[NPS Arrowhead] U.S. Dept. of Interior National Park Service Archeology Program
Quick Menu Features
* Sitemap * Home
common ground

The Earliest Americans
Spring/Summer 2000

Online Archive

*  The Southeast

(image) Paleoindian Hunting Scene.

"Some Paleoindians witnessed catastrophic drops in the Great Lakes from levels far above to far below today. They saw a landscape transformed on a scale we can scarcely imagine."

Michael J. Shott

by David G. Anderson

The Southeast is critical to understanding early human occupation in the New World. Large numbers of artifacts have been discovered at a wide range of sites. The diversity of projectile points is so great, the region was certainly a center of technological and social innovation. Several areas evidence continuous habitation, making the Southeast an ideal laboratory for examining the period.

The region roughly encompasses terrain south and east of the Ohio River, east of the Mississippi, and south of the Chesapeake Bay. There are two major zones: the low lying coastal plain, and the higher, more variegated hills, mountains, and plateaus of the interior.

In the late prehistoric era, and into the early years of European contact, the area hosted a number of related societies whose cultural similarities were believed due, in part, to the environment, the geography, and a shared history. How true this was in the Ice Age is uncertain, but a topic worthy of study.

During the period of presumed early settlement, sometime after the maximum glaciation 15,000 years ago, the coastal plain was almost twice its present size due to lowered sea levels. When the glaciers began their rapid retreat about 12,600 years ago, rising sea levels moved the shoreline ever inward (see sidebar on dating the era, page 25). Although rivers likely served as travel arteries, the Mississippi, swollen with melt, was probably a barrier, as were the Appalachians. With the Ice Age at its peak, conifers like spruce and jack-pine dominated many interior forests. With the onset of rapid deglaciation, mixed hardwood-pine forests began to move northward from the lower Southeast, and by 10,000 years ago spread across the entire region. Many animal species went extinct, such as mammoth, mastodon, horse, giant sloth, saber-toothed tiger, and camel.

The First Colonists

Settlement falls into three successive intervals, characterized by the initial and somewhat tentative colonization of the region, subsequent widespread exploration and settlement in many areas, and the development of distinctive local cultural traditions as populations settled into territories.

Sites that appear to be more than 11,500 years old-such as Virginia's Cactus Hill, Florida's Little Salt Spring and Page-Ladson, and South Carolina's Topper-are something of an enigma. Traditionally, such sites are called "pre-Clovis," meaning older than the fluted points discovered in Clovis, New Mexico-for many years the earliest clues of human presence in the New World. The evidence at Topper and Cactus Hill, though tentative, suggests that small blades and triangular points may become similar touchstones, or diagnostics, for the pre-Clovis period.

Between 11,500 to 10,800 years ago, Clovis points appear widely over the Southeast. Populations seem to have expanded rapidly, settling permanently in a number of places. These people were highly mobile, exploiting a range of plants and animals. They favored areas that were probably rich in game, plants, and other resources, particularly parts of Florida, the Atlantic coast, and along the major rivers of the Midsouth and Midwest, such as the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee. Where they settled appears to have been influenced, to some extent, by outcrops of high quality chert, which the people preferred for their tools. Finds at these sites are characterized by fluted Clovis and Clovis-like points, blades, and blade cores, along with worked animal bone and ivory.

The Rise of Cultures

Between about 10,800 to 9,200 years ago, the population grew even more dramatically as cultures evolved to accommodate essentially modern-era climate and resources. Projectile point forms exhibit appreciable stylistic variability and in some cases fairly restricted distributions, probably due to rising populations and decreasing group mobility. The Clovis styles are followed in time by a range of notched and resharpened points, evidence of a fundamental reorganization in culture. Sites occur widely over the landscape, including, for the first time in any number, in rockshelters. Well-made tools continue to occur, though increasingly made of local, lower grade materials.

Not surprisingly, quarries and workshops are the best known and certainly among the most easily recognized Paleoindian properties in the Southeast. Isolated finds of fluted points are also common, with several thousand reported from across the region.

Sites with well preserved plant and animal remains are crucial to understanding adaptation during the era. An extinct bison skull with a projectile point broken off in its forehead was found in Florida's Wacissa River, just about the clearest association possible between humans and extinct animals. Also in Florida, at Little Salt Springs, a giant land tortoise was discovered that may have been speared with a wooden stake. Butchering or other tooling marks on mammoth bones, as well as finished points, foreshafts, and other objects carved from green bone or ivory, have been found at several other places in Florida. Remains of essentially modern animals have been found at a number of later Paleoindian sites across the region, typically in rockshelter settings like Dust Cave and the Stanfield-Worley buff shelter in Alabama.

