When he was growing up on Tilghman Island, Darrin Lowery often walked the local beaches looking for arrowheads, spearheads and other artifacts dropped by Native Americans who once inhabited the area.
Little did he suspect that when some of those arrowheads were dropped, Tilghman wasn’t an island, and the Chesapeake did not exist. The beach Lowery walked along was, in fact, an ancient bluff that overlooked the Susquehanna River, which flowed through a valley in the distance.
Lowery began to understand that change around 1979, when he and his father were watching “Search for the First Americans,” a program about the peopling of North America on public television. An expert from the Smithsonian Institution was describing Clovis points—a distinct type of spearhead used by hunters during the last ice age—which came from New Mexico.
Lowery turned to his father, and said, “I’ve got one of them.”
“No you don’t,” his dad shot back.
So Lowery went off to his room, retrieved his box of artifacts and proved his point. “Some guy must have had quite an arm to throw that all the way from Clovis, New Mexico,” his dad conceded.
His father wasn’t the only one convinced. Some anthropologists believe artifacts found by Lowery—coupled with other recent discoveries in the Mid-Atlantic—hint that a few of North America’s earliest inhabitants may have originated from Europe, rather than exclusively from Asia.
The points Lowery found at a site known as Paw Paw Cove turned out to be about 13,000 years old, placing them among the oldest human relics found in Maryland. They were left by people who were hunting mammoths and other vanished animals more than 12,500 years before Capt. John Smith “first” explored the Bay. In fact, ice age glaciers had not yet melted to flood the lower Susquehanna and create the Chesapeake.
The story of Paw Paw Cove, though, is more than the story of extremely rare spearheads that could reshape thinking of how North America was settled. It’s also a story of how easily a site that persisted for thousands of years could be lost under a bulldozer’s blade in the blink of an eye.
The artifact-rich site enjoyed no legal protection. The 10-acre Talbot County tract will be preserved for future generations—and archaeologists—solely because of the willingness of a nonprofit land trust, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, to raise funds—and even go into debt—to buy it. No state or federal funds were available.
“It has been a difficult thing,” said Rob Etgen, executive director of the conservancy. “But there was no regulatory structure that protects archaeological resources if we didn’t do this.”
Even without the artifacts, Paw Paw was a unique site. It is one of the scarce Bay-front locations—and the only one in Talbot County—with a natural, stable sand beach. Shoreline maps show it has suffered little of the erosion endured by most of the rest of Tilghman Island since the 1800s—a fact that also kept its hidden artifacts from washing away.
Today, its narrow sandy beach is a haven where horseshoe crabs can come ashore and lay eggs in the summer. The site has a small wetland, and is covered with a dense growth of pines, phragmites and other vegetation.
Its artifacts gained attention when Lowery, at the age of 12, persuaded his sister to drive him to the Smithsonian for a lecture by Dennis Stanford, chairman of the anthropology department of the National Museum of Natural History. After the talk, Lowery walked up and asked the anthropologist if he could identify the points.
Stanford looked at the bag and recognized Clovis points. “Not only can we identify this stuff,” he replied, “we will come out to see it.”
Clovis points are distinct, thin, fluted spearheads with a long, concave groove that allowed them to be reused on different shafts. They could be attached to spears that were thrown by hand, or used with an atlatl, a spear-throwing device.
The points were a lethal weapon that could penetrate thick skins: Some archaeologists believe they contributed to the demise of mammoths, saber-toothed tigers and other large ice age mammals that roamed North America.
Clovis points are unique to North America. They were first discovered in Clovis, NM, in 1932, hence their name. The initial points, dating to about 11,000 years ago, were the oldest known human artifacts in North America at the time.
The date coincided with the existence of an ice-free “land bridge” connecting Asia and Alaska across the Bering Straits. That coincidence gave rise to the long-standing view that Siberians, bearing Clovis points, were the first human occupants of North America.
While that story has been taught in textbooks for decades, a number of recently discovered sites, such as Paw Paw Cove, have shown that theory is almost certainly wrong.
Artifacts from Paw Paw and other sites are 2,000 or more years older than those from the New Mexico site. Meadowcroft, an ancient settlement in western Pennsylvania, dates to more than 14,000 years ago, while Cactus Hill, a site along the Nottoway River in southern Virginia, dates to about 15,000 years ago. Another site in South Carolina is of similar age. Other settlements in Central and South America also predate Clovis, NM.
An emerging consensus among anthropologists is that the Americas were populated thousands of years earlier than previously thought—and before the land bridge existed—perhaps by people traveling in boats. Recent genetic and linguistic analyses bolster that hypothesis, suggesting Native Americans split from Asian populations about 30,000 years ago.
It’s also unlikely that anyone from Asia brought Clovis points with them. When North American archaeologists gained access to Siberian sites after the end of the Cold War, they discovered the points used by ice age hunters in that region were vastly different from the Clovis points found in North America.
Further, Clovis sites in the East seem to be older than those in the West, and the points seem to be more numerous at sites in the Eastern United States than in the Western states. Only 38 have been found in all of New Mexico. “Paw Paw cove has produced 42,” said Lowery, who grew up to become an archaeologist. And the Delmarva Peninsula as a whole has produced more than 350, he added.
