The Waterman and Hill-Traveller's Companion, a Natural Events Almanac
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North American Cultural Timeline

The peopling of the Americas has in recent years gone from being a simple matter of Asians entering North America from Beringia at the end of the Wisconsinan Ice Age and spreading out and settling over North and South America, to an extremely complicated series of immigrations by various racial groups from (apparently) all over the world.

The Paleo Culture (24,000 ? - 8,000 BC)

Paleo is a Latin term meaning "old". The Paleo Culture was therefore the first collection of human beings in the New World to leave evidence of their existence in the archaeological record.

The Paleo People were nomadic hunters of the Pleistocene megafauna and their tenure on this continent coincides with the last period of maximum glaciation until the glaciers' final retreat and disappearance roughly 8,000 years ago.

The Clovis People (14,000 - 8,000 BC)

The most famous and widespread of the Paleo cultures (in North America) is the Clovis Culture - named for the site near Clovis, New Mexico where their artifacts were first discovered. While it was once assumed that the Clovis people were thinly and evenly spread across the continent, recent archaeological work has shown that they were most numerous in the mid-Atlantic states - principally Virginia which may have served as a home base - and the continental shelf of the eastern US which at that time was dry land.

The Clovis people made extremely handsome and finely worked flint tools and atlatl points. The atlatl points exhibit a distinctive "fluting" or groove that runs lengthwise up both sides of the point. It is assumed that these grooves were produced to make hafting the point to the spear shaft more efficient, and perhaps lighter.

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The Archaic Culture (8000 - 1000 BC)

The Archaic peoples of the New World were the first agriculturalists in North America and domesticated a large number of crops that served as a foundation for later cultural groups. They lived in semipermanent villages and obtained their food in almost equal parts from farming and hunting/gathering.

Beginning with the extremely early (and unique) Poverty Point culture in Louisiana (c. 1700 - 600 BC) these hunter/gatherer/agriculturalist people are known to have built mounds. Excepting the anomalous Poverty Point site - which may be lunar oriented - this culture built simple, small burial mounds on bluff tops and promontories overlooking river valleys. Examples of these funeral sites are found throughout southern Illinois - particularly along the Mississippi river - and elsewhere. None are no more than two or three feet high and perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. Most are smaller.

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The Woodland Peoples (1000BC - 1600 AD)

The Woodland Tradition began to supersede and replace the Archaic cultures about 1000 BC. These people had a settled village life and were more heavily dependent on agriculture than were the Archaic peoples. It was at this time that pottery vessels made their first appearance in the archaeological record.

The peoples practicing the Woodland Tradition were in the habit of burying their dead (rather than cremation or excarnation by exposure). High status individuals were sometimes interred in small mounds only a few feet high. It is believed that the Adena/Hopewell culture arose from and within this tradition.

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The Adena/Hopewell Culture (700 BC - 600 AD)

The Adena/Hopewell Culture was centered in the Ohio valley in southern Ohio. They were obsessed with the afterlife and built huge funeral mounds to house their "honored dead" and interred rich funeral offerings with these burials. They also built vast and enigmatic geometric "enclosures" that astounded the first Europeans to encounter them in the 18th century (and continue to astound today).

The Adena/Hopewell peoples created a highly developed civilization with a fairly advanced knowledge of geometry and astronomy. They were farmers and raised the most diverse set of native crops known among the aboriginal civilizations. Nearly all of these crops were originally domesticated in the eastern and central US although late in their civilization's history corn appeared as a staple crop. They also traded widely throughout North America east of the Rocky Mountains for raw materials to create the masterpieces they buried with their dead

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The Mississippians (800 - 1732 AD)

The Mississippians were the most numerous and sophisticated of the precolumbian civilizations north of Mexico. They built huge earthworks - large, flat-topped, pyramidal mounds - as foundations for their important buildings. They had a complicated social order and traded widely for exotic materials for their religious rites and to adorn their elite. The Mississippians were primarily agriculturalists and grew a large array of crops - although their principal crop plant was corn. The last tribal group practicing what are presumed to be Mississippian cultural modes was the Natchez in Mississippi. Detailed descriptions of Natchez cultural life were noted by early French colonials. Unfortunately the Natchez declared war on the French in 1730 and were exterminated as a tribal unit by 1732. The remaining members of the tribe were absorbed by surrounding tribes who looked upon the survivors as possessing supernatural powers.

For more detail visit our page on the Mississippians.

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Historic Mound Building

Many tribes continued their mound building tradition even after the arrival of European civilization. The effigy mounds of Wisconsin and Iowa are believed to date to sometime after 1600, with a few built up to 1850. Burial mounds with historic artifacts are known from numerous locales. And at least one tribe was still building mounds into the 20th century. The Creek Nation in Oklahoma continued building small ceremonial mounds at their Stomp Grounds until the mid 1960's and may still be building, or at least maintaining them, today.

The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri

Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung