Natural Setting | Paleoindian
| Archaic | Woodland
| Mississippian | Caribbean
European Exploration | American Independence and Westward Expansion | The U.S. Through the 19th and 20th Centuries
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Geography and Environmental Conditions of the Southeast
The eastern and southern margins of the southeastern United States are bounded by the Continental Margin and Coastal Plain physiographic provinces. The Allegheny Plateaus, Appalachian Ranges, and Piedmont Plateaus physiographic provinces cut diagonally in a northeast direction across the southern states from their southwestern borders along the interior of the Gulf Coastal Plain (Thornbury 1965:1-13).
The geological history of the Southeast is quite complex and not completely understood. The waterways draining the interior of the region played a major role in both prehistoric and historic times, with rivers and streams providing easy and efficient transportation for trade and commerce, as well as sustenance in the form of fish, shellfish, and the migratory waterfowl that pass through two times a year. These watersheds improved the land for agriculture with periodic deposits of fresh sediments. They also provided the energy to drive the mills of the Industrial Revolution when it later spread across the area.
Throughout the prehistoric periods, both localized and widespread deposits of cryptocrystalline rocks provided Native American groups with the raw material for piercing cutting, scraping, and boring tools. Likewise, deposits (some localized) of sedimentary and metamorphic rocks were sources for ground and polished tools, ornaments, and containers. In areas such as the coastal plain and coast, where stone was rare or absent, they traded for these materials or substituted shell, wood, and bone as raw material to fashion tools and other implements.
The ecological zonation of the region is a product of its climate, geology, and geomorphology. The Temperate Deciduous Forest Biome in the southern and lowland region of the United States is characterized by three concentric forest zones: the oak-hickory forest of the interior, pine lands in the middle, and the magnolia-maritime forest along the coast. Within each of the major forest zones a variety of microenvironments, created by the interaction of local soil, landscape relief, drainage, and climate over time, are present (Shelford 1963:1-119). The major fauna, such as deer and large fowl, were present throughout these zones. These animals were important to the first Americans, as well as to later arrivals such as the European immigrants and the African slaves. To be sure, some important species of shellfish had restricted distributions, but where these were absent, other resources were handily exploited.
The continental Southeast is generally characterized by a temperate climate with the exception of the Everglades, a small subtropical zone of southern Florida. Plant, animal, and mineral resources were abundantly distributed across the region so that no human society had to endure a particularly hostile natural environment. The abundance of this natural world is seen archeologically by the recognition that, throughout the human history of the area, culture continued to evolve in complexity over time.
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Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands Regional Summary
The Caribbean is composed of two distinctive chains of islands: the Lesser and Greater Antilles. The Lesser Antilles are a line of mainly volcanic islands sweeping northward from the island of Trinidad, near the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela. This island chain continues northward to the three American Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix), where they meet the Greater Antilles.
The Greater Antilles consist of four large islands: Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (containing Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, and Jamaica. While there is evidence of volcanism in the Greater Antilles, they are, for the most part, a submerged mountain range jutting westward into the Caribbean for over a thousand miles. To the north of Cuba and Hispaniola are the low-lying Bahamian Islands. All of this area, and usually the eastern coast of Venezuela, is collectively called the Caribbean Cultural Area.
Rouse (1992) states that most of the islands are within sight of each other, facilitating inter-island travel. He also states that the ocean currents flow south to north and east to west. The trade winds blowing from the northeast bring heavy rain. When an island is mountainous, the rain is dumped on the north and east side of the mountain leaving the other side dry. The rainforest-to-semiarid environment affected the overall settlement patterns on the islands. In general, the climate and vegetation are tropical. Rouse also states that the "forest contained an abundance of wild fruit and vegetables" and "saltwater fish, shellfish, and waterfowl were available along the shore" (1992:4). Other animals found include turtles and manatees. The variation of food resources on each island prompted the development of trade networks.
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of Paleotemperature and Paleosalinity from Shells of Mercenaria
campechiensis from Seahorse Key Midden, Cedar Key, Florida
Blake, Leonard W. and Hugh C. Cutler
2001 Plants from the Past. Edited and with an Introduction by Gayle J. Fritz and Patty Jo Watson. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
Miller, James J.
1998 An Environmental History of Northeast Florida. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
1998 The Holocene: An Environmental History. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.