For over 13,000 years, beautifully crafted stone spear points and other artifacts have lain along the Sac River in Cedar County exactly where ancient Indians left them, frozen in place by the accumulation of over 13 feet of river sediment. But beginning in the 1970s, the river that protected the site began destroying it. The bank began eroding sideways, gradually destroying what archaeologists named the Big Eddy site, a unique window into Missouri's, and the nation's, past.
Recognizing that much of the erosion was due to large volumes of water released from the nearby Stockton Dam for power generation, the Kansas City District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funded five seasons of archaeological excavations at Big Eddy between 1997 and 2005. When archaeologists from the Center for Archaeological Research (CAR) at Missouri State University in Springfield began their work in 1997, they only knew for certain that it contained evidence of Indian occupation dating back about 8,000 years. But as work progressed, they discovered artifacts that are among the oldest ever found on the continent, finds made even more important because they have been little disturbed since their deposition as much as 13,000 or more years ago.
Many groups of prehistoric Indians chose the Big Eddy site as a place to camp over thousands of years. The adjacent Sac River would have provided foods such as fish, mussels, water fowl, and edible aquatic and semi-aquatic plants, while the surrounding forests and prairies contained other useful terrestrial plants and various animals such as deer and turkey. Stone was another critical resource; several different kinds of chert, the flint-like rock used to make stone tools, was readily available in the gravel bars of the Sac River and along the bluff slopes near the site.
Archaeologists divide prehistoric time into a series of periods based on general changes in how Indians lived, such as the invention of pottery or the use of agriculture. Within each period, there are numerous subperiods, cultures, and traditions based on common features such as tool types or pottery decoration. At Big Eddy, every major period is represented in the river terrace, with the more recent material near the top and the oldest artifacts 11 to 13 feet deep.
While all the remains at the site are important for understanding various aspects of prehistoric Indian life, some of the oldest deposits at Big Eddy, which date to the Paleoindian period (about 11,500 to 13,500 years old), are what make the site critically important. Paleoindian peoples traditionally have been considered the first documented inhabitants of the Americas. The ancestors of American Indians perhaps entered North America from Asia sometime around 15,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. For several millennia, they left behind only limited, scattered traces of their existence. During the Paleoindian period, there is evidence of small nomadic bands having spread throughout most of the Americas.