Debate shows how science works


The Welling site in Coshocton County is at the center of a debate over our understanding of the way of life of the Paleoindians of Ohio – the native discoverers of America.

Local amateur archaeologists discovered the site, and the late Olaf Prufer, then with Kent State University, conducted excavations there in the 1960s.

In the 1980s, Prufer and his Kent State colleague, Mark Seeman, argued that Paleoindians mostly avoided the hills of Ohio, preferring instead to hunt big game on the plains of central Ohio. Supposedly, the only reason they ventured into the hills was to mine the flint that was outcropping near the Welling site, which Prufer and Seeman thought was just a workshop for making stone tools.

I studied evidence of Paleoindian activity in Coshocton County for my thesis in the late 1980s and argued that Paleoindians did not go to Coshocton County just for flint; and Welling was not just a workshop. It was a base camp, where groups lived for weeks while hunting, fishing, sharing stories and, yes, mining flint from nearby outcrops and making tools.

In recent articles, Kent State archaeologist Metin Eren and his colleagues reported on their studies of Welling stone tools, which suggested that I had been on the right track. In one study, they found wear patterns on tools that showed Paleoindians were doing a variety of things in Welling, not just carving flint.

They also made replicas of Paleoindian tools and compared the resulting trash flakes with the trash flakes Prufer found at Welling. They proposed that if the two flake sets were similar, then Welling was primarily a workshop; but if the shards were different, then there was more going on at Welling than just tool making.

The flakes were different, so Eren and his colleagues concluded that Welling was an “outcrop-related base camp” rather than a quarry-related manufacturing camp.

In the latest issue of American Antiquity, Seeman and his colleagues argue that Eren and his team got it wrong. They believe that “location is often the best predictor of site functionality, and it is the high-quality flint that sets this small section of the Walhonding Valley apart”. Therefore, the Paleoindians were there solely for the flint.

In a response in the same issue of American Antiquity, Eren and colleagues point out that “by definition, a base camp linked to an outcrop must be located somewhere with nearby flint”, so Welling’s location is equally well suited for a base camp. like a manufacturing camp.

This debate can be like a storm in a teapot – a personal disagreement between academics that isn’t worth worrying about. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In a 1989 opinion piece in The New York Times, Columbia University professor Robert Pollack wrote that “published error is at the heart of all true science”; and the back-and-forth debate over who is right and who is wrong is how “science reveals how nature really works”. Pollack went on to say that “the freedom to make and admit mistakes” is what distinguishes science from politics and religion.

The debate about what was happening at Welling 13,000 years ago is significant; and it will lead to a better understanding of the way of life of Ohio’s Ice Age Indigenous peoples.

Brad Lepper is the senior archaeologist for the Ohio History Connection’s World Heritage Program

[email protected]

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columnist: Archaeologists’ debate shows how science works


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