Reconstructing the Past: Archaeology and Experimentation

Submitted by Scott Jones (

Archaeologists seeking to reconstruct past lifeways rely for their interpretations on the timeworn remains of ancient cultures for guidance; here in our humid Georgia climate, we are further disadvantaged since often only the inorganic residues of prehistoric culture remain. The study of stone tools, sherds of pottery, and the scant remnants of organic items and foods have helped to reconstruct much of the detail of aboriginal life since the arrival of people at the end of the Ice Age. But, unlike our counterparts in arid regions who are able to examine directly numerous organic artifacts preserved in dry caves and rock shelters, experimental archaeologists working in the Southeast are not rigidly bound to a list of facts about the material culture of the native peoples; we seek, at best, to present a range of available technological possibilities. These possibilities extend beyond the reconstruction of material archaeological remains; by combining aspects of archaeology, ethnography, and natural history, a world of organic materials normally hidden from the archaeologist’s trowel emerges. Rarely are we fortunate enough to glimpse the artistry of fibercraft, basketry, and woodworking that doubtless flourished in the prehistoric Southeast. Several flooded sites in Florida have yielded substantial organic remains; we believe that similar objects were probably commonly in use in what is now Georgia.

Such interpretive freedom is a mixed blessing since, on the one hand, one may experiment with ideas and adjust perceptions of prehistory; on the other, one must be attentive to the realities of Stone Age life provided by archaeology, and thus rein in unrealistic ideas before they wander too far afield. To the informed student of primitive technology falls the task of responsibly filling in gaps in our knowledge by recognizing, using, and documenting the wealth of possible material resources in our environments.

Starting with the oldest identifiable culture, the following text covers the next 12,000 years, from the long periods of hunting and gathering known as the Paleoindian and Archaic periods, to the early horticulturists of the Woodland period, and the maize-producing agriculturalists of the Mississippian period, ending with the arrival of Europeans in recent times. While some traditional crafts are still practiced by Indians of the Southeast, much of the accumulated knowledge of the past 12,000 years was lost through the unfortunate acts of the Europeans who ultimately came to dominate North America.


Paleoindian: 12,000-10,000 BP

While a growing body of evidence suggests that people inhabited the New World by about 13,500 years ago (often referred to as the Pre-Paleoindian period), the first definable, widespread culture appeared around 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. The dry, windswept landscape was strongly shaped by, but just out of reach of, the massive continental ice sheet that lay a few hundred miles to the north. The coastal lowlands extended far beyond the present coast, because massive amounts of the ocean’s water locked up in polar ice sheets lowered sea levels. In this landscape of boreal forest and grassland, these earliest Americans coexisted briefly with numerous Ice Age mammals that are now extinct. In the Southeast were found wooly mammoth, mastodon, and ancient bison, as well as living species including caribou, elk, and deer.

Paleoindian sites are rare and their distinctive projectile points are scarce, often found in the Southeast only as isolated artifacts. Paleoindians are believed to have migrated across the land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska (a consequence of lower sea levels during glacial times). Their lifestyle was one of hunting and gathering, and the few well preserved kill sites discovered in the Western US indicate an emphasis on large game. This is likewise reflected in their tools: wellmade projectile points, sometimes bearing a characteristic channel flake removed lengthwise from the base (fluted points); long narrow flake blades struck from prepared cores; and unifacial scrapers manufactured by the removal of many small flakes from the edge of a larger flake, thus forming a beveled planing tool. This technology is quite similar to that of the Old World Upper Paleolithic, and attests to the origins of the earliest inhabitants of the New World. Because winters were severe, access to good stone was limited, and the animals these people hunted were often large and dangerous, the stone tools of the Paleoindians were made from the highest quality materials available and were used for as long as possible. To get the most possible use from them, they were often resharpened many times before being discarded.

The specific hunting weapons used by Paleoindians are the topic of speculation; while some projectile points are large enough to be used as tips for heavy thrusting or stabbing spears, most of those found in the Southeast are small enough for use on lighter projectiles thrown with a spear thrower. No direct evidence for spear throwers has been found, and the scarcity of Paleoindian sites does not favor the recovery of an actual spear thrower, yet the Old World flavor of the artifact assemblage favors the presence of this weapon for the pursuit of large, dangerous, and now largely extinct prey.

