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The Great Paleolithic WarHow Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past$
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David J. Meltzer

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226293226

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226293363.001.0001

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Setting the Stage

Setting the Stage

(p.23) Chapter Two Setting the Stage
The Great Paleolithic War

David J. Meltzer

University of Chicago Press

By the early 1800s Georges Cuvier had proven animal extinction and Louis Agassiz a onetime Ice Age, putting in place key elements for telling past time. A new dimension of archaeology opened in mid-century with discoveries in Europe of stone artifacts associated with extinct animals in glacial deposits. The earliest traces of humanity abruptly plunged deep into the Pleistocene. The Smithsonian's Joseph Henry introduced those discoveries to America, and spurred him to send out a circular in 1862 to the institutions network of correspondents explaining what sorts of evidence to seek that might reveal a deep human antiquity on this continent. There had been occasional finds hinting at such, and so too did the great diversity of Native American languages and culture. Over the next decade the archaeological collections of the Smithsonian grew rapidly, but while some of the artifacts appeared to match “Stone Age” artifacts of Europe, similar artifacts were still being made by Native Americans, rendering their antiquity uncertain without geological evidence. By the late 1870s Henry was skeptical any would be found. Yet, just as he was abandoning hope a onetime physician was finding what appeared to be traces of Paleolithic artifacts in the Delaware Valley.

Keywords:   Georges Cuvier, extinct Ice Age animals, Louis Agassiz, glacial deposits, Pleistocene, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry, Native Americans, European Paleolithic

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