Given the elaborate caches of ceremonial goods discovered in the West, it is no surprise they also occur in the Southeast. The best documented example is the Sloan site in northeast Arkansas, where a remarkable assemblage of stone tools was found. Burials from this time are rare in the Southeast, however, as indeed they are throughout North America.

Through the Lens of Science

The Southeast has seen some highly innovative research, offering a tantalizing glimpse of life among the region's first inhabitants. Until more sites are examined, however, the answers will continue to be outnumbered by the questions.

Recognizing possible new diagnostics, such as Cactus Hill's early triangular points, could transform much of our knowledge. We still aren't sure how the region was settled, but once we ascertain the landforms, soil types, and microenvironments favored by different groups, we can target where and how to look.

Recent years have seen considerable effort in plotting the extent of settlement, using analyses of artifact styles and patterns of raw material movement away from quarry areas. Suwannee points, for example, are found almost exclusively in the Florida peninsula, while Cumberland points occur mainly in the Midsouth. These distributions may represent group territories and, hence, distinct cultural traditions.

Why were some areas more heavily occupied than others? Finds of fluted points are typically concentrated along transportation arteries, notably near major river channels, and particularly in resource-rich areas. Likewise, why were some places, such as the Appalachian highlands and parts of the Gulf coast, minimally visited by fluted point-using peoples? Analysis of all artifact categories, and not just points, needs to be conducted.

Why are adzes, for example, fairly common in the central Mississippi Valley, yet quite rare everywhere else? Are tools like Florida's Aucilla adze an equivalent form? If these tools were used to build watercraft or substantial dwellings, as many researchers think likely, what does their uneven distribution over the landscape mean? Were other tools used, or were different types of structures or modes of transportation employed?

What role did artifacts play in defining cultural identity? There is no question that Paleoindian peoples placed great value on their tools of stone, bone, and ivory. The workmanship was often superb, reflecting a level of expertise rarely achieved by later peoples. Was the fascination with high quality materials due solely to the needs of a highly specialized toolkit? Or was it also shaped by the ceremonial potential of artifacts made from these materials, or their role in facilitating ceremony and interaction?

Was the gradual abandonment of the highly specialized toolkit related to the increasing importance of more general foraging for a wider range of plants and smaller game? These questions are difficult, first because sites with well preserved subsistence remains are rare, and second because the systematic collection of this kind of data is comparatively recent. The fine screening and flotation work at Alabama's Dust Cave is a model of the research that should occur. Pollen samples should be examined along with the remains of bones, shells, and plant macrofossils.

Did Paleoindians shape their surroundings through the controlled use of fire, as their descendants did? How did the changing shoreline affect them? Did they adapt the same way on the Atlantic coast as they did along the rivers of the interior?

Prominent places in the landscape held a particular attraction for these early peoples. Major sites have been found near peaks, outcrops of high quality stone, and major shoals, sinkholes, or confluences. Were these sacred sites as well as convenient places to rendezvous and aggregate?

A View of the Future

The Southeast has two National Historic Landmarks from the period: the Thunderbird district (designated May 5, 1977) and the Hardaway site (designated on June 21, 1990). Many more sites in the region warrant nomination, and are currently under consideration.

Where do we go from here? Settlement and subsistence, while the subject of innovative analysis, are still not well understood. We are not certain, for example, whether these early populations were highly specialized hunters regularly targeting large animals such as mammoth or bison, perhaps contributing to their extinction, or more generalized foragers making use of a wide range of resources, including plants and smaller animals like deer, raccoon, opossum, and rabbits. Likewise, while hints of early occupation have been found at several sites, we still do not know when people entered the region. We need better models, and more surveys, excavations, and reports. Our picture of life during this period will undoubtedly change greatly as more work is done in the years to come.

For more information, contact Dr. David G. Anderson, Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service, 2035 East Paul Dirac Drive, Box 7, Johnson Building, Suite 120, Tallahassee, FL 32310, (904) 580-3011 x344, fax (904) 580-2884, e-mail david_anderson@nps.gov or danderso@seac.fsu.edu.

Select References

Anderson, David G. and Michael K. Faught, "The Distribution of Fluted Paleoindian Projectile Points: Update 1998," Archaeology of Eastern North America vol. 26 (1998): pp. 163-188.

Anderson, David G. and Kenneth E. Sassaman, The Paleoindian and Early Archaic Southeast, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Bense, Judith A., Archaeology of the Southeastern United States: Paleoindian to World War I, San Diego: Academic Press, 1994.

Morse, Dan F., David G. Anderson, and Albert. C. Goodyear, III, "The Pleistocene-Holocene Transition in the Eastern United States," in Humans at the End of the Ice-Age: The Archaeology of the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition, Lawrence Guy Strauss et al., eds., New York: Plenum Press, 1996, pp. 319-338.