Archaic: ca. 10,000-3000 BP

Early Archaic: ca. 10,000-8000 BP

At the close of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, a people who once lived by hunting a variety of large game were forced to alter their way of life in the face of a changing climate. In the Southeast, the extinction of mammoth, mastodon, and the ancient bison, as well as the disappearance from the region of modern species such as elk and caribou, left the whitetail deer as the principal large game animal. Along with deer, the new climate allowed forests with the same species we see today to flourish; they were dominated by oak, hickory, chestnut (now almost gone due to disease), and pine. Focusing on deer, black bear, small game, and mast (nuts) from the mature forests, Early Archaic peoples adopted a generalized hunting and gathering lifestyle with a greater reliance upon plant foods than their Paleoindian ancestors.

Although population increased rapidly in the new, temperate environment, Early Archaic peoples still ranged far and wide, often using major river valleys as territorial corridors for foraging and travel between the Coastal Plain and the interior. Following the example set by their Paleoindian ancestors, they sought high-quality material for their stone tools. Well-made, easily maintained tools were a necessity for highly mobile bands of hunter-gatherers; yet their mobility allowed them to choose the best material from within their territory. The bow was unknown to these people; the primary weapon remained the spear-thrower (or atlatl), and the side- and corner-notched stone points they used are not really arrowheads at all. They are, in fact, tips for darts thrown with the atlatl. Using spear throwers to hunt swift game, hunters equipped lightweight darts with detachable foreshafts that allowed the stone points to serve double duty as both knife and projectile point, and also permitted easy replacement of an accidentally broken tip.

Middle Archaic: ca. 8000-5500 BP

By about 8000 years ago, a minor climatic shift (called the Altithermal) imposed its effect upon the increasing human population of the Southeast. Warmer and dryer conditions west of the Appalachians influenced people to concentrate into river valleys, while the wetter climate that prevailed to the east resulted in a general migration into the uplands. Perhaps in response to their growing population as well as climatic change, Middle Archaic peoples increased their reliance upon plant foods. Their preference for locally available stone from which to make their deceptively simple, contracting-stem projectile points indicates that they foraged in smaller territories than their ancestors. Using simple chipped-stone axes to fell modest-sized trees needed for shelter and tools, they continued to forage in much the same way as their Early Archaic predecessors. During the Middle Archaic, stone spear-thrower weights first appear, an innovation that improved the weapon’s performance. Although we suspect spear throwers had been used since the end of the Paleoindian times (and probably before), perforated stone weights provide the best hard evidence for the existence of this weapon in the Southeast.

Late Archaic: ca. 5500-3000 BP

Although many of the trends of the Early and Middle Archaic continued into the Late Archaic, it differed from them in some significant ways. In addition to relatively large stemmed projectile points, the Late Archaic was characterized by the first fired clay ceramics in North America. Plant fiber added to the raw clay strengthened (tempered) the unfired vessel. The fiber burned during the firing process, yielding a sturdy vessel bearing the impressions of plant fibers. Fiber-tempered pottery appears around 4500 BP in the Coastal Plain of Georgia and South Carolina.

More commonly found in the southern Appalachians and piedmont of northern Georgia and adjacent states are fragments of soapstone bowls. Contrary to popular belief, these carved stone bowls actually appear after the invention of ceramic pottery, about 3500 BP. The appearance of ceramic and stone vessels signaled the beginning of the end of the 8500 year-old hunting and gathering way of life that had endured since the earliest humans arrived in North America. The invention of pottery indicates a more sedentary lifestyle that included an early form of horticulture for cultivating squash (Cucurbita pepo) and gourds (Lagenaria siceraria). For in-depth information about fibertempered ceramics, soapstone bowls, and other Late Archaic cooking technology, see Kenneth E. Sassaman’s Early Pottery in the Southeast: Tradition and Innovation in Cooking Technology (1993).

The transition from hunting and gathering to sedentism is further evidenced by intensive gathering of shellfish for food along many of the rivers in the Southeast. This practice left immense piles of discarded shell, which sometimes extend for hundreds of meters along creeks and estuarine margins. Increased sedentism likewise brought about changes in axe technology. The simple chipped stone axes that well-served the needs of earlier peoples were refined to suit the rigors of house construction and limited land clearing. While hafting of Late Archaic grooved axes was apparently similar to earlier flaked stone types (a flexible twig or splint wrapped around a groove or constriction), greater durability and maintainability were accomplished by pecking and grinding the surface, and polishing the edge.

