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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

New Stone-Age Technology Paved the Way for Ohio's Colonization


New technology can open up opportunities for people -- even if that technology happened in the Stone Age.

The first Ohioans were part of a wave of expansion across North America that began around 14,000 years ago. It was made possible by an innovation in stone- tool making.

In this week’s Exploradio, we visit one of Ohio’s first settlements and learn what helped make the Clovis people the great colonizers.

We’re in what looks like an ordinary soybean field in northeast Ohio. But there’s something special about this secluded hilltop in Medina County.

For one thing, it has a name -- Paleo Crossing. And a crew with shovels is carefully scraping away layers of soil to find clues left by past inhabitants.

Metin Eren, and Brian Andrews
Kent State University's Metin Eren, right, and Brian Andrews of Rogers State University in Oklahoma are part of the crew excavating Paleo Crossing, a site in Medina County that holds clues to the colonization of Ohio by the Ice Age Clovis people.

Kent State University archeologist Metin Eren leads the team. He holds up a lump of gray flint that looks a little like a flattened spoon. 

“That’s a complete end scraper," an ancient stone tool. “This would have been slotted into a handle and people, 11,500 years ago would have sat on the crest of this glacial kame, this little hill here, and worked hides for shelter, warmth, or clothing or whatever.”

A moment later, I spot a similar artifact lying in the dirt a few feet away, another end scraper with the edge still intact, and still sharp after 11,000 years.

Eren calls to a colleague to mark the finds.

He tells me that Paleo Crossing is famous in archeological circles for the wealth of artifacts discovered here -- hundreds of scrapers like the one I just found and dozens of beautifully crafted spear points.

It’s also famous for the fact that the people who made these tools were pioneers.

A trace mineral analysis shows that the stone tools found on this Medina County hilltop were carried from flint outcroppings 300 miles away in southern Indiana.

“There’s no Paleolithic site anywhere in the world where the majority of the raw material comes from 500 km away. It’s really unique in that regard.”

The actual walking distance, if people took the most direct path, is 500 miles. The most likely route follows 800 miles of rivers from Indiana to northeast Ohio.

Back in his lab at Kent State, Eren shows me a beautifully shaped spear point similar to ones found at Paleo Crossing.

“This is the Clovis fluted point.”

'Northeast Ohio actually represents one of the clearest instances of human colonization in all of world archeology.'

The distinctive stone blade is named after the small town of Clovis, New Mexico where the style was first found nearly a century ago. Eren says the blade marks the pinnacle of Stone-Age technology.

“In my opinion, the Clovis point and the Clovis spear point is definitely the most bad-ass stone age weapon we can find.”

The driving technology of the stone age
The distinguishing characteristic of the Clovis point is the fluting, or channel running up each flat side where a spear would be attached. Eren says it took considerable skill to create these grooves.

Metin Eren and  Michelle Bebber
Metin Eren and Kent State University graduate student Michelle Bebber display a wealth of stone tools, ancient pottery, and animal hides and bones that are part of their research in experimental archaeology, testing replicas of ancient technology to better understand its function.

“To remove that channel by striking that base, you risk breaking your Clovis point one out of four, or one out of five times, and this is after years learning how to do the technique.”

Eren reasoned there must be a significant advantage to offset that risk.

“And I thought what could be the advantage of having a thin and brittle base, and I got to thinking about a car.”

'The first American invention'
Modern cars, he reasoned, crumble on impact to protect passengers. “So I thought if maybe the thin end of the point is touching the spear and it hits a mammoth, you get tremendous compression force; that thin and brittle base will crumple just a little bit, like the front end of a car and shock absorb some of that stress preventing the point from breaking in the middle.”

Extensive testing in the lab supports his theory that the Clovis fluting allowed the spear points to last longer than previous designs.

A map shows three routes Clovis people people might have taken from flint outcroppings in southern Indiana to Paleo Crossing in northeast Ohio. The shaded areas show flint available in Ohio, but not found at Paleo Crossing. Other Clovis sites in Ohio are marked with stars.

Eren calls the Clovis point the, "first American invention."

“Stone age people 12,000 years ago in Ohio and North America invented shock-absorption technology, and they implemented it in their stone spear points.”

Eren says ice-age hunters armed with Clovis points were on the move. “Clovis people could travel much further from the stone quarries where they’re making their stone weapons because that the point that they had, the spear point, was so resilient.”

At the time of the Clovis people, huge ice sheets had only recently retreated from Northeast Ohio. Eren says sites such as Paleo Crossing provide a snap-shot into how people enter virgin territory.

“Northeast Ohio actually represents one of the clearest instances of human colonization in all of world archeology.”

After studying at Harvard and at universities in England, native Clevelander Metin Eren came back because of this unique aspect of his home state.