaghana, Daniel R. Hayes, S.I. Dworkin, Eric Voigt, "Geoarchaeology of the Brook Run site (44CU122): an Early Archaic jasper quarry in Virginia, USA," Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 31 Issue 8 (2004), pp.1086-1087
15. "The Earliest Americans Theme Study," National Park Service, (last checked July 6, 2013)
16. Sandra D. Speiden, "ASV Undertakes rescue of Thunderbird Paleoindian Site," Quarterly Bulletin, Archeological Society of Virginia, Vol. 47 No. 2 (June 1992), p. 104; "Thunderbird Archeological District ," National Park Service, National Historic Landmarks Program, (last checked July 6, 2013)
17. "New Equinox Features Discovered at Clarke County Solstice Site," Clark Daily News, September 21, 2012,; "Letter to Editor – Archaeologist Responds to Questions about 12,000-year-old Solstice Site," Clark Daily News, October 27, 2011,; "Couple discovers stone circles on property," The Roanoke Times, May 10, 2014, (last checked July 6, 2013)
18. Howard A. MacCord sr., "The Fout Site, Frederick County, Virginia,) Quarterly Bulletin, Archeological Survey of Virginia, Vol. 51, No. 1 (March 1996), p. 21

From Paleo-Indian to Woodland Cultures: Virginia's Early Native Americans
The Real First Families of Virginia
Virginia Places