Learning from the past: where people lived changed over time

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

In your travels and when looking at maps of Georgia, you can see that today’s human population is irregularly distributed across the state. There’s a huge demographic core in metro-Atlanta, with additional centers around Augusta, Savannah, Columbus, Macon, and Athens. And the rest of Georgia is spotted with smaller communities, modest rural occupation, and even unoccupied areas like Wilderness Areas.

2010 census GA by tract

2010 census map of Georgia, with population aggregated by census tract (downloadable online here from the US Census).

You should not be surprised to discover that prehistoric peoples also lived in population centers, small hamlets, and perhaps individual households scattered across the landscape, and that there were also unoccupied areas.

SGA members have recently received copies of the Spring 2011 issue of Early Georgia. Perhaps you’ve also read the first article, “Examining Variation in the Human Settlement of Prehistoric Georgia,” by John A. Turck, Mark Williams, and John F. Chamblee.

The trio used locational data archived at the Georgia Archaeological Site File in Athens to examine changes in settlement patterns across the state from Paleoindian times, as much as 11,500 years ago, through about 1600, when Europeans incursions began to extensively disrupt Native American lifeways.

TWC Georgia regions 600 high

Map of Georgia’s physiographic districts from the Turck, Williams, and Chamblee article. The Fall Line is the black squiggle across central Georgia.

Among the many comparisons the authors make is to look at settlement patterns above and below the Fall Line. The Fall Line extends across the state, roughly from Columbus through Macon to Augusta, and divides the southern Coastal Plain from the Piedmont and mountain areas.

This difference was quite important then, and still affects how we use the land today. The soils of the lands separated by the Fall Line are different, as are the living things that inhabit the regions—both plants and creatures. As noted by Mack S. Duncan in the New Georgia Encyclopedia:

The fall line is a geological boundary about twenty miles wide that runs across Georgia northeastward from Columbus to Augusta. As the Mesozoic shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean, it separates Upper Coastal Plain sedimentary rocks to the south from Piedmont crystalline rocks to the north. The fall line is notable not only for the geological relationship but also for the impact that the geology had on early transportation and consequently on commerce and society.

Duncan notes the abrupt change in elevation along the geological boundary means that rivers crossing the Fall Line have shoals or waterfalls, hence the name. The Fall Line also was a barrier to navigation for boats that were able to navigate upstream from the oceans, until locks such as those in Augusta were constructed.

The sandier soils of the Coastal Plain and the clayier soils of the Piedmont support different ecological communities, and offer differing agricultural potential.

Among the conclusions the authors make from their analysis is that statistically more people occupied the Coastal Plain—especially the barrier island zone—in the Late Archaic, as compared to the previous period and to the area above the Fall Line (page 19); however, the McCaysville Basin area on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains along the Tennessee Line also had a high density of Late Archaic occupations.

Read the full article by Turck, Williams, and Chamblee for more fascinating nuggets about Georgia’s prehistoric past. This information is only apparent now that researchers have aggregated decades of archaeological information, supported in part by your tax dollars.

Can you think of other analyses that could be insightful and could be performed on data on the thousands of known archaeological occupation locations across Georgia?

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