The southeast

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The southeastern United States is not a sharply bounded region. Climate and cultural pattern alike shift by small degrees from the climax of the relatively densely populated, complex societies of the semitropical Gulf coastal belt, northward to the more scattered villages of the colder states. Historically, the vegetation of the Southeast has been dominated by pines, which were maintained by regular firings of the underbrush designed to provide good browse for the prime game, deer. Oak and other deciduous trees, many bearing edible nuts, cover the uplands rising to the great forested domes and ridges of the Appalachian Mountains. Cypress trees flourish in the extensive swamps that, with tidal marshes and lagoons along the coast itself, ring the region on the east and south. Rainfall is ample, feeding the streams that rush down the Appalachians, hurtle over the fall line where the piedmont abuts the wide coastal plain, and then meander with their rich loads of silt toward the sea. Whether they gathered from the wild or raised crops, people found most of the Southeast blessed with resources.

The core of the Southeast runs from the Savannah River in Georgia south to, but not including, the Florida peninsula, and from the Atlantic west to east Texas. Muskogean and other languages of the Macro-Al­gonkian language phylum were spoken in this core. Bordering the core on the north are three cultural and environmental regions: the continuation of the Atlantic coastal plain, inhabited by more Algonkian speakers; the Appalachians, inhabited by Macro-Siouan speak­ers; and the inland plateau, with both Algonkians and Siouans, which meets the eastern edge of the Plains where a series of Siouan-phylum languages were spo­ken. South Florida, ecologically a tropical outlier, was taken over in the nineteenth century by refugee Muskogeans filling a vacuum left a century before by the destruction of peoples whose names, but not languages, have been recorded. Linguistically, the Siouan block of Cherokee, Yuchi, and Catawba in the Appalachi­ans and adjacent piedmont contrast with the Muskogeans of the core, but culturally no strong distinctions can be made. This chapter will therefore treat the Southeast as a whole, rather than dividing it into sectors.


The Southeast would have been a desirable habitat for humans during the late Pleistocene glaciations. Parklands of mixed forests and grassy prairies, more diverse than any Holocene region, harbored a richer variety and greater density of animals than would be found in historic times. Among the game animals were mastodons and ground cloths, as well as deer. Along the Gulf coastal zone, the South American capybara (a very large rodent) and a giant armadillo flourished in tropical warmth.

Finding the remains of the early human occu­pations in the Southeast has been severely chal­lenging. Most early campsites are presumably either deeply buried under tons of alluvium in the river flood plains or submerged under fathoms of water on the continental shelf, the broad portion of the Ice Age coastal plain drowned when the re­leased waters of the melting glaciers caused rising sea levels. Searching for more accessible early sites, archaeologists have excavated rockshelters and caves and surveyed the natural terraces on the edges of river valleys. Clusters of crudely flaked pebble choppers on some of these terraces suggest to some the presence of "pre-projectile point" Pleistocene foragers who had not yet learned, or invented, tipping weapons with stone points. Crudeness is not in itself diagnostic, so many archaeologists refuse to accept the pebble tools as anything more than choppers that may have been made by travelers and campers of any period, who would have carried with them their carefully made finer tools but left behind the heavy choppers quickly knocked out on local pebbles. Excavations in rockshelters and beside mineral springs have been able to prove human occupation at the final stage of the Pleistocene epoch, when Paleo-Indians made fluted projectile points. Quantities of fluted stone points have also been collected from plowed fields, borrow pits, and other disturbed localities where cultural and dating context has been de­stroyed. These "orphan" finds, like the fluted points excavated scientifically, probably date from about10,000 B.C. to 8000 B.C. Earlier occupation in the Southeast, although possible, has not been demonstrated.

