Review: Ancient America: 50 U.S. Sites To Discover American Antiquity — Rock Art, Cliff Dwellings, Mounds, Campsites, From Ice Age to Spice Age

The United States is 241 years old, resting on ancient land.

We argue about who gets to live here now, but it’s a fact that the first settlers walked from Asia into America, across a land bridge, at least 13,000 years ago. After that: thousands of years of rise-fall civilizations, trade, tribes, travel. And us.

You know it’s true– but what if you want to see ancient America in the U.S., or to show it to your kids?

One answer is Kenneth L. Feder’s useful 232-page guide with pictures Ancient America: Fifty Archeological Sites To See For Yourself.

One thing that frustrated me when I was researching Moundsville was the considerable volume of pseudoscience on prehistoric America: Aliens! Lost tribes of Israel! 8-foot giants roaming the tundra!

Feder, a professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University, declares himself well aware of the gunk, and countering it was one of his motivations for writing this book.

Feder picked 50 sites that were “iconic in some sense, representative of a specific period in American antiquity, and emblematic of a particular ancient culture or region.”

Number 21 on the list of 50 sites is Moundsville, which Feder calls “an impressive Adena Culture burial mound located within the confines of an old industry city in West Virginia.” (If that tweaks your interest, you can rent the movie for $3.99 here.)

The 50 sites, he says, confront visitors with the “evidence of conflict, the impacts of short-term environmental disasters like droughts and long-term processes of climate change, as well as the devastating effects of economic collapse.”

The first European explorers who arrived after Columbus, he says, encountered “vast empires of pyramid-building farmers whose quite sedentary population centers were flanked by miles of cornfields and whose societies were governed by powerful kings.”

Large rivers, among them waterways we now call the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers, provided natural, navigable avenues for the movement of people and raw materials, as well as finished goods. Trade flourished, and even raw materials available only from a great distance away – for example, shell from the Gulf Coast or copper from Michigan – moved along those rivers to the residents of present-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and the rest of the Midwest and Southeast, who then used them to produce beautiful and impressive works.

In the Southwest, they found farmers “living in enormous, finely constructed and elaborate adobe and stone apartment complexes” and “beautiful buildings ensconced in seemingly inaccessible cliff niches, leaving the impression of breathtaking castles suspended in midair.”

Besides a chapter on Moundsville, WV, there are also segments on mounds in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee.

But Feder isn’t just into mounds. The book is divided into three main sections: Mound Builders; Cliff Dwellings, Great Houses and Stone Towers; and Rock Art.

The section on ancient homes, in places like Mesa Verde, in Colorado and Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, feels familiar.

But I knew hardly anything about rock art, mostly in the Southwest, which covers petroglyphs, images sketched into stone, and pictographs, done with paint. The Blythe Intaglios, in Blythe, California, for example, are eery etchings as big as 170 feet high and 150 feet across of human forms, animals and geometric shapes. At Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you can see artful etchings of birds, carved 700 to 400 years ago.

There’s also a special first chapter on Meadowcroft, a site located near my home in Pittsburgh, that is considered the first documented human settlement in North America. It’s between 13,000 and 16,000 years old, dating it to a few thousand years before the end of the Ice Age.

“When you visit” Meadowcroft, Feder writes, “imagine those first Americans huddled under the roof of the shelter, creating a life in this new world as an enormous glacier covered the landscape mere miles to the north.”

John W. Miller

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