When did the first people arrive in what is today Pennsylvania and New Jersey?
We don’t know exactly when the first people arrived here. We also don’t know
if these early people were the ancestors of the Lenape/Delaware people who
were living here by the 1500s or a completely different group of people
altogether. These very early explorers left no written records. Only a few of
their stone tools and burials are left for us to study.
We do know that people have been living here in North America for a very long
time. Genetic and archaeological evidence suggests that the first Americans
crossed a land mass called Beringia that once connected Eastern Russia with
Alaska about 20,000 to 30,000 years ago.
We also know that people were here in Pennsylvania over 10,000 years ago. In fact, western Pennsylvania is home to the earliest recorded archaeological site in North America: Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Washington County. There, in the 1970s, scientists found stone tools, the largest collection of animal and plant remains ever found in eastern North America, and ancient fire pits.
Using radiocarbon dating techniques, the earliest fire pits at Meadowcroft Rockshelter were dated to 16,000 years ago or 14,000 B.C.!
That means people were here in Pennsylvania 8,000 years before the Sumerian civilization emerged in Mesopotamia at around 4,000 B.C. and 9,000 years before the Early Dynastic Period in Ancient Egypt at around 3,000 B.C.
The first people of Pennsylvania did not farm or live in big cities like Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Mesopotamians. They did not have a written language or a currency. In fact, other than the tools and fire pits they left behind, we don’t know much about them. The first occupants of Meadowcroft Rockshelter were probably seasonal hunters and gatherers surviving on mammoth, mastodon, camel, moose and seasonal plants.
These early Native Americans, sometimes called Paleoindians, made a distinctive and beautiful stone tool called a Clovis Point for the ends of their spears and knives. These large points are unique because they are fluted at the bottom. Making this flute requires great skill and precision.
Other very old archaeological sites in Pennsylvania include the Minisink Archaeological Site (Shawnee-Minisink Site) in Pike County and the Shoop Site in Dauphin County. Early Native Americans were living at both sites at least 10,000 years ago.
A video introduction to radiocarbon dating from Scientific American
Minisink Archaeological Site
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission/Pennsylvania State Museum
Information about the first Americans, the first Pennsylvanians, and how Ice Age people lived in Pennsylvania.
PBS/NOVA website exploring the First Americans
The Meadowcroft Rockshelter site is now open to the public!
Academic article about Meadowcroft Rockshelter from 1977
(Library access required)
The First Americans: In Pursuit of Archaeology's Greatest Mystery
By James Adovasio, Jake Page
Readable introduction to the peopling of the Americas geared toward the general public. Co-authored by James Adovasio, the archaeologist who “discovered” Meadowcroft Rockshelter in the 1970s.
Preview available online through Google Books
In the Museum’s Research Library:
Ice Age Peoples of Pennsylvania
By Kurt Carr (ed.) PA State Archaeologist
Academic articles about early peoples and sites in Pennsylvania