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The Prehistory 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.]

PALEOINDIAN PERIOD

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 been used.

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.

ARCHAIC PERIOD

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).

WOODLAND PERIOD

Dates: 4,000 to ca. 400 years B.P. (varies somewhat across the state)

Climate: essentially the same as today, with some minor fluctuations.

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.

MISSISSIPPIAN PERIOD

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 or hunting.

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 mounds.

(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

Further Reading:

Intrigue of the Past: North Carolina's First Peoples
North Carolina’s First Colonists: 12,000 Years Before Roanoke

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