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A mystery in the Green Mountains

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Author Topic: A mystery in the Green Mountains  (Read 74 times)
Jill Elvgren
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« on: August 28, 2007, 11:10:41 pm »

A mystery in the Green Mountains

Published: Friday, August 17, 2007
By Susan Green
Special to the Free Press

Fred Wiseman and Ted Timreck at ECHO in Burlington

Deep within the Green Mountain National Forest, an enormous pile of rocks has people puzzled. In "Hidden Landscapes," a documentary screening twice this weekend during the Lake Champlain Maritime Festival on the Burlington waterfront, a group of scientists are seen observing this 20-by-30-foot cairn.

Among them is Stephen Loring, an anthropologist who conducts archaeological, ethno-historical and paleo-environmental research for the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. "I think we all agree that we don't know what's going on here," he says to the other men scrutinizing the mysterious structure. "It's so perplexing."

The film, a work-in-progress by Ted Timreck, is full of details about the original inhabitants of this region. With the suspense of a great detective novel, his cinematic saga challenges long-held assumptions about Champlain Valley civilization through the examination of stone.

Timreck, a New York City-based filmmaker and Smithsonian research associate, traces Loring's three-decade quest: In the late 1970s he came across a translucent Native American fluted point near the Missisquoi River, but did not identify its genesis for another 25 years.

Previously, Smithsonian scientists thought native people from these shores had reached northern Labrador 4,000 years ago. In 2004 Loring experienced a breakthrough leading to a different hypothesis. He determined that the Vermont point was at least 10,000 years old and fashioned from "Ramah chert," a volcanic rock found only on the coast of Labrador.

"That's 1,600 nautical miles," Timreck notes. "The theory is that Paleolithic people brought the Ramah chert here by boat when Lake Champlain was still a sea."

The frozen configurations of the last Ice Age mean these ancestors "had to adapt to hunting Arctic animals," he adds, "so developing full Arctic maritime capability was essential. A culture that could do that is, by implication, a gee-whiz phenomenon."

Artifacts such as the Mississquoi point are generally considered "Clovis," a name derived from the first prehistoric spear tips found anywhere in the United States; they were excavated during the 1930s in Clovis, N.M.

The term Clovis designates an era when the first human beings supposedly migrated to North America from Siberia, no earlier than 13,000 years ago. Thanks to recent eureka moments, that geography and timeframe are both in dispute.

"The Siberians are thought to have evolved into Clovis people," Timreck explains. "The question of pre-Clovis in the New World is the big issue now, however. Who they might have been is up in the air."

While an identity remains elusive, he acknowledges, "We're finding artifacts that carbon-date at 16,000 to 17,000 years old."

Consequently, experts have begun to revisit the former notion that North Americans didn't build boats until about 7,000 years ago. "Seafaring was supposed to be the skill only of smart Europeans," Timreck says. "But all kinds of little discover ies begin to shatter the overarching idea that the Clovis were the first people to arrive. History now opens up in a different way and it's all about the Champlain Basin."

Loring surmises that the Ramah chert point may have been the business end of a harpoon for hunting walruses, seals and whales in the salty Champlain Sea, according to Timreck. (If this sounds absurd, check out the skeleton of a 12,000-year-old beluga whale -- dubbed Charlotte for the Chittenden County town where it was unearthed in 1849 --that's exhibited at the University of Vermont's Perkins Geology Museum in Delehanty Hall.)

Timreck's narration compares "the maritime revolution of the last Ice Age" to the space race of the 1960s, with peripatetic paleo-indians akin to 20th-century astronauts and cosmonauts.

The film includes two prominent Vermonters. The late Jim Peterson, an associate professor of anthropology at UVM, was pivotal in persuading the scientific community to take notice. Abenaki tribal historian Fred Wiseman, an archaeologist and chair of the humanities department at Johnson State College, continues to collaborate with Timreck.

Many researchers are intrigued by the 10,800-year-old bone sewing needle, found somewhere out West, that Smithsonian paleo-indian/paleo-ecology program field director Pegi Jodry displays in the film. "It indicates the use of fine thread and very thin materials," Timreck says.

Wiseman senses a profound implication. "These folks were a heck of a lot more advanced than anyone assumed," he suggests. "The legacy from Jim Petersen is the idea of natives in cloth, not just in buckskin and beads. It's a new image. "

"The needle tells it all," Timreck muses. "Everything else is just stones in the ground."

Perhaps, but what magnificent stones they seem to be.

Another focus of "Hidden Landscapes" is the long-simmering controversy about who was responsible for the stone chambers that dot the southeast Vermont countryside. State archaeological officials contend they are colonial root cellars, while others have insisted these megaliths were the work of Bronze Age Celtic mariners. Initially, nobody suspected an even older and more homegrown source: indigenous Pleolithic people.

"There is evidence of native stonework," Petersen says on camera. "We have underappreciated native capabilities."

Timreck has a similar assessment: "Nobody had dreamed of Eastern native peoples as being that sophisticated."

For Wiseman, the issue is affirmation. "Native people in the Northeast were always believed to be exceedingly primitive," he points out. "Yet we've got some of the earliest mounds in this area. But do you see that mentioned in anthropology textbooks? Hell, no!"

In the film, a Narragansett medicine woman named Ella Sekatau underscores that opinion: "They don't want to give the Indians credit for anything!" Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, two men aerospace engineer Byron Dix and oceanographer Jim Mavor, both now deceased methodically investigated a Windsor County megalith. They called it Calendar One, because of the site's probable purpose for unknown builders at an undetermined time, and took precise measurements during solstices and equinoxes to discern astronomical alignments.

Similar stone structures have been identified across the country and some people envision them as ceremonial sacred spaces. "These sites are inhabited by spirits," theorizes Rosita Worl, an anthropologist from the Tlingit tribe in Alaska interviewed by Timreck. "Shamans would come here to commune with the spirit world." "There are secrets here, perhaps," speculates Evan T. Pritchard, a history professor in upstate New York with an Algonquin Micmac heritage.

Timreck's footage of the Dix-Mavor collaboration dates back to 1976. "Even if the stone ruins weren't constructed by Native Americans, it's utterly insane to think this was done without their knowledge, unless we foolishly believe the United States was a totally uninhabited wilderness," he says.

"Hidden Landscapes" -- on tap at 7 p.m. today and Saturday at the Lake & College Waterfront Performing Arts Center -- is two hours long. It's the first segment of what Timreck plans as a six-part documentary that he'll finish by July 2009, which marks the 400th anniversary of French explorer Samuel de Champlain's "discovery" of the lake that bears his name.

For that quadricentennial, the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center intends to "tell as much of the Abenaki story as we can," says executive director Phelan Fretz. "It's a rich moment when there's a shift in how academics think about history. How wonderful that we can help facilitate that conversation." He's also pleased that the Timreck film "has opened doors for us at the Smithsonian."

While creating programs for the PBS shows "Nova" and "American Masters," Timreck began his association with the Smithsonian in the 1970s. The prestigious institution has since sent him sent all over the planet Iceland, Russia, Scandinavia, Alaska, the Baffin Islands to document what its scientists are doing. In 1979, that work took him to Labrador, where he met Stephen Loring.

Timreck marvels that Loring's revelations about Vermont are so new that "science has to go back to the drawing board to figure out what happened. There's no synthesis yet, except in a movie like this. People were in these hills, even though nobody so far understands how they got here or why. This place couldn't have been empty."
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