Woodland Period - 1,000 to 3,200 Years Ago

Early Farmers

Unlike the previous and future cultural periods, the Woodland period is the most completely indigenous culture ever to exist in eastern North America. The Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Mississippian periods were either present in other parts of the world or influenced from elsewhere. The Woodland period is often characterized by increasing cultural complexity, population growth, and innovative inventions. During this time, various types of seeds and nuts were gathered extensively and stored in underground pits. This storage technique indicates the people of the Woodland period lived more sedentary lives. This is further supported by the first clear evidence of semi-permanent settlements being found in the archeological record.
Chenopodium seed pods inside white container
Chenopodium seed pods (shown) were found during the excavation of Russell Cave.

NPS Photo

It was during this time that people began to locate their base camps along flood plains of rivers to benefit from the various native seed-bearing plants as well as nut trees that were in abundance in the area. The seeds and nuts were gathered in large quantities and stored in underground pits for later use in the colder months. This allowed the Woodland people to live a more sedentary lifestyle, relying on the stored surplus and only leaving as needed to hunt, fish, or forage in the surrounding areas. From the remains that were found, archeologists have compiled a long list of wild plant foods utilized by the Woodland people, including: sunflower seeds, chenopodium (lamb's quarters) seeds, sumpweed seeds, pigweed seeds, knotweed seeds, giant ragweed seeds, maygrass seeds, hickory nuts, chestnuts, walnuts, butternuts, acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts, chinquapins, grapes, persimmons, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, honey locust pods, and pawpaws. The shape and size of sunflower seeds, chenopodium seeds, and sumpweed seeds during this time indicated that they were cultivated rather than gathered. This variation of chenopodium and sumpweed is now extinct, suggesting that they were domesticated and were dependent on people for their propagation. With the invention of pottery, the mass-gathering and storing of seeds became even more efficient.
Collection of Woodland sherds and a paddle
Woodland pottery sherds found during the excavation of Russell Cave. Top: Swift Creek sherd (left), Wright Check Stamped sherd (middle), and Napier sherd (right). Middle: Recreation of stamp paddle. Bottom: Swift creek sherds.

NPS Photo

People have been modifying earthen materials for personal use as early as 3,000 to 1,000 BCE (late Archaic period). However, the pottery that came out of the late Archaic period was simple in design and limited in quantity. It was during the Woodland period that pottery became more complex and widespread. Instead of tempering their pottery with fibrous materials, the Woodland people tempered their pots and other vessels with grit (coarse sand), crushed limestone, crushed bone, and grog (crushed potsherds) to prevent the pot from cracking as the clay dried and then hardened in an open-pit fire. This tempering method resulted in sturdier vessels that can be used for longer period of time. The final products were usually decorated with stamped, pinched, brushed, or incised designs. Stamped designs were produced by pressing an engraved paddle or a paddle wrapped in cord or fabric onto the surface of wet clay. Pinched designs were mainly done by hand, with incised and brushed designs typically produced by sharp instruments. Although pottery had become more widespread, the decorative elements and techniques varied vastly from region to region.
Pumpdrill with 3 drill bits below and bow with 3 stone points above
The Woodland people created pump-drills (recreation shown) for easier fire-starting and drilling more precise holes. They also used bow (recreation shown) and arrows to hunt woodland animals. Various stone drill bits (left) and arrow points (right) were found at Russell Cave.

NPS Photo

During the Paleo-Indian and Archaic period, spears and spear-throwers were the main hunting instruments. These weapons were exceptionally formidable when utilized by a band of hunters, which were often formed by several different nomadic groups of hunters. However, as the population became increasingly more sedentary in their lifestyle, hunting bands were formed increasingly less frequent. As the population and the number of settlements continued to increase, competition for resources also became more prominent. In the late Woodland period, around 500 – 1,000 CE, a new weapon began to make way and eventually became the preferred weapon over the spears and atlatls. This is none other than the bow, a more portable, accurate, and powerful projectile weapon. Stone projectile points were made shorter, thinner, and more triangular so they could be attached to arrows. Hunting with the bow and arrow made the activity less of a collaborative effort than it had been in the past, resulting in individual families being more self-sufficient. The origin of the bow in North America is still shrouded in mystery due to the lack of irrefutable archeological data. There are two prominent theories for the origin of the bow in North America. The first states that it was introduced to North America, and the second states it was conceived by the Woodland people independent of outside influences. Nevertheless, by the time the first Europeans arrived in North and South America, the bow had already become widespread throughout the two continents. At around the same time, usage of the pump drill had also spread across the Americas and like the bow, its origin is shrouded in mystery. The Woodland people used the pump drill mainly to bore precise holes through a variety of materials for tool making purposes. While it is possible to start a fire using the pump drill, people still preferred the bow drill method. Broken projectile points were frequently refurbished and used as drill bits.
The collective developments of semi-permanent camps, better-quality pottery, surplus food, and improved weapons and tools marked changes in society that were vastly different from how people had lived up to that point. The nomadic lifestyle led by the previous inhabitants was gradually abandoned and replaced with a more community-like structure. People gradually stopped wandering the land searching for resources and instead began establishing routes from their camp to the source location. These changes set the stage for the developments that would take place in the Mississippian period.

Russell Cave National Monument

Last updated: February 2, 2022