Sunday, September 5, 2010

Inhabiting Paradise - 3

Had I been standing on the hill I call home 10,000 years ago I would have scanned a very different landscape stretching from the Cowees to the Balsams. I might have detected the presence of the earliest hunters to traverse the area, perhaps the smoke wafting from their campfires.

I wonder what it would have been like around one of those campfires as they sat and exchanged stories. What were the first words ever spoken to describe this place?

In the millennia that followed, agriculture did not arrive suddenly. After those first hunters, it took thousands of years for farming to gradually supplement hunting and gathering as a source of food for the people here before us. In a report compiled for Duke Power, the archaeologists of TRC Garrow Associates provide a concise summary of the early occupancy and origins of agriculture in an ever-changing Tuckasegee Valley:


The contemporary climate and vegetation of the region are products of a long and complex process of natural and human-induced change. The average winter temperatures in the area were considerably colder during the last glacial period, which lasted from ca. 23,000 to 13,000 B.C. At that time, the Southeast was covered by a boreal, northern coniferous forest dominated by pines and spruce. The climate warmed and precipitation increased from ca. 13,000 to 8000 B.C.,the period during which the first humans arrived in the Appalachian Summit region. During this time (the Late terminal Wisconsin glacial period), coniferous forests were replaced by northern hardwoods as dominant overstory species in the lower elevations.

The period from ca. 6000 to 3000 B.C. is referred to as the Altithermal or Hypsithermal, and has typically been considered a period of continued warming with decreased precipitation, although there is increasing evidence that portions of the Mid-Holocene were much wetter than previously supposed. The climate since ca. 3000 B.C. has cooled slightly, with a possible increase in precipitation.

Paleoindian Period (ca. 10,000–8000 B.C.)

The Paleoindian period represents the earliest well documented human occupation of the Southeast. Key diagnostic artifacts of this period are fluted and unfluted lanceolate projectile points. Formal flake tools, such as endscrapers, gravers, retouched blades, and burins are also associated with the Paleoindian period.

Hunting of late Pleistocene megafauna is inferred based on evidence from other regions, although direct evidence for use of animals of any kind is rare in the Southeast. Most if not all Paleoindian populations probably relied extensively on other animal and plant foods.

Paleoindian populations are believed to have been highly mobile, and settlements are thought to have included small temporary camps and less common base camps that were occupied by loosely organized bands. Paleoindians selected high-quality lithic materials for tools, and many sites are linked to important source areas.

Keel suggests that the earlier Clovis phase (pre-9000 B.C.) populations may have been confined to south of an east-west line at the latitude of Asheville because of permafrost to the north.

Archaic Period (ca. 8000–1000 B.C.)

The Archaic period began with the onset of Holocene, post-glacial climatic conditions in the East, and has been divided into three subperiods: the Early, Middle, and Late Archaic. Diagnostic projectile points form the primary criteria used to identify and date distinct Archaic manifestations. As a whole, the Archaic may be seen as a relatively long and successful foraging adaptation, with subsistence based on hunting, fishing, and the collection of wild plant resources. The period is also marked by a general increase in the density and dispersal of archaeological remains. Group size gradually increased during this period, culminating in relatively large populations.

Early Archaic (ca. 8000–6000 B.C.)

During the Early Archaic period, the mixed coniferous forests present in much of the Southeast were replaced by mixed hardwood communities dominated by oak, hemlock,beech, and maple. A modern faunal assemblage was in place following the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna.

Low regional population densities and a continued high degree of group mobility are inferred for this period in the Mountains, where most known sites are located in high upland areas. The nature of more general land use patterns and strategies for technological organization remains the subject of discussion, however.

To the west in Tennessee, Kimball has proposed an ongoing change from logistical to residential mobility patterns during the Early Archaic period, perhaps as a result of the first signs of warming climatic conditions.

Middle Archaic (ca. 6000–4000 B.C.)

