A Catskill Catalog: March 12, 2008

A Catskill Catalog: history, geography, day-trips, arts and culture in and around our Catskill Mountains. Pretty comprehensive. Covers about everything I might be interested in writing about, or so I thought until I visited my old friend Joe Hewitt.
Joe is a retired state trooper, a legend, as we used to say in college about graduates who cast a big shadow years after they’d left school. He’s the former New York State bee inspector, an outdoorsman, and the possessor of a wonderful collection of Native American artifacts he has found in our region. Who better, I thought, to fill me in on the history of the native peoples who inhabited our mountains?
The problem, I realized, as Joe began to show me his collection and explain the meaning of each artifact, is that these stone tools are not a part of history. History is the story of the past pieced together through an interpretation of the documents of the past. History requires a written record; it depends upon language. Joe’s artifacts presented me with something I wasn’t ready for. I spent 36 years teaching English. My head is swarming with language. It’s how I make sense of the world. These artifacts left by native peoples are beyond language. They do not tell; they just are. I was entering a new world, an archeological world, with a new way of thinking.
What I came looking for were words and names to explain our pre-European past, words like Iroquois and Mohican and Lanni-Lanape. Let’s save those words for a future column, a column about history. Joe was introducing me to pre-history.
If you are like me, the word prehistoric conjures visions of Tyrannosaurus Rex, cave paintings somewhere in France, and ancient skeletons found in East Africa. Thinking of the past of our own area in prehistoric terms was, frankly, a bit of a jolt. Perhaps, it shouldn’t have been, but it was.
I held in my hand a chipped stone javelin point with fluted sides. “That’s paleo,” Joe explained. Wait a minute! Paleo? Archeologists date the Paleolithic era around 8,000 B.C. The Clovis point I held in my hand was 10,000 years old! And it was found in our region! In fact, the eastern edge of the Catskills, just overlooking the Hudson River, is home to two significant Paleolithic sites: West Athens Hills and Kings Road. There, archeologists have uncovered numerous stone tools used for cutting, scraping, and boring holes, as well as for hunting.

Migratory range
The archeological record suggests that our mountains were part of the migratory range of early men and women who moved extensively around the northeast in search of food. They seemed to travel in bands of 20 or so individuals, related by blood or marriage, who wandered freely over a scantily populated vast wilderness following migratory game animals. Numerous Mastodon skeletons have been found in Orange County, just to the south of the Catskills. These extinct beasts, reminiscent of the elephant, were a major source of food, and many of the fluted flint javelin points were designed for hunting these large mammals
Stone tools found from this period indicate a people who were skilled in working with wood, leather, and bone, and the Pennsylvania Jasper and Normanskill Flint that these people napped to create their tools indicates the vast distances they traveled.

Local finds
Those travels brought these early people to our valley. Right in our back yard, Joe found Paleolithic artifacts in Dunraven, at the upper end of the Pepacton Reservoir. Just north of Roxbury on Tyler Flats, Ralph Ives excavated a Paleolithic site years ago. Ancient peoples lived 10,000 years ago where we live today. I find that exciting.
The archeological record continues, of course, to trace the inhabitants of our area through time. Smaller notched points, beveled adzes, and fishhooks are representative of the Archaic Period from 4,500 B.C. to 1,300 B.C. These people were less dependent on large game and developed a hunting, fishing, and gathering culture that is often called Lamoka, after the Lamoka Lake archeological site out in the western part of our state. The fishhooks these Lamoka people fashioned out of flint and bone would still catch fish today, and sinker stones and net-sinkers attest to these people’s skill as fishermen.
The next stage of culture was marked by the development of ceramics, and the transition from a hunting, fishing, and gathering economy to an agricultural one. This is called the Woodland Stage, running from around 1,000 B.C. to European contact. Numerous local sites have produced artifacts from this period of development, including a cache of hunting points uncovered years ago at Big Rocks, across from Chuck Ingram’s auto body shop. Clay pipes and ceramic shards point to a more settled village life.
That settled agricultural village life was the Woodland Culture that entered the written record in 1609 when one of Henry Hudson’s sailors described the natives he encountered sailing up the big river. It was with that writing, 400 years ago, that history began in our region, and the prehistoric phase of our human development came to an abrupt close.