Early Archaic begins in the Southeast at the close of the Pleistocene epoch about ten thousand years ago. Triangular dart points fastened to shafts by binding secured around deeply indented ("cor­ner-notched") bases are diagnostic of the Eastern Early Archaic. The significance of the change-over from fluted-base, lance-shaped stone weapon points and knives to the smaller, triangular, notched-base forms is itself inconclusively de­bated by archaeologists: does the new style repre­sent the invasion of a new ethnic group who displaced or absorbed the Paleo-Indians, or was it really only a rather trivial technological innova­tion? About two thousand years later, tangs ("stemmed points") replace notches for hafting points and knives. Such fashion changes help the archaeologist to roughly date "orphan" stone arti­facts or the sites on which the artifacts appear.

Surveys of sections of the Southeast reveal doz­ens, even a hundred or more, identifiable Early Archaic sites in river basins. (Federal and state laws, stimulated by the National Environmental Protection Act of 1966, have since that year man­dated surveys and testing to identify archaeologi­cal data threatened by construction projects. As a result of this "CRM" [Cultural Resource Manage­ment], our knowledge of the prehistory of North America has been markedly expanded.) Along the Savannah River in Georgia, for example, Early Archaic people seem to have wintered on the coastal plain and spent summers in smaller camps on the cooler uplands. They obtained good-quality chert for their stone tools by quarrying outcrops along the Fall Line where the streams drop down to the coastal plain. Some of the best chert was carried from a source 300 kilometers ( 180 miles) away. A probable winter settlement contained pecked and ground stone adzes, and a whetstone for sharpening one, in addition to the common flaked knives and scrapers. Red ocher in the site, with a stone tablet on which it had been ground into pigment, may have been used in hide tanning, or for painting. Cobblestones had been utilized as manos for grinding on stone slabs, probably in the preparation of plant foods. The adzes suggest woodworking, even the possible building of winter houses with planed log frames.

About 5500 B.C., an apparent increase in human populations in the Southeast had achieved a den­sity at which more stable settlements seem to have developed at least in the western inland-plateau portion of the region. (On the coastal plain, the sea-level rise, which lessened only after 4000 B.C., meant an impoverishment of resources: old forests were destroyed, and the growth of marshes and shellfish beds was hampered by local fluctuations in shoreline.) A site in western Tennessee, beside the Tennessee River, lacks evidence of houses—­tents may have been the shelters—but had round graves with corpses in a bent position. Debris indicated hunting of turkeys and most of the larger animals, fishing, nutcracking, and possibly seed grinding in rough stone mortars. Deer were the preferred game, valued for their hides and bones (used for tools) as well as for their meat. Domesti­cated dogs may have aided hunters; some dogs' owners loved them enough to bury them as if they were human. Beads made from hollow bird bone, from animal canine teeth, and from stone orna­mented these ancient Tennesseans, who no doubt also created perishable costumes, wooden tools, containers, carvings, and basketry.

For us today, the most spectacular Southeast­ern sites from around 5000 B.C. are waterlogged Windover and Little Salt Springs. Little Salt Springs was a village along a mucky slough that was the cemetery for perhaps as many as a thousand corpses. The bodies were laid on branches and wrapped in grass to protect them from the mud. At Windover, close to two hundred corpses lay in the cemetery, and, as at Little Salt Springs, they had been placed on branches and wrapped or dressed, here in cloth. Wooden stakes around the burial gave added protection to the deceased at Windover. Wooden bowls, tools such as digging sticks, stone and shell artifacts, and, at Little Salt Springs, a wooden tablet with a bird carved on it were given to the dead in these ceme­teries. One young teenager buried at Windover had a bottle gourd, probably a container, and a bottle gourd was found also at Little Salt Springs. Since bottle gourds historically are cultivated plants, and since they do not seem to have been native to Florida, these gourds may indicate that the early Middle Archaic people of Florida were planting this easily-grown, useful species. The cloth pre­served in the airless peat at Windover is especially precious, for this craft seldom is recovered: at Windover, two varieties of twined fabrics have been identified. Twining is slower to produce than true weaving (in twining, the horizontal weft thread is twisted around each vertical warp thread rather than shuttled in and out as in weaving), but it makes a strong fabric and pretty designs can be worked in. In Peru where the extremely dry coastal desert preserves an abundance of ancient fabrics, twining was earlier than true weaving. Interest­ingly, the earliest twined fabrics in Peru are, like those at Windover, from around 5000 B.C.

