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Archaic Period

Steven M. Meredith, University of Alabama
Archaic Period Exhibit
Archaeologists refer to the period between about 10,500 to about 3,000 years before the present as the Archaic period. It is separated by archaeologists from the Paleoindian period on the basis of characteristics of the way the societies were organized and how they made their living. In Alabama, as well as across eastern North America, the way of life for Native Americans began to change around 8500 BC, a date that roughly corresponds with the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. The climate in what is now Alabama changed from one that was close to what is found in present-day southern Canada to one that is similar to today. This caused major changes in the types of plants and animals found in the area. People had to change the ways they gathered their food and used the ancient landscape. There were probably also many changes in the way that their society was organized. During the Archaic (a term meaning "ancient period"), people lived in small communities of closely related family members, known as bands, and obtained food by collecting naturally occurring edible plants and hunting wild animals, a way of life that archaeologists call a hunting-and-gathering economy.
Archaic Projectile Points
Archaic peoples generally were nomadic, moving their settlements throughout the year to take advantage of seasonally abundant foods or when all the available food in an area was exhausted. Archaic peoples collected nuts from hickory, oak, and chestnut trees; native fruits such as blackberries, muscadines, and persimmons; and greens such as pokeweed. At archaeological sites where preservation is good, scientists have found bones of a large variety of animals, indicating that Archaic people ate deer, turkey, squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, turtle, snake, small birds, and many other types of animals. At many Archaic sites located along the banks of large streams and rivers in Alabama, Archaic peoples left mounds of mussel shells, known as middens, which are the remains of innumerable meals. Some piles of discarded shells and other debris exceed depths of more than 15 feet. Other than these shell mound sites, most Archaic sites do not look very different than those in other places, except that they are most often found on level ground near water. People lived in very small houses that were grouped in transient settlements. People probably would not identify with a "hometown"; they would more likely identify only with their family and their band.
During most of the Archaic period, people apparently lived in relatively good health, suffering from few infectious diseases. Their bones, however, showed evidence of arthritis and healed fractures, indicating that Archaic people lived lives characterized by hard work and occasional violence. Few Archaic people lived beyond the age of 40.
People during the Archaic era created many new technologies. One major innovation was the process of grinding stones into desirable shape, such as tools and ornaments. These items included weights for fishing nets, axes, pipes, and even large stone cooking bowls. They also fashioned beads and pendants out of colorful rocks. There were probably many other inventions that archaeologists have not found evidence for because most materials that people make tools from such as wood and leather usually deteriorate quickly in Alabama's warm, moist climate.
Stanfield-Worley Bluff Shelter
Archaeologists subdivide the Archaic period into early, middle and late periods based on the types of projectile points they find at sites. Projectile points are the stone tips people made for spears, darts, and arrows. Such items are commonly called "arrowheads," but they were used on a variety of projectiles, so the term "projectile point" is preferred by scholars. The shape of each type of projectile point largely depends on the way that it was fastened to the shaft of the projectile. Over time, people refined their spears, arrows, and other projectiles and invented new kinds, requiring changes in the shape of the stone points. The types of rock that people chose and whether or not the blades and points were sharpened after use also affected the shape. These changes to the shape of projectile points offer ways for archaeologists to construct a regular pattern of change over the broad span of time that covers the Archaic period. Archaeologists use this pattern to date sites where projectile points are found and place them in the three subdivisions of the Archaic period.
Early Archaic (ca. 8500 to 6000 BC)
Unlike the earlier Paleoindian period, the Early Archaic period is represented by a number of sites in Alabama. Most of these sites, however, do not contain large concentrations of artifacts, which means that people did not live at them for very long. Archaeologists believe that the increase in the number and distribution of Early Archaic sites as compared with Paleoindian sites can be interpreted as the result of a large increase in population that began around 8500 BC and continued throughout the entire Archaic period. Scientists can never really know exactly what life was like in the Early Archaic, and so they often must interpret evidence from archaeological sites based on studies of how contemporary hunter-gatherer peoples live in various parts of the world. Researchers generally believe that Early Archaic peoples lived in bands of related people that numbered between 50 and 150 people. Early Archaic bands probably defined their territories either by the presence of rivers or by distances from sources of stone for tools. Smaller groups may have come together at a prearranged location to pass the winter together as a larger group, then returned to their individual territories for the rest of the year.
