- Recent Discussions in Late Prehistoric Southern Archaeology
One of the goals of this new journal, Native South, is to facilitate communication among scholars from different disciplines interested in the history of the original inhabitants of the South. This article hopes to further that goal by orienting nonarchaeologists to some of the recent discussions in the literature of Southern archaeology, particularly during the time period archaeologists are most consulted on by colleagues in history, namely the few centuries before European arrival. The archaeology of the centuries subsequent to European arrival deserves its own review. This article highlights some of the debates in the field that may be of interest to nonarchaeologists; it does not summarize what we now know about the prehistoric South. Readers interested in such information may consult several excellent syntheses that have recently been published.1
One of the first contributions that archaeologists can offer scholars of the Native South is to share the fact that the first "Southerners" date back to approximately 9500 BC as the producers and users of a type of spear point that archaeologists have labeled Dalton.2 Although there were people in the South millennia earlier it was not until the end of the Paleo-Indian period (11500 BC to 9500 BC) and the beginning of the Early Archaic (9500 BC to 7000 BC) that regionalization of cultures began. Around this time the population of North America had increased sufficiently to cause the territories and ranges of hunter-gatherers to shrink. Coincidently, an essentially modern climate and modern plant and animal communities were appearing across North America, and the South [End Page 1] of 9500 BC was dominated by oak, hickory, and the woodland mammals that call such environments home.3 The Dalton points were used by the people adapting to this new Southern climate and as such can be granted the title of the first Southerners.4
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One of the most important discoveries during the past two decades concerning the Archaic South is the realization that mound building had much greater antiquity than originally thought. Prior to about 1990, Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana was the only earthen mound site generally recognized as having been constructed before 1000 BC. Located in the Lower Mississippi Valley, Poverty Point was regarded as a large and enigmatic center dating to 1700 to 1300 BC. The only other contemporary sites that were even comparable were the shell mounds and shell rings constructed along the Atlantic Coast.5 Since 1990 archaeologists have learned that dozens of earthen mounds were constructed during the Middle (7000 to 3000 BC) and Late Archaic (3000 to 1000 BC) periods, with most examples found in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Among the earliest and largest is the Watson Brake site in which eleven mounds were placed on an oval earthen ring 919 feet (280 meters) in diameter on [End Page 2] a terrace overlooking the Ouachita River in Louisiana. Mound construction had started by 3400 BC, which means the once enigmatic Poverty Point site is no longer the earliest example of earthen mound construction in the South but one of the final expressions of a regional tradition spanning a millennium and a half.6
One of the current challenges that archaeologists face is inferring the social dynamics of the communities that built and lived at Archaic mound sites. Several factors complicate interpretation: (1) most of the Archaic mound sites contain few artifacts, which is part of the reason that their true age went unrecognized for so long, (2) many sites, such as Watson Brake, have had little excavation, and (3) human burials are almost unknown from Archaic earthworks, and burials are typically the most reliable means of detecting social organization.7 What we do know is that there is little or no evidence of exotic or prestige items, feasting, storage facilities, craft specialization, elaborate burials, or public structures other than the earthworks themselves. This has led to the interpretation that these sites were not home to hierarchically ranked societies, despite the presence of sometimes impressive earthworks.8 Certainly within the binary classification...