An update on the Archaic period across North America

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.edu)

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You may not know that PDFs of back issues of the Society for American Archaeology’s magazine The SAA Archaeological Record are available for free, except for the latest issue. Volume 8, number 5, dated November 2008, is a topical issue, discussing the “New Archaic.” The seven articles were edited by Ken Sassaman, who also provides an excellent introduction. They examine data from different regions of North America, including two on patterns observed in the coastal Southeast.

Sassaman’s introduction, “The New Archaic, It Ain’t What It Used To Be,” discusses how the old idea that the Archaic was the time before agriculture and extended village life is now discredited. Indeed, archaeological research now shows that the Archaic period encompassed regional variation and considerable diversity. Sassaman notes:

One of the most striking discoveries of late are the monuments made of earth and shell by mobile hunter-gatherer populations as early as 7,000 years ago. Showcased in this issue are early mounds of the Southeast. This region boasts the most varied, dispersed, and ancient record of monument construction on the continent, and archaeologists are puzzling over the implications of these novel data for issues of broad anthropological relevance. [pg. 6]

He goes on:

In addition to the more ancient mounds of northeast Louisiana, the Southeast holds evidence for other types of monumental architecture that predate Poverty Point. Generally consisting of shell, the mounds, ridges, and rings of the South Atlantic and Gulf coast have survived the nineteenth-century bias of being considered natural phenomena, and the twentieth-century bias of being merely accumulated food refuse. [pg. 6–7]

In sum, if you are interested in reading brief but detailed syntheses of recent recent research on Archaic-period peoples, you might enjoy reading this issue, downloadable here.

Archaeologists working twenty or fifty years ago were serious and innovative researchers, however their understanding of the Archaic period differed considerably from the picture presented by the articles in this magazine. Is this difference due only to the substantial data that has been assembled in the interim? What other variables are there?