SEAC: Featured Project Southeast Region Ouline of Prehistory and History
  • 3D Rendering of Shiloh Mound

    Southeast Archeological Center

    Cultural Resources National Park Service

Natural Setting | Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian | Caribbean Prehistory
European Exploration | American Independence and Westward Expansion | The U.S. Through the 19th and 20th Centuries

Little River Canyon National Reserve, Alabama.
Little River Canyon National Reserve, Alabama (National Park Service).

Natural Setting

Southeastern United States | Caribbean | Further Reading


The Southeastern United States

View of the Great Smoky Mountains with visibility at 100 miles.
View of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee (National Park Service).

View of Cedar Creek at Congaree Swamp National Monument, South Carolina.
View of Cedar Creek at Congaree Swamp National Monument, South Carolina (National Park Service).


The Geography and Environmental Conditions of the Southeast
(Part of an updated study on Paleoindians in the Southeast by David Anderson of the Southeast Archeological Center)
North America During the Last 150,000 Years - Adams 1997a
(A thorough web site summarizing environmental changes in North America, with a great deal of information on the environment of the last 15,000 years)
The Radiocarbon Age Scale vs. the "Real" (Calibrated) Years Age Scale - Adams 1997b
(A great summary of the difference between radiocarbon ages and calibrated ages, with a chart showing how they match up)
The Woodville Karst Plain - Wisenbaker 1995
(An online article describing the formation of the Woodville Karst Plain in North Florida)
Aboriginal Settlement in the Apalachee Region of Florida - Wisenbaker 1998
(An online article describing the aboriginal settlement of the Tallahassee area in the context of environmental changes)

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.

The Caribbean

Computer generated image of Buck Island.
Buck Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands (National Park Service).


Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands Regional Summary
(Site describing the geology and morphology of this area)
Environmental Issues in the British Virgin Islands
(Describes paleoenvironmental studies up through modern times)
Caribbean Islands
(Describes the biology of the Caribbean Islands)
Cold from Little Ice Age also Chilled Caribbean Sea (Web article pertaining to lower water temperatures during the Little Ice Age [A.D. 1300 to A.D. 1850])
Structure and tectonics of the upper Cenozoic Puerto Rico-Virgin Islands carbonate platform as determined from seismic reflection studies
(A paper on the underlying geology of areas of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands)

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.

Further Reading


Determination of Paleotemperature and Paleosalinity from Shells of Mercenaria campechiensis from Seahorse Key Midden, Cedar Key, Florida
(Using shells to study paleoclimates)
Archaeology in the Caribbean: The Water Island Archaeological Project
(Describes archeological investigations at several sites in the Caribbean)

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.

Roberts, Neil
•1998 The Holocene: An Environmental History. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

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