Ice Age History Served on the Rocks at The Hollow for NYS Museum’s Science Café

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I had a night at the museum the other night…sort of. It was more like a night at The Hollow in downtown Albany, and while Ben Stiller was nowhere in sight, and I didn’t have to run from the Cohoes Mastodon skeleton come-to-life, an archaeologist from the NYS Museum was in attendance, as were an assortment of 12,000 year-old stone hand tools, and the beer was flowing like the migratory patterns of the late-Pleistocene Period.

This wasn’t your typical night at The Hollow, however. A place usually frequented for its kickass concerts, for this event it looked scholarly, veiled in academia. In lieu of a drum kit and stage speakers stood a pair of microphones and a projector illuminating the white presentation screen with the talk’s title, “Coming in to the Country: The First New Yorkers and the Ice Age Landscapes of New York.”

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It only took one Facebook reminder and about five minutes of deliberating before I jumped in my car and made the drive to Albany on the balmy, foggy Tuesday night, arriving just in time to grab a pint, a seat, and kick back to learn a thing or two about New York’s first prehistoric peeps at Science Cafe.

Science Cafe is a little off-site educational program presented by the NYS Museum and the Downtown Albany BID that escapes the museum and brings history to the people once a month. At a bar. Genius! Think of it as a sort of TED Talk, but focused around current research topics being studied at the NYS Museum. The thing I like most about Science Cafe is that it literally embodies what it means to go Two Buttons Deep: wherever you need to go, or whatever you need to do to kick back and get into some good conversation with people you care about. Or in my case, an archaeologist and bunch of strangers. But the point is, wherever the Two Buttons Deep philosophy takes you, be sure to go with an open mind and a clean liver.

Apparently, Science Cafe has bounced around a few spots in Albany before establishing a permanent home on stage in the back room at The Hollow, and the crowd was robust, with standing room only spots for some of the late comers. Sure, it was a slightly older crowd, but that didn’t bother me; we were all there to learn and have a drink.The event was scheduled for an hour, revving up just after its 6PM start time, and stayed right on track. Dr. Jonathan Lothrop, archaeology curator at the NYS Museum, gave an interesting mini lecture for about 20-30 minutes on the people and landscapes of a subarctic, prehistoric New York, and then the floor was opened up for questions from the amateur archaeologists in the audience. We even got to take a close look at 12,000 year-old stone hand tools, so that was pretty damn cool.

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Dr. Jonathan Lothrop, NYS Museum curator of archaeology, showing off prehistoric handiwork: 12,000 year-old stone tools.

So, how did a gal like me end up at an event like this? I went because I wanted to channel my inner Indiana Jones and relive my days as a badass archaeologist. Holding a BA in Anthropology/Archaeology might seem like BS to some, but for me, there’s something inherently cool about making connections to those who were here before us, enduring unthinkable hardship in the quest for survival. Plus, I thought it would be interesting to learn a thing or two about my native New Yorkers.

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Just me catching some shade from the afternoon Mediterranean sun in a 2,500 BC excavation site in southern Cyprus.

With previous discussions ranging from, “Birds and Beer,” to, “New York State in World War I,” there’s a topic for everyone to enjoy and deep dive into a little further, hops in hand. 

So, if your inner Malacologist ever needs a change of scenery, or the armchair historian in your life might enjoy learning a little more about her hometown of Beverwijck, then be sure to keep an eye on the Science Cafe Calendar, because I know you can’t wait to be smitten by the fascinating lives of freshwater mussels! The best way to do this is to keep tabs of the “Events,” on the The Hollow Bar + Kitchen / NYS Museum Facebook Pages.

Overall, the night was really interesting and just the right length of time to fit something different into my schedule without wanting to gouge my eyes out. While I’m not usually the type of student who likes sharing her notes with the slackers, here are five things I learned from last night’s Science Cafe that I think you’ll enjoy:

1. There’s a 12,500 year-old site 30 miles south of Albany

West Athens Hill, in Greene County, NY, is well known as one of the oldest prehistoric archaeological sites in New York, dating back to 12,500 years ago, and documents one of the earliest encampments of Native Americans who colonized New York at the end of the Ice Age. These peoples probably immigrated into New York along river valleys from the west or south, perhaps drawn by resources of the Hudson Valley and the Champlain Sea, but they were here first, so move over, Troy – they’re the OG hipsters.

2. Longtime NYS Museum exhibit depicts Ice Age Hunters

If you’ve been to the NYS Museum at all in the last 30 years, then chances are you’ve taken a stroll through the South Hall and had a look at the ongoing Native Peoples of New York exhibits. Among the Native American Archaeology exhibits is this, “Ice Age Hunters: a life group interpretation of Paleoindian peoples at the West Athens Hill site, Greene County.” Can you believe that this scene might be the prehistoric equivalent to that time you and your crew called an Uber in front of the Ruck last weekend? I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.

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3. Fred Flintstone Would Be Proud

While the earliest Paleoindians weren’t operating bronto cranes like Fred did back in Bedrock, the West Athens site was the Slate Rock and Gravel Company of the late-Pleistocene Period in this region. These earliest New Yorkers hit the lithics lottery when they discovered a stone called Normanskill Chert, the most cherished and sought after stone by the Paleo groups that hunted in New York State. Excavations at the site over the years have revealed how these people systematically mined the distinctive green chert found on this hilltop to fashion spear points and other stone tools to support their hunting and gathering life way.

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NYS Museum Prehistoric/Contact-Era Native American Collections. Projectile Points found at the West Athens Hill site.

4. The Original Rolling Stones

There are seven prominent sites throughout the Northeast, with locations ranging as far South as the Chesapeake Basin in Maryland and as far North as northwest Maine, that have traces of Normanskill Chert. Since these chert sites are found up to 280 miles from stone city, aka West Athens Hill, it proves just how mobile these people were, and how important this stone was to their survival. While my paleo math may be a little rusty, the longest trips were 500-600 miles round trip, so in order to endure the journey these nomadic hunter-gatherers traveled in seasonal camps of extended families, with up to about 20-25 members.

Furthermore, because they traveled in such large groups with varying ages and abilities, they were only as strong as their weakest link. Therefore, more often than not, the routes they took were situational, meaning if one route was more efficient, but more dangerous, they had to consider the overall ability of the group before continuing. These people put in some serious miles just to get their hands on this stone for hunting and survival. It’s hard to believe we roll our eyes when we have to go into the next room to grab a fork when we’re eating takeout. Forget #FirstWorldProblems, try #ModernDayProblems.

5. “Love is Fleeting, Stone Tools are Forever.”

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, what better way to sprinkle the caveman/woman in your life with a little Stone Age sugar? Some of this is just a little archaeology humor that was shared last night, but with some stone tools found in Africa dating back 2.8 million years, and the obvious importance of stone stools to early New York man’s lifestyle, one thing’s certain: man has always been sharp. Maybe we have it all wrong, and stone tools are really the gift that keeps on giving. It will be sure to come in handy the next time you’re processing caribou hides. You can bet if the earliest New Yorkers had any kind of horsepower whatsoever, this saying would be on a bumper sticker.

Maybe popping into a Science Cafe it just what you need to drink for a good cause and get in touch with your inner scholar every once in awhile. And while you’re at it, since admission to the NYS Museum is FREE, why don’t you consider changing up your Sunday Funday by hitting up the museum post-brunch? After all those mimosas, your brain cells with thank you for the stimulation.



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Author: Katie

Daring and cheerful. An adventure waiting to happen. Mountain lover, explorer, storyteller, Oxford comma-enthusiast, hard cider aficionado.

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