of North Carolina: A Basic Cultural Sequence
The prehistory of North Carolina spans a period of at least 12,000
years, during which time native (Indian) cultures developed, flourished,
and changed. Their technologies also changed, as is readily evident
in the varieties of such items as arrowheads (projectile points)
and pottery. In dealing with the many changes and varieties of artifacts,
archaeologists employ a vast array of terms, many of which have
specific implications for the level of cultural complexity and development,
the relative or absolute age of cultures or artifacts, and the geographic
distributions of cultures and artifacts.
In this brief article we introduce four of the most commonly used
terms in studies of prehistory in North Carolina and in the Eastern
United States as a whole: PaleoIndian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian.
These terms refer to the general cultural periods in prehistory,
and are basic references in any discussions of sites or artifacts.
The sequence of these periods comprises what is generally referred
to as the cultural-historical framework, culture history, or cultural
sequence (often used interchangeably).
Some of the basic characteristics of each of the periods are listed
here. As with all things in prehistoric archaeology, some of the
characteristics may not be exactly the same for all areas of the
state. Like today, many differences existed from one end of the
state to the other. [Link to the Projectile
Point Chart for a visual of the sequence and point types.]
Dates: 12,000 (or more) to 9,500 years before present
Climate: cooler and wetter than today, with temperatures
from 5 to 11 degrees F lower on the average, and more abundant rain,
though spread more evenly through the year. Sea level was over 100
feet lower than today.
Vegetation: spruce-pine parklands and neartundra
conditions in the mountains and foothills; oak-beech-hickory-hemlock
forestsin the piedmont and coastal plain.
Artifacts: fluted and unfluted (Clovis, Hardaway,
and possibly Palmer) spear points and knives; scrapers made on large
flakes for working hides, wood, and bone; baskets may also have
Settlements: poorly understood, but probably small
camps of seasonally-mobile family groups who hunted deer, elk, bear,
and possibly caribou. No evidence exists for hunting of extinct
animals like the mastodon or ground sloth. Gathering of plant foods
was probably important.
Dates: ca. 9,500 to 4,000 years B.P.
Climate: gradual changes; temperatures and rainfall
similar to today, with some evidence of a particularly warmer and
drier period ca. 6,500 B.P.
Vegetation: similar to today, with deciduous forests
and developing pine forests, especially in the coastal plain. Swamp
communities developed as sea level rose.
Artifacts: variety of stone projectile points (Kirk,
bifurcates, Stanly, Morrow Mountain, Guilford, Halifax, Savannah
River, and others), knives, scrapers, drills and others. Ground
stone tools, including axes and atlatl weights, were developed,
along with carved stone bowls (soapstone). Baskets, nets, mats,
canoes and other items of wood or other perishable materials were
also probably common, but have not survived at sites.
Settlements: many Archaic period sites are known,
ranging from small hunting camps to large base camps or small villages;
stone quarries are also known. Campsites are assumed to have been
occupied seasonally to take advantage of the seasonally available
plants and animals. Group sizes may have ranged from single families
to several families (bands).
Dates: 4,000 to ca. 400 years B.P. (varies somewhat
across the state)
Climate: essentially the same as today, with some
Vegetation: same as today, with the addition of
virgin forests and better soil conditions before disturbance by
European-style farming practices.
Artifacts: first use of the bow and arrow; introduction
of pottery vessels for cooking and storage; development of agricultural
practices (corn, beans, squash, sunflowers). Small triangular arrowheads
are common, along with many varieties of pottery. Earthen burial
mounds were used, but were not common.
Settlements: large and small camps are common, as
are larger and permanently occupied villages with substantial houses
of wood or wattle and daub with thatched roofs. Some seasonal movements
to collect available plants or hunt animals were still common.
Dates: ca 700 to 250 years B.P.
Climate: much like today.
Vegetation: much like historically documented forest
types, with localized modifications due to burning for agriculture
Artifacts: similar to the more generalized Woodland
period items, with the addition of new ceramic designs and art motifs,
and the construction of elaborate temple mounds and political centers.
Settlements: probably much like the settlements
of the Woodland cultures, plus villages associated with the temple
(Note: Mississippian groups appear to have been limited
to the southern and western portions of the state, and may, in some
instances, have been intrusive to otherwise Woodland level cultures.
Both the later Woodland and Mississippian peoples often built stockades
or palisades around their villages.)
Reprinted by permission from the NEWSLETTER of
the Friends of North Carolina Archaeology, Inc., Summer 1984, Volume
1, Number 1. © North Carolina Archaeological Society 1984
of the Past: North Carolina's First Peoples
• North Carolina’s First Colonists: 12,000
Years Before Roanoke