Why would the Clovis point technology pop up at Paw Paw and other mid-Atlantic sites almost 13,000 years ago? One possibility, some anthropologists argue, is that not all of the original Native American settlers came from Asia.
Points similar to Clovis were developed about 18,000 years ago by a group known as the Solutreans, who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula—an area that includes Spain, Portugal and southwestern France. In fact, points that pre-date Clovis spearheads found at the Cactus Hill site are nearly identical Solutrean points, according to Stanford.
In a hypothesis dubbed the “Solutrean solution,” Stanford and several colleagues suggest that Solutreans used their spears to hunt harp seals and great auks found near their coastal Iberian Peninsula homes. Over time, the anthropologists said, some of the hunters—by design or accident—may have crossed from Europe to North America along an ice bridge that connected the continents during the ice age.
Those early migrants may have made temporary encampments along the way, but more northern areas were not conducive for settlements; rivers such as the Hudson were clogged with ice.
“The very first place you get to where the environment gets a little bit better is the Chesapeake Bay area,” said Stanford, who believes the ancient Susquehanna likely provided prime hunting areas. “Some of the earliest people in North America probably developed right in this area, which is kind of blowing us away.”
Many anthropologists disagree, noting that key supporting information, such as finding skeletons of Solutrean people in North America, or a clear trail of pre-Clovis points along the coast to Virginia and the Carolinas, is lacking.
But supporters say it is unlikely that two distant cultures would develop nearly identical point-making technologies. Point-making was an essential survival skill passed down from generation to generation. Techniques used by particular populations remained the same for thousands of years.
“That would be like your mother having a recipe for spaghetti sauce and your going to a restaurant in Los Angeles that you’ve never been in, and discovering they make it the same way,” said Lowery, who now lectures about archaeology at Washington College on the Eastern Shore.
Lowery has written papers on his finds from the Paw Paw site. Yet the site has never been fully excavated. Because it has remained untouched, it is what archaeologists consider a “stratified” site, in which artifacts are layered chronologically, with newest ones on top, and the oldest lower. As such, it could shed light on Clovis development.
“A site like Paw Paw Cove, if excavated properly, may tell us that story,” Stanford said. It may be, he added, “the best Paleo- Indian site in North America.”
Even if a clear link to the Solutreans is never established, Paw Paw could tell other stories. Lowery notes that the Clovis points found at Paw Paw and elsewhere on the Delmarva Peninsula are made of different stone than those at Cactus Hill, which is just 80 miles away and seems to have been a major Clovis manufacturing site. To Lowery, that suggests the ice age hunters were territorial, not nomads as commonly thought.
Funding has never been available to examine Paw Paw Cove. Over the years, Lowery became the caretaker of the property, and later its owner. But for personal reasons, he decided in early 2004 that he could not hold such a valuable tract forever. “I carried that baton long enough,” Lowery said. “I can’t manage it and basically take care of it for the rest of my life.”
He put the tract up for sale. The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, worried that any buyer would certainly want to build at least a house, and perhaps a swimming pool and other structures that could entail driving bulldozers through neatly stratified buried artifacts, sought to protect the land.
But the timing could not have been worse. Normally, the conservancy taps state and federal funds to help with acquisitions. In early 2004, the state was in a budget crisis, and land acquisition money was largely diverted to other purposes.
“As a desperation measure, we got it under contract so we could try to raise the money privately,” Etgen said. “We had no confidence that we could do that, but the more we learned about it, the more we realized how important the property was, so we had to try to do something.”
Initially, Etgen thought that money from national sources might be available for such an archaeological treasure. But none were able to move with any speed. The county government initially pledged to foot half of the cost—then backed out, opting to use the money to replace the roof of a building that collapsed.
Ultimately, the conservancy launched a campaign to raise all of the money needed save the property, valued at nearly $1 million—by far its largest effort to save a tract of land totally with private funding. Lowery helped to bring in Stanford and others to talk about the significance of the site. Enough individuals came forward to cover most of the cost of the property; Lowery reduced the price, and the conservancy closed the gap by taking out a loan, which was paid off last fall.
To Lowery, the lack of formal protection for such a unique site is astounding, Unless a state or federal permit is involved, any artifact can be destroyed, no matter how rare. “You could have the Ark of the Covenant or the Shroud of Turin buried on your property and you could dig it up and burn it if you want to,” he said.
He contrasted the lack of concern about Paw Paw to the massive attention focused on the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown. Congress and the National Park Service fast-tracked the creation of a new Capt. John Smith National Historic Trail even as Native American sites often go unprotected.
“The further you go back in time, the fewer the number of sites that have survived,” Lowery said. “There are more 500-year-old sites in the Chesapeake than there are 13,000-year-old sites—by far.”
The conservancy’s preservation of the Paw Paw site may help to change that. Etgen said the organization not only wants to make the site available for archaeological excavations, but beginning this year it is planning to work with other organizations to make the site an educational center about the region’s earliest settlers.
“We’re taking some careful, slow steps to get a program started and get the right people involved to manage what is really a national and international treasure,” Etgen said. “This thing is a treasure trove which is in a safe condition because we own it.”