Woodland: ca. 3000-1100 BP

By about 3000 years ago, the horticulture experiments begun by Late Archaic peoples became a way of life for people of the Woodland period. Despite the name, Woodland peoples were perhaps less dependent upon the forest environments of the Southeast than their predecessors. Taking the refinements of stone axe technology a step further, the grooved axes of an earlier time gave way to a polished tapered form called a celt. Instead of fastening a flexible sapling around a groove to form a handle, the blade was fitted into a hole in the end of a club-like handle. With friction holding the celt blade securely in its haft, the club-like handle provided additional weight and momentum. This allowed Woodland farmers to clear yet larger areas of land for villages and fields.

During the early part of the Woodland period, corn (maize) had been introduced from its Mesoamerican homeland, but food production based almost entirely on native cultigens—mainly lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri), marsh elder (Iva annua), sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), knotweed (Polygonum sp.), as well as squash and gourds. Although Woodland peoples probably retained some of the hunting and gathering mobility of their ancestors, large-scale production of native seed plants provided a margin of security against food shortages during the lean months of late winter and early spring. Starchier than most wild plant foods, cultivated foods require longer cooking times. As dependence on these foods increased, so too did the demands placed upon pottery. Heavy fiber-tempered pottery gradually was replaced by thinner, more refined sand- and grittempered wares that made a lighter, sturdier vessel.

As they struggled with the new challenges of sedentism, food production, and territoriality, Woodland peoples experimented with ways of adapting their weapons to new circumstances. Surplus food afforded the luxury of remaining longer in one place, and as villages grew, competition for arable land and other resources was inevitable. Also, ambush hunting in food plots became a practical alternative to long-distance hunting forays, while serving to protect increasingly valuable food crops from animals. The venerable spear thrower—an Ice Age legacy of hunters and gatherers in nearly every part of the world— became obsolete in the face of the need for efficiency, stealth, and increased rate of fire. Although requiring a greater initial labor investment than the spear thrower, the bow—one of the most recognizable symbols of native ingenuity—became the weapon of choice for hunting and warfare. And sedentism—the practice of living more or less permanently in one place—allowed adequate storage and seasoning of bowstaves, a cumbersome commodity requiring shelter.

As with many technological innovations, the core idea of string-and-wood propelled projectiles did not spring suddenly onto the stage of prehistory; indeed, the bow was merely a technological refinement of flexible spear-thrower technology. During the developmental phase of the technology, simple, light draw-weight bows could be constructed easily from readily available materials and used for fishing or hunting small game. While a mobile hunter/gatherer could easily carry additional twofoot long wooden blanks from which to produce atlatls, the same wanderer, in seeking to make a more substantial weapon, could scarcely afford to travel about the countryside with a five-foot long nonfunctional bowstave; nor could he leave it behind to be potentially exposed to the destructive elements of the humid Eastern US. In other words, archaeologists think Woodland peoples had to stay in one place long enough for the bowstave to season, before they could finish the bow.

As in other parts of the world, the advent of agriculture and sedentism, along with necessity, resulted in the development of the bow-and-arrow, the ultimate Neolithic weapon. During the transition from spear-thrower to bow, a profusion of projectile point designs were tested as hunters sought lighter, faster projectiles. Dominated by a variety of small stemmed types and relatively large triangular points, the triangular style ultimately succeeded all others in the Southeast. By the end of the Woodland period, triangular projectile points had become much smaller. Although often called “bird points” in the mistaken belief that only small game could be taken with such a small projectile point, these tips are among the few types that may be confidently called arrowheads. Attached to rivercane arrows launched from powerful bows by skilled archers, the tiny arrow points proved fatal to the largest creatures of the Eastern Woodlands, whether deer, bear, or human.

The Woodland Period also signals the beginning of the construction of earthen mounds. Sedentism brought with it the necessity for greater social organization, and also permitted the accumulation of material goods. From this came the concept of status, and by Middle Woodland times some individuals were interred in conical earthen mounds, often with elaborate funerary items and trade goods acquired from great distances.

Mississippian: ca. AD 900-1540

Corn—or more correctly, maize—is known only sporadically in the preceding Woodland period, and certainly not until late Woodland times is it present in sufficient quantity to qualify as a significant food source across the Southeast. Yet by the time new varieties of maize as well as new ideas arrived from Mexico around AD 900, the cultural mechanisms for large-scale food production initiated in the Woodland period were firmly in place. With nearly 2000 years of horticulture experience, maize claimed a central place in Southeastern Native American culture, alongside beans, squash, sunflowers, jerusalem artichokes, gourds, and tobacco.

