The Welling site in Coshocton County is at the center of a debate about our understanding of the way of life of Ohio’s Paleoindians – the Indigenous 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 Ohio’s hill country, preferring instead to hunt big game on the flatlands of central Ohio. Supposedly, the only reason they ventured into the hills was to quarry the flint that outcropped near the Welling site, which Prufer and Seeman regarded as merely a workshop for making stone tools.
I studied the traces of Paleoindian activity in Coshocton County for my dissertation in the late 1980s and argued that Paleoindians didn’t go to Coshocton County only for the flint; and Welling wasn’t just a workshop. It was a base camp, where groups lived for weeks at a time while hunting, fishing, sharing stories, and, yes, quarrying flint from nearby outcrops and making tools.
In recent papers, Kent State archaeologist Metin Eren and colleagues reported on their studies of the stone tools from Welling, which suggested I had been on the right track. In one study, they found use-wear patterns on tools that showed Paleoindians were doing a variety of things at Welling, not just chipping flint.
They also made replicas of Paleoindian tools and compared the resulting waste flakes with the waste flakes Prufer found at Welling. They proposed that if the two sets of flakes were similar, then Welling was primarily a workshop; but if the flakes were different, then more was going on at Welling than just tool manufacture.
The flakes were different, so Eren and colleagues concluded that Welling was an “outcrop-related base camp” rather than a quarry-related manufacturing camp.
In the latest issue of the journal American Antiquity, Seeman and colleagues argue that Eren and his team got it wrong. They think that “place is often the best predictor of site functionality, and it is high-quality flint that distinguishes this small section of the Walhonding Valley.” Therefore, Paleoindians were there strictly for the flint.
In a response in the same issue of American Antiquity, Eren and colleagues point out that “by definition, an outcrop-related base camp must be located at a place with flint nearby,” so Welling’s location is equally well-suited for a base camp as for a manufacturing camp.
This debate may seem like a tempest in a tea pot – a personal disagreement among scholars that’s not worth bothering about. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In a 1989 opinion piece in the New York Times, Robert Pollack, a professor at Columbia University, wrote that “published error is at the heart of any real science”; and the back-and-forth debate to get at who’s wrong and who’s right is how “science reveals the way nature actually works.” Pollack went on to argue that “the freedom to make and admit mistakes” is what sets science apart from politics and religion.
The debate over what was going on at Welling 13,000 years ago is important; and it will lead to a better understanding of the way of life of the Indigenous peoples of Ice Age Ohio.
Brad Lepper is the Senior Archaeologist for the Ohio History Connection’s World Heritage Program