Ancient Neighbors

June 23, 2008

It was really the simplest thing, a grayish square, maybe a quarter of an inch across, lying against the 1/8-inch screen. A little flake of chert, what most of us would call flint, though it’s not.

I picked it up and dropped it into the palm of my right hand. It is Onondaga chert, found from an area that stretches from Albany, New York, west to Detroit. But not here. It is a flake left over from resharpening a spear point, a knife, or a hide-scraper.

I was there to write about an archeological team from the state museum, working on the first exploratory dig of a site discovered in the 1930s.

In the early 1950s, a man named Witthoft combed the surface of the 40-acre site and found more than 400 tools, 53 spear points and approximately 1500 chips from sharpening and making tools.

I got the tip from Brad Miller, one of the volunteers, who emailed me a photo of himself holding a stone hide-scraper.

“Somebody made that,” said Brad, pointing at the flake. “Somebody sat right here and chipped that off a piece of stone, 11,000 years ago.”

Stone tools are sharper than razors when first chipped, but they become dull with use, or break. The archaeologist in charge, Kurt Carr, said he went through about six blades one time when he skinned and butchered a deer. He said it takes about five minutes for an experienced knapper to recreate a new scraper or knife blade.

The theory is that these people were nomadic, following the game, the deer, elk, and possibly caribou.  They seem to have traveled in a circuit from near Buffalo, through New England and south until they reached this place between the kinked and rugged landscape of central Pennsylvania.

I wonder who these people were, and what became of them. What did they look like? Who were their gods? Were their lives as Thomas Hobbes  (1588–1679) said,  “nasty, brutish, and short” as we must imagine they were? In whose veins does their blood now run?

I stood for a bit between interviews, trying to imagine the place as it might have been. It would have been cooler, there at the end of the last ice age. The hardwood forests now covering Peter’s Mountain would have been spruce and hemlock. The glacier’s edge came no closer than a couple of counties north, but I would bet that with the wind blowing from the north, you could smell the ice.

These were modern humans, Carr said. Probably bug-infested, I would imagine, and dressed in hides, but inside, and between the ears, where it counts, it’s you and me, with poorer personal hygiene. Give them all Harleys and they would look like the cast of a 1970s biker film.

So long ago, I thought, and then thought again. Is it really? 11,500 years, that’s fewer than 500 generations. Standing side-by-side, holding hands, they would be about three feet apart. That would make a line only a quarter of a mile long, give or take.

A quarter of a mile. A distance you can cover in a couple of seconds in a fast car. A little shorter than the distance from my little gravel-and-asphalt lane to the main road. On a good day, with a still wind, you might be able to holler loud enough and make the folks at the other end of the line hear you. Maybe not understand what you’re yelling, but at least know you’re there. And at least give a wave.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like that long ago. And it makes me want to go back to that field, to be very still and quiet and listen. Well, you never know. A quarter of a mile isn’t too far for neighbors.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,
Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites: