This is a secondary source from the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology. The original text has been adapted and modified for length and content.
Archaeologists trace the chronicle of Native Americans to at least 12,000 years ago. The earliest aboriginal groups reached North Carolina not long after people first crossed into the New World from Siberia during the final stages of the last Ice Age, or Pleistocene era.
PaleoIndians, as archaeologists call those first people, were well adapted, technologically and socially, to climates, vegetation and animal populations very different from those of today. The late Pleistocene era saw wetter, cooler weather conditions as a general rule for areas like the Eastern Seaboard, which was some distance from the southern reaches of the glacial ice. Now-extinct elephants (mastodons and mammoths), wild horses, ground sloths, camels and giant bison roamed the forests and grasslands of our area. Animals not extinct, but now absent from the Southeast, included moose, caribou, elk and porcupine. PaleoIndians preyed on these animals, using their meat, skins and other parts for food, clothing, tools and other needs. They also devoted considerable time to gathering wild plant foods and likely fished and gathered shellfish in coastal and riverine environments.
Native groups who followed the PaleoIndians are called Archaic cultures by archaeologists. Those people occupied eastern North America during a long time period from about 9000 to 2000 B.C., and were the direct descendants of the PaleoIndians. Archaic Indians improved techniques of fishing, gathering and hunting for post-glacial environments, which differed from the Pleistocene. Forest types in the Southeast gradually became more like those of today, as weather patterns changed and the vast glacial ice sheets retreated from the margins of North America.
Archaeologists see Archaic cultures as very successful adaptations to the new forest communities and animal populations of those times. Archaic people made a wide variety of stone, wood, basketry and other tools that reflect the varied subsistence patterns of generalized fishing, gathering and hunting of the many different species of plants and animals that shared their post-glacial environments. Archaic people possessed great knowledge of their environments and the potential food and raw material sources that surrounded them. Their camps and villages occur as archaeological sites throughout North Carolina, on high mountain ridges, along river banks, and across the Piedmont hills…
Archaic people did lack three things, however, that most people associate with prehistoric Indians. These cultural elements are: bows and arrows, pottery and plant agriculture. In fact, the acceptance of these elements into North Carolina’s Archaic cultures marks the transition to the next cultural stage called Woodland.
Woodland Indians continued to follow most of the subsistence practices of their Archaic forebears, hunting, fishing, and gathering during periods of seasonal abundance of deer, turkeys, shad and acorns. Labor was committed to tasks of clearing fields, planting and harvesting crops like sunflowers, squash, gourds, beans and maize only when it was certain that those efforts could assure surpluses needed for winter and early spring months when natural food sources were sparse.
Bow and arrow equipment was also an innovation of the Woodland stage…Small triangular and stemmed projectile points, suitable in terms of size and weight for attachment to arrow shafts, are recovered for the first time on Woodland period sites. Prior to then, the hafted stone tools of Archaic and PaleoIndians were used for spears, knives and dart points (used with spear throwers, or atlatls). Use of bows and arrows probably led to shifts in hunting patterns among Woodland Indians, since the primary game animals like white tail deer could now be harvested efficiently by single, stalking hunters.
Despite the introduction of these new elements into prehistoric Indian lifeways, much remained the same. Woodland Indians continued patterns of seasonal exploitation of many game and plant resources. Archaeological sites from the period, which began some time around 2000 B.C., are found on all portions of the landscape, although there was a tendency to settle in larger, semi-permanent villages along stream valleys, where soils were suitable for Woodland farming practices utilizing hoes and digging sticks.
The house patterns, defensive walls (or palisades), and substantial storage facilities at some sites also demonstrate that Woodland Indians were more committed to settled village life than their Archaic predecessors. Distributions of ceramic (pottery) styles and other artifacts suggest to archaeologists that Woodland Indians began to recognize territorial boundaries.
Woodland cultures dominated most of North Carolina well into the historic period. Most Indian groups met by early European explorers followed Woodland economic and settlement patterns, occupying small villages and growing crops of maize, tobacco, beans and squash, while still devoting considerable effort to obtaining natural foods like deer, turkey, nuts and fish. A few cultural elements, however, suggest that some Indians had adopted religious and political ideas from a fourth major prehistoric tradition, called Mississippian. Archaeologists recognize certain patterns of artifacts, settlement plans and economics that distinguish Mississippian Indian culture from earlier or perhaps contemporary Woodland occupations.
Mississippian culture had few representatives in prehistoric North Carolina. Exceptions are the so-called Pee Dee Indians, who constructed and occupied the major regional center at Town Creek (Montgomery County), and ancestral mountain Cherokee groups. Mississippian-type town centers are more common to the south and west of North Carolina. Centers typically included one or more flat-topped, earthen “temple” mounds, public areas and buildings (“council houses”) used for religious and political assemblies. Wooden palisades, earthen moats or embattlements, were placed around many villages for defensive purposes.
Pottery vessels were made in new and elaborate shapes, often as animal and human effigy forms; other artifacts of exotic copper, shell, wood and feathers mirror the emblematic needs of the noble classes to confirm their status. Far-reaching trade and tribute networks were maintained at great expense to provide necessary items to the ruling classes of Mississippian Indian groups throughout the Southeast and Midwest.
The direct involvement of North Carolina Indians with those large, powerful Mississippian groups is difficult for archaeologists to measure. Minor elements of Mississippian culture may be found in various parts of our state, at least in the forms of pottery designs or ornaments connected with religious or political symbolism. Algonkian Indians met by the Roanoke colonists exhibited some religious ties with Mississippian practices more common in the far South. Cherokee religion and certain traits of pottery manufacture likewise may hint at more “elaborate” parallels in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and elsewhere in the heart of Mississippian territory.
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, Native Americans in the eastern and central portions of North Carolina were largely displaced as the colony’s and state’s frontiers were populated by Euro-American and African-American colonists, farmers, slaves and townspeople. Some Indian “tribes” in the coastal and piedmont regions voluntarily relocated in advance of colonial frontier expansion. Painfully direct results of armed conflicts like the Tuscarora and Yemassee Wars included forced removals of native populations onto a few small reservations. More commonly, native populations were forced to join allied tribes in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere.
Citation: Clagget, Stephen. “North Carolina’s First Colonists: 12000 Years Before Roanoke | NC Archaeology.” Office of State Archaeology, 1986, https://archaeology.ncdcr.gov/articles/north-carolinas-first-colonists. Accessed 3 September 2023.
- How has the geography of North Carolina changed from the Ice Age to the Post-Glacial Age?
- Between the Archaic and Woodland period, what significant changes took place in the way North Carolina Native Americans lived?
- Which of the following changes do you think were most important, hunting & gathering, agriculture, or permanent settlements? Explain.
Archaeologist: a person who studies human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains
Aboriginal: inhabiting or existing in a land from the earliest times or from before the arrival of colonists; indigenous
Pleistocene: the Ice Age lasting from 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago
Riverine: relating to a river
Subsistence: having enough food and resources to stay alive
Piedmont: hilly region in central North Carolina
Agriculture: science or practice of farming, including cultivation of soil for the growing of crops and rearing of animals to provide food, wool and other products
Shad: type of herring fish
Hafted: tools with handles
Game: animals that are hunted for food
Embattlements: defensive structures
Effigy: representation or image of a person
Tribute: payment of goods owed from one leader or group to another