During the Middle Archaic, the cool, moist conditions of the early Holocene gave way to the warmer, drier climate of the mid-Holocene Hypsithermal interval. Extensive estuarine marshes and riverine swamps began to emerge in coastal regions as sea levels ceased their post-Pleistocene rise by 3000 B.C. The northern hardwoods vegetational matrix in those regions was replaced by an oak-hickory forest, which was in turn replaced by a southern hardwoods-pine forest characterized by the species occupying the region today.

Subsistence economies became increasingly diversified, and the first use of estuarine shellfish resources and possibly anadromous fish may have begun at this time. Exactly how the Hypsithermal affected the relatively higher altitudes of western North Carolina is unclear. As discussed above, there is increasing evidence that parts of the Mid-Holocene were much wetter than previously supposed.

In addition, it is possible that the general trend toward a warmer, drier climate may have been reversed in the higher altitudes due to the nature of local weather patterns. The Middle Archaic witnessed the first substantial occupation in the Great Smoky Mountains and adjacent regions.

Many Late Archaic sites in the region appear to be situated near quartzite sources. The existence of formal residential base camps occupied seasonally or longer is inferred, together with a range of smaller resource-exploitation sites, such as hunting, fishing, or plant collecting stations. Many sites from this period contain evidence of prepared floors, post molds from structures, and features such as storage pits, all of which indicate a more sedentary lifestyle than is suggested for earlier periods. Grinding implements, polished stone tools, and carved soapstone bowls become fairly common, suggesting increased use of plant resources, and possibly changes in subsistence strategies and cooking technologies. Although regional evidence is minimal, the first experiments with horticulture probably occurred at this time, with the cultivation of plants such as squash (Cucurbita pepo), sunflower (Helianthus sp.), and Chenopodium.

Woodland Period (ca. 1000 B.C.–A.D. 1000)

The Woodland period began about 1000 B.C. and continued until the appearance of the Mississippian adaptation, around A.D. 1000. Across the eastern Woodlands the period is marked by the appearance of widespread pottery use, a greatly increased role for horticulture in subsistence economies, and an elaboration of mortuary ceremonialism, including the appearance of burial mounds.

In the greater Southeast, the Woodland period began with a gradual transition from the Late Archaic. Although this transition period is not well understood, Woodland occupations appear to be marked by increasing sedentism and improvements in food storage and preparation technologies. Subsistence strategies represent a continuation of earlier hunter-forager ways, but with an increased reliance on the cultivation of native plants. Religious expressions, as evidenced by increased ceremonialism and the development of burial mounds, seem to have become more complex during the Woodland period.

Early Woodland (ca. 1000–400 B.C.).

Initial Woodland occupations are generally thought to reflect a largely unchanged continuation of preceding Late Archaic lifeways coupled with the first widespread introduction of ceramics. The earliest Early Woodland manifestation in the region is the Swannanoa Phase, which dates ca. 1000–300 B.C. Although Swannanoa site distributions have not been thoroughly documented, it is apparent that the settlement pattern included both large floodplain sites, such as Warren Wilson, and numerous small upland extractive camps as well. Direct evidence is lacking, but it seems likely that the Early Woodland inhabitants of the region were engaged in at least some degree of horticulture.

Middle Woodland (ca. 400 B.C.–A.D. 800).

The Middle Woodland period is characterized by intensified long-distance trade throughout the eastern Woodlands. Numerous large and small sites have been found dating to this period, suggesting periodic aggregation and dispersion, or some kind of a village/base camp–specialized resource extraction station settlement dichotomy. Horticulture also is thought to have become increasingly important during this period.

Late Woodland (ca. A.D. 800–1000).

The Late Woodland period in much of the Southeast saw the emergence of sedentary village life based on intensive maize (Zea mays) horticulture, and the development of complex tribal and chiefdom-level political structures. In the Appalachian Summit the Late Woodland is largely invisible, however, raising as yet unanswered questions about its character there. A similar lack of recognition of distinctive Late Woodland components has been described in northern Georgia. Part of the problem may be the lack of specific diagnostics useful for unequivocally identifying sites of this period, but it is also possible that the Appalachian Summit region was only lightly populated during this time.


Authored by Geoffrey Hughes and Heather Millis, May 2002.

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