Holcombe Site

I recently decided to look up some historic sites in the area, as I wanted to visit somewhere new this weekend. A quick search lead me to the Wikipedia pag* for the Holcombe Site (also known as Holcombe Beach), a Paleo-Indian archaeological site in Sterling Heights. Remnants of Paleo-Indians in suburban Detroit? I was instantly intrigued, and since the site was only a few miles away from where I live, I made plans to stop by during the long New Year’s weekend.

According to the website of the city of Sterling Heights, amateur archaeologist Jerome DeVisscher discovered the site in 1961 “on a hunch.” He drove past the area everyday going to and from work, and noticed a ridge on the side of the road. He knew that Indian artifacts are often found in similar ridges, and so he took to digging it up with a friend, Edward J. Wahla. They discovered a number of spearheads on the site, and alerted archaeologists from the University of Michigan about the find. UofM determined that the spearheads were Paleo-Indian in origin – probably used around 9,000 B.C. The ancient age of this find sparked a great deal of excitement. UofM archaeologists organized a five year dig of the site, which eventually produced more than 7,000 spearheads, along with flint chips and caribou bone fragments. They also determined that the site was on the edge of a the ancient Lake Algonquin, a glacial lake from the ice age that encompassed the current Lake Huron and parts of Michigan.

Holcombe Point - from U of M teaching collection

Holcombe Point – from University of Minnesota teaching collection

The spearheads that were originally found at the site were unlike any others discovered before, and were thus given a new name, “Holcombe Points.” They are small fluted points made of thin flakes regional chert or flint rocks, such as Bayport chert, Mercer flint, Onondaga flint, Kettle Point  or Haldiman cherts. The points are also known as “pumpkin seed” points because their shape resembles a pumpkin seed. Since the Holcombe Site discovery, Holcombe points have been found mainly in Michigan and southern Ontario, although small numbers have also been found in Wisconsin, Minnesota and northern Indiana and Ohio. Holcombe points are by no means the oldest spearheads in North America, as they are believed to be more recent that Clovis, Barnes and Gainey points. Nonetheless, they are still very old, and provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people who lived in Michigan 11,000 years ago.

So what did I see when I went to visit the Holcombe Site? Well, not much, unfortunately. The only thing visible is a historical marker erected in 1977. The marker only states that it is “near” the site of the excavation, so I can’t even be sure I was standing on the actual site or not. Even though there wasn’t much to see, I’m still glad I checked it out. The marker is on the grounds of a school on the corner of Dodge Park and Metropolitan Parkway, surrounded by residential homes and not far from the busy commercial strip of Van Dyke. Paleo-Indians would be the last thing on anybody’s mind in such a developed area, so it is an interesting exercise to stand there and think about the fact that this was once wilderness on the edge of a massive lake, where people hunted caribou for food. Nowadays, the only caribou close by sells coffee! It is always good to remember that Michigan History goes back before Cadillac, before Marquette, even before the Algonquian tribes like the Ojibwa and Odawa. People have lived here for thousands of years and the more we can learn about the people of the past the richer our history can be.

Marker text: Near this site in 1961 archaeologists from the Aboriginal Research Club and the University of Michigan uncovered evidence of an early Paleo-Indian settlement. Here about 11,000 years ago these first prehistoric dwellers in the Great Lakes region inhabited a lake shore. Excavations of artifacts and bones reveal that for food the Paleo-Indian hunted Barren Ground caribou, a species suited to the tundra-like terrain of that era. As their environment changed, these Indians were forced to adapt to new ways of living, Different climate and sources of food required modified tools and methods of subsistence and the Paleo-Indian pattern of life developed into the culture of the Early Archaic people. The site known as Holcombe Beach is a reminder of basic changes in Michigan's physical and biological environment over the ages.

Marker text: Near this site in 1961 archaeologists from the Aboriginal Research Club and the University of Michigan uncovered evidence of an early Paleo-Indian settlement. Here about 11,000 years ago these first prehistoric dwellers in the Great Lakes region inhabited a lake shore. Excavations of artifacts and bones reveal that for food the Paleo-Indian hunted Barren Ground caribou, a species suited to the tundra-like terrain of that era. As their environment changed, these Indians were forced to adapt to new ways of living, Different climate and sources of food required modified tools and methods of subsistence and the Paleo-Indian pattern of life developed into the culture of the Early Archaic people. The site known as Holcombe Beach is a reminder of basic changes in Michigan’s physical and biological environment over the ages.

Sources:

“Holcombe Site,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holcombe_Site
“Prehistoric History,” City of Sterling Heights, https://www.sterling-heights.net/bins/site/templates/default.asp?area_2=pages/comm/history/prehistorichistory/prehistorichistory_454.dat&area_1=pages/nav/comm/history/history.dat&area_3=0.dat&area_0=0.dat&area_8=0.dat&objectid=BEB01220&ml_index=0&NC=6053X
“Holcombe,” University of Minnesota Department of Anthropology, http://anthropology.umn.edu/labs/wlnaa/points/clusters/holcombe.html

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