GROTON -- For all anyone knows, the history of Groton may well stretch back 14,000 years to a time when the last ice age had just begun to wane, leaving behind newly carved valleys and fast draining lakes.

And just as the rivers, ponds and hills that are familiar to every resident today had finally taken shape, the area's first human inhabitants may have moved in, descendants of migrants from Asia who crossed a frozen Bering Sea to North America and swiftly spread down through the entire Western Hemisphere.

Or so a pair of archeologists hired by the Historical Commission to help identify and interpret historical sites in town said Tuesday night when they gave a presentation to residents at Town Hall.

According to senior project archeologist Christopher Donta of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the town's prehistoric past can be divided into three periods -- the Paleoindian, the Archaic and the Woodland.

With the only record of human beings living in the Paleoindian period being buried fire pits and the occasional stone spear point, Donta said that very little was known of the earliest Grotonians beyond the fact that they were likely involved in the most primitive hunter/gatherer existence.

Then, beginning about 10,000 years ago, the wandering hunters of the Paleoindian period began to coalesce into groups with those in Groton falling among the Algonquin speakers. Still, very little is known of their way of life except what can be gleaned from more refined stone arrowheads.

Finally, about 5,000 years ago, definite tribes begin to be identified, among them the Massachusetts and the Nipmuks on the border of whose territories Groton is located. Pottery and horticulture become prevalent and the growing of domesticated crops. More frequently, the location of their camps are discovered mostly along riverbanks, and enough evidence exists to reconstruct the types of shelter they lived in, how they hunted and their domestic arrangements.

And that was where Indian culture stood when Europeans first arrived in the New World. In 1655, Groton was incorporated as a town and no doubt when settlers arrived in the area, they first encountered its native residents. But by then, the pattern of friendly greetings, resentment among the natives over how the settlers treated the land, and finally open hostility, had already been established.

Groton entered a period of intermittent warfare with the local inhabitants until the natives were finally exterminated, assimilated, or forced to move farther west. After that, history took a course that for generations every school child has learned: Revolutionary War, Civil War, the age of industry and political triumph.

Donta was accompanied Tuesday night by fellow archeologist and historian Sheila Charles, who brought listeners up to date on Groton's history from colonial era personalities such as Lydia Longley to Revolutionary War hero William Prescott to local politicians and women's rights advocates.

What Donta and Charles underlined was that even though the recorded history of Groton is well known and something residents should be proud of, by contrast, little is known of its precolonial past. But that past is not completely irretrievable. Evidence of it exists, if only it can be identified and more importantly, preserved and protected.

Such is the aim of the Historical Commission in its ongoing project to survey the town's archeological sites.

"All of these projects are charged to provide information to the Planning Board so that the historical resources can be protected," commented commission member Michael Roberts. "At the same time, they're also intended to give information to our citizens about their heritage. This town is of world level significance historically."

The archeological survey is being paid for with a $35,000 appropriation from the town's Community Preservation Committee funds and is part of a wider effort by the Historical Commission to identify every structure, property, and site of historical significance in town. The results are to be used for reference by land-use boards when making their own decisions regarding local development. 

Anyone who knows of any potential site of historical or archeological interest is urged to contact the Historical Commission or Donta himself at 413-577-0777.