As early as this Middle Archaic period, begin­ning some eight thousand years ago, the Appa­lachians cut eastern North America into two great provinces. The interior, western province, from the west flanks of the mountains to the prairies on the farther edge of the Mississippi Valley, seems to have been the more favorable habitat for humans, possibly in part because the network of broad rivers in the Mississippi drain­age facilitated trade. The Atlantic slope, east­ward from the Appalachians, was not a difficult place to make a living, but it lacks any easy means of north-south communication. This seems to have retarded the development of com­plex societies, whose specialists would have needed widespread trade to support their activi­ties, whether administrative or artisan. Contacts between human groups east of the Appalachians were frequent, but there is no natural channel system inviting journeys of a thousand miles, as does the Mississippi and its great tributaries.

The Atlantic-slope Middle Archaic period shared, in spite of the absence of communication by navigable north-south rivers, several styles of stone artifacts. Projectile points and knives were given squared or tapering stems instead of the rounded base notches fashionable west of the Ap­palachians. Atlantic-slope styles occur from east­ern Florida to eastern Canada, a continuity that may have been fostered by the attraction of high-­quality flaking stones, carried as much as two thousand kilometers (1,200 miles) from their sources. The warming trend climaxing in the "Thermal Maximum" (a period of less harsh winters) during the late-Middle Archaic period brought mixed oak forests throughout the eastern seaboard, encouraging similar human cultural pat­terns throughout this eastern province. Movements along the now-drowned coast would have con­stantly fanned inland as groups went up rivers to falls where fish on spawning runs could be taken. Communication probably took place when fami­lies congregated seasonally at these generous fish­ing stations. Innovations in technology could have passed fairly rapidly from valley to valley as indi­viduals met at the fish runs, at quarries, or while hunting or trapping. Perhaps bands in adjacent valleys staged fairs in the summer when food was abundant and the living easy, to exchange manu­factures, feast, gamble, dance, and...ah, avoid in­breeding by widening the pool of eligible mates.

By 3500 B.C., the beginning of the Late Archaic period, sea level was stabilizing. Shellfish beds grew along the coasts; so did middens of discarded shells as humans enjoyed the succulent morsels. Peo­ple can't live on shellfish alone—imbalance of diet aside, the time required for cracking or steaming is considerable compared to the yield in calories—but communities did settle beside shellfish beds to have one of their several food staples handy. From the beachside settlement, hunters and gatherers went out and fishermen launched their canoes. People ignored the smell of the mounds of opened shells, as people today ignore the smell of oil wells, factories, or manured fields from which they get a living.

The proliferation of shell middens in the Atlan­tic province during the Late Archaic period raises questions about the derivation of the peoples using the shellfish beds. Were they descendants of the communities of the western province who were al­ready establishing settlements at mussel beds in riv­ers such as the lower Tennessee during the Middle Archaic period? Were they descendants of Atlantic­slope communities whose earlier camps beside the less extensive shellfish beds of Middle Archaic times have been drowned by the sea? Or might they have included some colonists from northern South Amer­ica, paddling across the Caribbean?

Startling as the notion of South American im­migrants may be, it is suggested by the introduction into the southeastern Atlantic province of conch­shell gouges and "cells" (digging implements?) and, somewhat later, pottery, often associated with ring-shaped villages consisting of clean, open pla­zas encircled by dwellings and refuse dumps. The purpose of the village layout may have been to ensure good drainage by leveling and ditching. The earliest of these pottery-using Southeastern vil­lages is dated around 3000 B.C., and the cultural pattern persists for a thousand years. Closely simi­lar pottery and ring villages with heavy accumula­tions of shell refuse occur during the same period in northern South America from Panama through Colombia, where the pottery appears somewhat earlier than in the United States sites. Arguing against the postulation of colonization by large communities from South America is the fact that the Southeastern villages used stone artifacts quite distinct from those in South America, and buried their dead in the small, round graves characteristic of their predecessors, the Middle-Archaic South­easterners. The most reasonable reconstruction of events is probably that South Americans occasion­ally migrated to, occasionally traded with, north­eastern Florida and Georgia, traveling in large dugouts along the Gulf Stream current, making known to the Southeasterners the virtues of prop­erly drained village foundations and of pottery. At least eight communities rebuilt their villages to contain a central plaza, and many more adopted the new ceramic containers.

