History & Culture

Carl Miller holding a trowel sitting in an excavated pit
Carl Miller, the Expedition Leader in the 1956-1958 excavation of Russell Cave.

NPS Photo

Newcomers In A New World

To characterize the evolving stages of civilization in southeastern America before European contact, archeologists have established a general cultural sequence starting with the oldest: Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian. Artifacts are either dated as “# years ago” or in BCE (Before Common Era) which reference dates before year 1 and CE (Common Era) which reference dates from year 1 onward. Since the first excavation at Russell Cave in 1953, it was thought that the cave was utilized by the prehistoric people. Later excavations would confirm this when archeologists unearthed over 2 tons of artifacts from all four of the cultural time periods.

It is believed that the earliest inhabitants of Russell Cave were from the Pleistocene-Holocene transitional period (12,000 – 11,000 years ago or 14,000 – 12,000 BCE). Evidence suggests that inhabitants from the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods used the cave as a permanent home, perhaps for years at a time. While other groups used it as winter quarters during the colder months and leaving when it’s warmer. People from the Woodland and Mississippian periods used the cave progressively less as a shelter and began settling along flood plains of rivers to exploit the seed-bearing plants in the area.

Last updated: January 26, 2022

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