Native American Archaeology

Paleo-Indian Era – 10,000 B.C. to 8,000 B.C.

The Yadkin Valley today is very different from when the Paleo-Indians lived here. The world was nearing the end of the last great ice age. Although the giant glaciers never reached this far south, the climate here was much colder than it is now, sea levels were as much as 100 feet lower, and animal and plant life were quite different… more like that of modern-day northern Canada.

Although the Paleo-Indians lived in the Yadkin Valley for at least 2,000 years, we know very little about them. What we do know has been learned by studying their primitive stone tools and projectile points. Archaeologists have even studied discarded bones from the game they ate.

Adapting to the climate and the terrain of the late ice age, the Paleo-Indians lived a nomadic “hunter-gatherer” existence. It’s believed that they lived in small bands… perhaps family groups or extended families… moving from one temporary camp to another as they followed herds of large game, such as the caribou and bison. Being constantly on the move, they built no permanent structures and are not known to have made any form of pottery. They had no possessions beyond those they could easily carry on their backs. Because of this lifestyle, there is no evidence they observed formal burial rituals, which can be an important source of information for archaeologists.

But major changes were coming. Over several thousands of years, the warming climate at the end of the ice age brought about a greater abundance of food, which supported a gradual population increase. As the northern glaciers receded, temperatures warmed, sea levels rose, and new game and plant species appeared in the area as the older species moved north or became extinct. This period of major climatic changes marks the end of the Paleo-Indian era and the beginning of the Archaic period.

Paleo-Indian Era

Archaic Era – 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C.

The Archaic peoples were also hunter-gatherers, but archaeologists do not find evidence that large cold-weather game animals such as the caribou were still in the Yadkin Valley. They do find evidence that the Archaic People depended on white-tailed deer, bear, the small game as well as nuts, acorns, and wild greens. These changes indicate there were changes in their lifestyle and their use of tools.

Because they were less dependent on following large game herds for survival, Archaic Native Americans likely lived in temporary camps near areas of abundant food and water for longer periods of time. Stone implements and projectile points made by Archaic Native Americans assumed new forms, and their populations grew.

About 6,000 B.C., another climatic change brought about drier periods, forcing a shift to more of a “foraging” lifestyle than a traditional “gathering” one. Food was no longer so abundant that sustaining quantities of any item could reliably be found in one area. Seed and animal bone remains left in the ashes of their campfires show that Archaic bands sought a wider variety of game and a greater range of wild foodstuffs. Remains of fish bones and mollusk shell, along with the net weights and fishhooks testify to an increased dependency on the river to provide additional food. Archaeologists further suspect that this shift to a foraging culture caused them to spend more of their time in a single location, although, as was the case with their predecessors, they left no signs of permanent structures.

Another change demonstrated by the archaeological record was the adoption of the atlatl, a forearm-length wooden device used to add additional leverage and power when throwing a light spear or dart. The presence of the atlatl among the Archaic people is indicated by the presence of the characteristic stone weights (known as “bannerstones”) that were used as counterbalances.

Toward the end of the Archaic era, some of the Archaic people began to manufacture bowls of steatite or “soapstone,” a soft, easily shaped stone that is found in outcroppings in the northern Piedmont. The presence of fragments of these containers in ancient campsites indicates that the Archaic Indians were storing food and also were staying in one site long enough to make such a heavy container practical. Inspection of their stone implements also shows us a better state of finish, as they were intended for longer-term use. And Archaic peoples began to bury their dead, perhaps reflecting a greater degree of permanence in any one location.

Archaic Era

Woodland Era – 1,000 B.C. until 1,700 A.D.

The popular image of the Native American is that associated with the period from their first contact with Europeans to the present. We think of the bow and arrow, pottery, village sites and a defined tribal social order. Each of these characteristics evolved in the last 2,700 years during the Woodland Period. The presence of pottery implies that the Native American peoples had become far less nomadic than their ancestors. Indeed archaeologists find that the woodland people built and inhabited permanent structures.

What changes allowed this greater permanence? Certainly one of them was the beginning of horticulture. At first, it seems that the seed of wild edible plants was allowed to germinate and grow, probably in small patches near village sites. (A totally wild plant can be differentiated from a cultivated one by differences in the seeds found in archaeological excavations.) Later in the Woodland period, new plants brought from Meso-America begin to appear in the archaeological record. Among these newcomers were corn, squash, beans, and pumpkins, all of which would become important foodstuffs for Native Americans. With a more assured food supply, populations rose and became less migratory.

Another change was the adoption of the bow and arrow, producing a much more efficient hunting weapon. Projectile points for arrows are generally much smaller than those of its predecessors the spear and atlatl.

With a larger less nomadic population in more permanent camp or village sites, it’s likely that a more structured social system developed. The social hierarchy would have elevated some among the Native Americans to a more respected status based on their skills in leadership, hunting, warfare, and ceremony. We’re able to see some evidence of this in the wealth of goods included in some burials.

Woodland Era

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