The Late Archaic period in the Southeast in­volved much more than just the appearance of pottery and the occasional ring villages. Popula­tion density reached peaks that in some areas were never to be surpassed. Deer continued, as they would until nearly the present century, to be the preferred game. Raccoons, otters, birds, turtles, fish, and shellfish were regular supplementary pro­tein sources, and nuts furnishing vegetable protein and oil were gathered in quantities and stored for winter consumption.

Cultivation of plants became established in the Southeast during the second millennium B.C. It has been suggested, though there is no particular evi­dence for it, that the ditched enclosures of ring villages may have been built to drain soil for grow­ing crops, as in the raised fields of northeast South America and Central America. The plants that were first cultivated in the Southeast were princi­pally indigenous, except for the Mexican domesti­cates pumpkins and squashes. Four seed plants were cultivated in the Southeast: sunflowers, chenopods (goosefoot), marshelder (also called sumpweed), and maygrass. Chenopod seeds pre­served in Salts Cave, Kentucky, had been popped. Hickory nuts were by far the most popular nuts, although acorns and walnuts were eaten; the hick­ory nuts, like the sunflower seeds, were valued for the oil that could be pressed from them, and the nuts could be ground into a flour. Blueberries, strawberries, persimmons, and other fruits, prob­ably wild, were enjoyed. Direct evidence of maize dates only from about 500 B.C.

A hint that Late Archaic communities may have been more sedentary than those in earlier times comes from ground-stone artifacts—time-con­suming to manufacture and some too heavy to be worth carrying to camps—becoming common in this period. Most attractive were the beautifully polished weights used with atlatls (spear throw­ers), for which carved antler hooks (used to hold the butts of javelin shafts in place) have also been discovered. These weights are popularly called banner stones and bird stones because they were shaped in geometric or bird shapes, the design enhanced by careful selection of elegantly banded rocks for the raw material. Cradling one of these little sculptures in one's hands brings alive the pride its maker must have felt in his skill in sup­plying the families of his village with good meat, hides, and bone. Late Archaic craftsworkers turned out flat-bottomed bowls from soapstone (steatite) and sandstone, heavy ground-stone axes, and smooth, polished pestles, as well as bone awls and flaked-stone dart points, knives, scrapers, and per­forators, all similar to earlier Archaic tools. Net sinkers of ground stone found at some sites indicate fishing nets; fragments of other fabrics show that both twined and woven cloth and baskets were made.

Archaeologist James Ford remarked that "the people of eastern North America began to be re­lieved of the boredom of spare time about" 1400 B.C. (Ford 1966:191). Both agriculture and large, planned towns come into the Southeast at this time. Continuity seen between everyday life in the town and Late Archaic villages indicates a persistence of native populations in the Southeast. Ford be­lieved that Olmec merchants crossed the Gulf of Mexico and went up the Mississippi River to near Vicksburg, where they established a town as head­quarters for extensive trading ventures into the Midwest and Southeast. This town is known as Poverty Point-so called, it is said, because the site is, oddly, impoverished in pottery (actually, be­cause the local plantation was satirically named Poverty Point). In other respects, Poverty Point is more impressive: 1,207 meters (39,060 feet) across, it consists of six octagon-shaped, concen­tric, man-made ridges that comprise 18.6 kilome­ters ( 1 I .5 miles) of embankments. Four "avenues" pass through the embankments. Bayou Macon, an ancient tributary of the Mississippi, is the eastern edge of the town and cuts off what would have been the eastern section of the octagons. Houses, prob­ably light wooden structures in this hot climate, were built on the tops of the embankments. The central plaza was made level by carrying in soil, ending up after several resurfacings with as much as a meter (one yard) of fill over some sections of the original ground. Bird-shaped mounds 23 and 18 meters (75.5 and 59 feet) high, and a conical mound 6 meters (20 feet) high lie within the town. The stupendous quantity of earth moved at Poverty Point is reminiscent of the huge artificial platform built at contemporary San Lorenzo in Mexico.

