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First Americans

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.   



Meadowcroft Rockshelter

A video introduction to radiocarbon dating from Scientific American


Clovis Point

Minisink Archaeological Site


General Resources:

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

2003, 2009

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


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