Middle Archaic (ca. 6000 to 4000 BC)
Bone and Antler Tools
The Middle Archaic period roughly corresponds in time with a period of broad fluctuations in temperature worldwide. At this time, the average temperature of what is now the southeastern United States was much higher than it is today, and the region received much less rainfall. The Middle Archaic period was also a time of significant changes in Native American cultures throughout the Southeast. People established long-distance trade networks, invented new types of tools, and according to archaeological evidence, began engaging in warfare for the first time. Many of these changes probably occurred because of the changing climate of the region. The occurrence of stone tools in places far from the sources of stone are the first evidence of long-distance trade networks. Middle Archaic artifacts found across Alabama and the southeastern United States are made from flint that originated in present-day northeast Alabama, and Middle Archaic projectile points made from a type of sandstone in southwest Alabama are found across Alabama and Mississippi. The earliest evidence of warfare in Alabama and the Southeast has been found at Middle Archaic sites and consists of skeletons that have projectile points imbedded in them. This warfare may have resulted from competition for resources during this hot, dry era.
Many Middle Archaic sites, such as the Stanfield-Worley Bluff Shelter in Colbert County, are much larger than Early Archaic sites, and they often show large accumulations of debris, such as the previously mentioned shell mounds. Archaeologists interpret this as evidence of population increase. Such an increase would likely lead to a decrease in the territory available to each group and cause an increase in population density as well.
Late Archaic (4000 to 1000 BC)
During the beginning of what is known as the Late Archaic period, the climate began to stabilize and become closer to modern climate patterns. In the Southeast, scientists have found a large increase in the number of recorded Late Archaic sites as compared with Middle Archaic sites. There was also an increase in the number of Late Archaic sites located in large river valleys, including those of the Tennessee, Tombigbee, and Alabama rivers.
Late Archaic Bowl
Native Americans made further developments and refinements in the types of tools and containers they made during the Late Archaic period. These included large stone bowls carved out of sandstone or steatite, a relatively soft rock that could be placed directly on a fire for cooking. In some areas of Alabama, people made ceramic containers for the first time. In Alabama, the first evidence of pottery making dates to around 1500 BC, and the practice probably was imported into the area from peoples living along the Atlantic coast of what is now Georgia and South Carolina.
In the Late Archaic period, people established more extensive long-distance exchange networks and traded more raw materials and finished goods. Rocks such as greenstone, steatite, and mica from east Alabama, iron ore from central and north Alabama, flint from north Alabama, and sandstone from southwest Alabama were all quarried and traded around what is now the southeastern United States in a network that linked together many different societies across the region.
In the latter centuries of the Archaic period, people began experimenting with horticulture, instead of simply gathering wild plants. There is evidence that people grew small amounts of squash, sunflowers, and other seed-bearing plants in simple gardens during this time, based on plant remains found at archaeological sites. The people did not grow enough of these plants to live off of the produce, but these gardens apparently did supplement some Late Archaic people's diets.
Technological innovations such as horticulture and pottery making, as well as increased population density, led to major changes in the way of life of Indians in Alabama at the time. Horticulture both allowed and required people to stay in one place for longer periods of time. These changes either led to or became a part of changes in the ways that societies were structured. Although they did not occur at the same time across all of what is now Alabama, by around 1000 BC societies changed in these ways to a point that they were different enough that archaeologists no longer classify them as belonging to the Archaic period, but rather as belonging to the Woodland period.
Oakville Indian Mounds
Several sites in Alabama preserve artifacts and earthworks from the Archaic Period. The Indian Mound and Museum in Florence, Lauderdale County, is located on the site of a large mound, dating to around 2,000 BCE, on the banks of the Tennessee River. The museum houses exhibits interpreting Archaic culture through artifacts and dioramas. Russell Cave National Monument in Jackson County interprets more than 9,000 years of Native American habitation, with displays of artifacts from the Archaic through the historic era.

Additional Resources

Anderson, David G., and Kenneth E. Sassaman, eds. The Paleoindian and Early Archaic Southeast. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
———, eds. Archaeology of the Mid-Holocene Southeast. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Fogelson, Raymond D. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 14, Southeast. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2004.
Griffin, John W. Investigations in Russell Cave, Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama. Publication in Archeology 13. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1974.
Walthall, John A. Prehistoric Indians of the Southeast: Archaeology of Alabama and the Middle South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Published:  May 4, 2007   |   Last updated:  November 19, 2015