The Mississippian period, so called because of the extensively cultivated bottomlands of the Mississippi River, represents the most complex political organization and extensive social stratification the Woodland tradition of tribe- or clan-based villages, the Mississippi River drainage and much of the Southeast was dominated by an array of polities (or political units) known as chiefdoms. Though much of our knowledge about the geographical size of chiefdoms is lost, it is believed that some (such as Coosa, in northwestern Georgia) were quite large. Each chiefdom consisted of several villages, each of which was answerable to a central (paramount) chief or leader believed to have god-like powers, who resided on the flat-topped earthen mound, often with one or two other influential leaders living atop lesser mounds in the village compound. The head man exacted agricultural tribute from his subjects, and, during lean times he oversaw the redistribution of food and other goods to his subjects. In return, the people were required to provide labor to the chief. They constructed his house upon the spot where his predecessors had lived; upon his death, his subjects often buried him beneath the dirt floor of his mound-summit residence. Then, in accordance with custom, the house was often burned. In preparation for the new heir, a new mantle of earth was added to the mound, and a new house constructed. Thus were the great mounds of the Mississippian Indians constructed.

In addition to the chiefly mounds, the village compound often included residential houses with walls constructed of upright posts interwoven with cane or twigs, and covered with clay, roofed with thatch or bark; a council house, which occasionally took the form of a semi-subterranean earthlodge; and a central plaza, which served as a gathering place and game court. In the plaza, the men played chunkey, a game wherein spears or sticks are thrown at a rolling, wheel-like stone (a chunkey stone), often accompanied by copious gambling. The plaza was also used as a ball court for the ball game, the southern equivalent of lacrosse. A rough (and occasionally fatal) enterprise, the ball game was known as “little brother of war,” and was used to settle disputes between hostile groups as a way of avoiding outright warfare.

The chiefdom was a formidable political and military force, and Mississippian towns, enclosed in their palisades of sharpened, upright timbers, often contained populations numbering in the thousands. Equipped with powerful bows, their arrows tipped with tiny triangular stone points, garfish scales, antler, or often just sharpened cane alone, warriors defended their towns and villages. But they were entirely unprepared for that which was to come.

Historic: ca. AD 1540-1840

With the entrance of Hernando De Soto into the interior of the Southeast in 1539, the region’s history was forever changed (Hudson 1997). De Soto’s initial exploration was followed by more expeditions, first by other Spaniards (Hudson 1990), and then by the English and French (Hudson and Tesser 1994). Iron tools and other trade goods, diseases to which the natives were not immune, and the inherent disadvantages faced by Indians who survived European diseases and depredations all contributed to the devastation of Indian culture. Some groups, like the Muskogee-speaking Creeks further south, maintained considerable cultural identity, although still dependent upon European trade goods. The Cherokees of northern Georgia, however, attempted a different strategy. By the late 1700s their material culture differed little from that of their Euroamerican neighbors. Even with log houses, farms, orchards, slaves, porcelain, and a written language, they suffered much the same fate as their native kinsmen. Throughout the 1830’s they were removed to the Oklahoma Territory by decree of US President Andrew Jackson, and their homes and land were seized by white settlers. The rest is literally “history.”

References Cited

Bense, Judith A.
1994 Archaeology of the Southeastern United States: Paleoindian to World War I. Academic Press, San Diego.

Hudson, Charles
1976 Southeastern Indians. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
1990 The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
1997 Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

Hudson, Charles, and Carmen Chaves Tesser (editors)
1994 The Forgotten Centuries: Indians and Europeans in the American South, 1521-1704. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

Sassaman, Kenneth E.
1993 Early Pottery in the Southeast: Tradition and Innovation in Cooking Technology. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Scott Jones is a primitive technologist and replicative specialist who conducts frequent hands-on presentations, including programs for school children, through his firm, Media Prehistoria.
This summary is drawn from his article in ‚“Resources at Risk,” a 2001 issue of Early Georgia. In this article, titled “An Introduction to the Prehistory of The Southeast or, “They were Shootin’em as Fast as They Could Make ’em!” and Other Popular Misconceptions about the Prehistoric Southeast,” Mr. Jones sought to convey, as he put it, “a sense of context and continuity to those who are interested in the flow of time and events.”