REVIEW: “Prehistoric Indians of the Southeast: Archaeology of Alabama and the Middle South”, by John A. Walthall

A good book with lots of detail and great presentation. Books like these are not meant to be page turners, but this one is more readable than most.

Ray Strischek here:  In an early article I opined that the difference between Paleo and Archaic Americans is visible in flint point designs. Archaic points have defined stems while the hafting area of Paleo points are a continuation of the overall form. Minor modifications — dulled edges where hafting would take place protect sinew from abrasion and hold point to spear or foreshaft.  I found my opinion confirmed in the above mentioned book.

“Recent investigations of stratified rock shelters and open-air sites in eastern North America have indicated that the Archaic stage began  nearly 10,000 years ago and ended 7,000 years later. This long cultural sequence has been traditionally divided into three sequential periods. The first of these temporal segments, the early Archaic period is characterized by notched and stemmed projectile points.”

Of course, this book is not limited to any particular cultural epoch but rather spans Paleo to European contact the southeastern area of the United States.  Alabama is the center of focus, which includes mound builders and urn burial cultures.  The urn burial culture caught my attention.  Children were put in urns whole, while adult bodies were stripped of flesh. Only the bones were placed in the urns.  These urns were not specifically made for this purpose but rather were ordinary cooking pots pulled out of domestic use for the burial purpose.  A bowl shaped lid was fashioned after the fact to seal the urn.  The urn was then buried just deep enough to be covered over with the dirt taken from the hole.  This custom started in the Woodland stage (Paleo, Archaic, Woodland, Proto-historic, European Contact) and died out about the time of European Contact.

This book also provides recipes for processing acorn and hickory/walnuts.  Acorns: Shell the nuts, put the meat in a pot, leach out the tannic acid by boiling, changing the water each time the water becomes light brown.  The process takes about an hour.  (The book does not say how many times to change the boiling water.)

Hickory and Walnuts:   Smash both shell and meat together and boil in water.  The shells will sink to the bottom, allegedly.  The meat will float in the middle, supposedly.  The oil is supposed to rise to the top and can then be drawn off for cooking oil or body lotion by using a feather.  After the oil has been removed and the meat is soft, the meat can be dried in cakes, to be ground into bread meal or a breakfast mush later.

As in other books about sequences of Paleo, Archaic, Woodland, and Proto-history, in other parts of the country, the characteristics of each era is very nearly the same.  The Paleo’s footprint is light: some kill sites have been found but homesteads are so rare that some have sarcastically said Paleos lived nowhere and ate nothing.  They did however drop 13,000 Clovis points in 1,500 places all over the continental United States; a few in association with extinct Mammoths.  They went where they wanted to go, no borders.

The Archaic people settled down, moved into caves and rock shelters and otherwise put down roots in a migratory manner, here in the summer, there in the winter, and started gathering as much as they hunted.  They also started making celts and axes and other woodworking tools, and encouraged wild plants to produce more.

The Woodland people are the mound builders, pottery makers, and the users of bows and arrows, and the corn, beans, and squash agriculturalists. They are the ones who established regional religious ceremonial centers with relatively dense populations and long range trade networks.

And as elsewhere in the continental United States, for the same vague reasons, the peak of this Woodland social growth began to crash on its own just prior to European Contact, with the process of deterioration much speeded up after contact with European diseases, greed, and the mass immigration of Europeans looking for land and resources.

Who knows what would have replaced the Woodland phase if the indigenous people of the North American continent had they been left to their own devices.   It was obvious that the larger civilizations of Aztecs, Mayas, perhaps even the Incas were providing influences to the North American continent.  It is possible that something bigger and more developed than Hopewell, Cahokia, the Pueblos of the Southwest, and Mound City in Alabama probably would have happened.

But there it is.  It’s a good book with lots of detail and great presentation. Books like these are not meant to be page turners, but this one is more readable than most.

Ray Strischek

Editor, THE DART.