Home > Archaeology, Connecticut, History, Native Americans > People Come, People Go

People Come, People Go

When I was a kid, my father pulled out an old arrowhead that came from somewhere around our house. I don’t know if he had found it;  maybe the workmen who built our house had. Sadly, I also don’t know where it ended up, that little piece of Connecticut history.

If I still had that arrowhead, I could bring it to Nick Bellantoni. He, of course, would have seen its value as an artifact. He might have been able to date it and tell me more about who made it. And if he’d been around when it had been discovered, maybe he would have called off the house building and called in his team. Bellantoni is the state archaeologist.


Bellantoni holds a net sinker, used by CT Indians, well, to sink their fishing nets

Most states, by law, have a state archaeologist. Connecticut’s is supposed to “identify, manage, and preserve Connecticut’s archaeological resources.” In his job, Bellantoni works with Indian tribes to preserve skeletal remains; reviews privately funded development projects to watch for any impact on culturally important sites; and assists local officials in preserving history (among other duties). Last weekend, Bellantoni was in West Haven to speak about Connecticut’s Indian heritage, as he and other archaeologists understand it.

The talk was kind of an Archaeology 101, since the audience was mostly curious laymen attending a Native American arts and crafts festival. Bellantoni discussed the basic chronological periods archaeologists use to classify the different Indian cultures in North America: paleo (roughly 13,000 to 7,000 years ago), archaic (7,000 to 3,000 years ago), woodland (3,000 to 600 years ago), and contact (time of the first European explorations).

He also talked about the last great Ice Age, when the ice was a mile thick over Connecticut. The gigantic glacier, and later its melting waters, shaped southern New England. Pointing to Long Island Sound just a literal stone’s throw from the lecture hall, Bellantoni explained that it was once a fresh-water lake. The rising seas linked the lake to the Atlantic, and covered up some Indian villages in the region, meaning some archaeological treasures are almost impossible to find. The Mashantucket Pequots and scientist/deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard are teaming up to search for submerged sites off the New England shore.

Bellantoni described the hunter/gatherer lifestyle of Connecticut’s first settlers, noting that mastodons once plodded across the region. Archaeologists have located the huge mammals’ remains at six CT sites. Then he discussed the transition to a farming-based, more sedentary lifestyle, centered around the three main Indian crops across the Americas: beans, corn, and squash. But even as agriculture rose in importance, Connecticut’s Indians moved between seasonal sites. And the Sound, with abundant sea life, remained important to their culture.


Connecticut has about 5,000 known archaeological sites.

With no written records, archaeologists study the artifacts the Indians left behind, and the signs of their impact on the environment. High-powered microscopes let the history detectives decipher the “scars” on arrowheads and other stone tools. The distinct markings help the archaeologists determine which were used to cut meat, which were for leather or plants. Some tools contain microscopic blood residue from slaughtered game, letting the scientists pinpoint which animals a long-ago hunter killed.

Along with going over the nuts and bolts of his trade, Bellantoni made three observations that struck me. We modern folk, out of the Western/Near Eastern tradition, are a people of technology. We have made great changes in lifestyle based on technological advances, and we judge other cultures by their technology, or lack thereof. From Columbus on, the Indians were judged inferior because their technology was inferior—no guns, no mills, no metal tools. Never mind that they had adapted well to their environment and had developed a spiritual worldview that some would argue surpassed the West’s.

The second point was environmental. As much as some moderns praise the Indians for their rich, respectful relationship with nature, sometimes they had a negative impact on their surroundings. The archaeological evidence along the Sound shows signs of the overfishing of oysters. At one point, the Indians were hauling in oysters as big as a man’s shoe. Over time, the catch featured oysters more like the size of the modern mollusk. (And a recent NYT article showed a native people’s negative impact in South America: Deforestation of the ecologically vital huarango tree in Peru started several thousand years ago, as the Nazca cleared the trees to plant cotton and corn. The decimation continues today.)

So, maybe romantic notions of the pure aborigines and indigenous people of the world have to be put in perspective. The ancient Indians were people, people trying to survive. They did some things very smartly. They did some things that affected their environment in harmful ways. Of course, you can’t overlook the fact that an invading people basically destroyed their lifestyle and introduced their own ills.

And that leads to the third point. Several times, Bellantoni wondered what some far-future archaeologists will think of the remains they find from Homo sapiens Americanus. The long-abandoned refrigerators filled with plastic containers. The silicone breast implants near decayed bones  (my example, not his). The radioactive waste dumps. I wondered if the audience had ever pondered this point, one I have: We Americans will not be around forever. For all the talk of a city on a hill and the indispensable nation, our empire will fall, as all the ones before it have. Americans will not endure, just as America will not endure, not over the epochs. We will be merely the  studied; no longer the studiers or makers of history (assuming, as Bellantoni did say in a less-than-cheery moment, 21st-century humans don’t annihilate the world first with nuclear weapons).

Bellantoni’s work helps us learn more about the Indian world of long ago. Archaeology in general helps us see the links between our culture and distant ones, and hopefully remind us that any given people and their artifacts are just a blip in the grand historic scheme.

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