According to Ford's interpretation-not, how­ever, accepted by many other Southeastern archae­ologists-Olmec merchants formed an elite group at Poverty Point. Either they or native leaders founded other towns in the lower Mississippi Val­ley and nearby tributaries, maintaining trade with Poverty Point and possessing artifacts typical of it. The common people were locals who continued to make and use their traditional Late Archaic atlatl weights, dart points and knives, ground-stone axes, and round stones used in bolas to catch game (stones tied to cords and thrown so that the weights cause the cords to wind around the prey's legs). Ford suggested the ground-stone axes with grooves to secure the handle, the bolas, and the Archaic technique of drilling stone with a tubular, rather than solid, bit were taken from the Southeast to South America at this time. The Olmec mer­chants brought in, he claimed, the stone-flaking techniques that produced narrow sharp blades, the use of solid drill bits, sandstone saws, pottery, female figurines, and the cell style of ax, including imitation jade cells of a relatively soft, green stone. While stone beads and pendants were long made in the Southeastern Archaic period, Poverty Point beads include some very fine small jasper and other semiprecious stone examples, some shaped as birds or insects; the consummate skill of the artists who produced these creations suggests they may have been employed by wealthy Olmec.

In view of the excellent and abundant ceramics of the Olmec and other Mexican Preclassic peo­ples, it seems strange that only a few hundred pottery sherds (out of many thousands of artifacts) have been found at Poverty Point. Those few sherds include some thick vessels with plant-fiber tempering (added to the clay to prevent the pot from cracking as it dries), of the same type as the earliest Southeastern pottery in the shell-midden villages; some vessels tempered with ground fired clay, a custom of the Veracruz Preclassic people of Gulf Coast Mexico, but one that persisted for over a thousand years in the lower Mississippi Valley; and some pots tempered with sand. Con­trasting with the paucity of pottery, there were eleven times as many soapstone-bowl sherds as potsherds. To add to the anomaly of this elaborate town that had so little desire for ceramic pots, the most abundant artifact at Poverty Point was a fired clay ball. Numbers of these were heated in fires, then dropped into bowls of water to bring the liquid to cooking temperature, or rol led into pits to be the heating element of earth ovens.

Ford's contention that Poverty Point was planned by Olmecs is strengthened by the orientation of the principal mound-8° west of north, similar to the orientations of Olmec centers. Olmec interest in magnetic stone is echoed at Poverty Point, where the green stone used for apparently ceremonial axes is magnetic, and where hundreds of well-shaped, pol­ished plummets of iron ores, including magnetite, have been recovered. Astronomy was another con­cern of the Poverty Point architect. At equinox, an observer atop the highest mound and facing across the lower ramp and terrace on its east side sights the sunrise. Two of the "avenues" through the concentric embankments may have been aligned to sunset at the solstices.

It would be expected that Olmec merchants would have brought seed maize to their headquar­ters town. The selection of prime agricultural land along the river for this and smaller, culturally related towns in the lower Mississippi Valley heightens the expectation. The only evidence ad­duced for agriculture, however, is a Mexican-style metate and several manos at Poverty Point. Ar­chaic-style mortars and pestles, and simple stone grinding slabs, were also found. Ford and his collabo­rator, Clarence Webb, excavated before modern ar­chaeological techniques for recovering plant remains had been developed, so knowledge of plant use at Poverty Point has had to await more recent excava­tions. Maize was grown on circular, raised embank­ment fields in South Florida early in the first millennium B.C., but evidence for Poverty Point con­tacts has not been discovered in the Florida sites.

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