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.

Archaic Stems

This is a review by Ray Strischek of the book Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points, by Noel D. Justice, and the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland spear and arrow point styles.

Conventional intellectual shorthand reduces the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland eras as follows:

  • Paleo: 18,000 BC to 7,000 BC, HUNTING!!! and gathering.
  • Archaic: 7,000 BC to 1,000 BC, HUNTING and Gathering.
  • Woodland: 1,000 BC to 1,250 AD, Hunting and GATHERING!!!

Researchers believe that, in Paleo times, hunting was the all-consuming activity.  People gathered to add spice to the meal or to ward off starvation when hunting was poor.

In Archaic times, hunting anything that walked, crawled, swam, or flew was still a priority, but gathering became a close second with an increase in labor away from hunting and directed towards teasing or encouraging  more productivity from existing forage resources. People intentionally eliminated competitor plants wherever desired food stuffs grew — tree nuts, berries, edible green leafy things, seeds, or root plants. Some called this “horticulture.”

The Woodlands era (except in Buffalo country) saw hunting reduced to a level more or less subservient to gathering, which becomes actual “agriculture,” notably an increase of time spent away from hunting and instead directed towards the planting of corn, squash, and beans in North America.  People continued to gather tree nuts, berries, seeds, green leafy things, and root plants.

Some writers like to point out that the difference between Paleo and Archaic is the introduction in Archaic times of the celt and ground stone axe. They claim that pottery in the Woodland era separated it from its prior.

Other milestones include:

  1. Paleo:  All the mega fauna go extinct and people exploit quality flint.
  2. Archaic: Population increases cause restriction of movement, birth territorialism, and  increase dependency on local flint sources.
  3. Woodlands: Religious or spiritual groups (mound builders), regional centers of influence and trade networks, specialization of tasks (flint point-making and pottery) with outlying areas somewhat to completely isolated from the trade networks and completely dependent upon local flint sources. (Have and have nots.)

Stoneage Spear and Arrow Points by Noel D Justice is one of the better Bibles for the collector out there. It is meticulously and chronologically detailed and wonderfully illustrated.  Through those details and illustrations, the author makes the differences between Paleo, Archaic, and Woodland era points immediately and visually perceptible.

  1. Paleo:  Absolutely exquisite overall craftsmanship, addiction to high-quality flint from far afield and hardly a stem to be found. OK, Scottsbluff has a stem, but that’s about all and it is considered late Paleo, even “Paleo Archaic.” In Paleo, the hafting section of the point is most often a continuation of the point form.  It’s slightly modified (thinned out at the base and dulled on the edges) with the use of flutes or heavy abrasion.  Apparently, hunting the big boys left plenty of time for Paleo Americans to sit around honing their craft, because exquisite examples far and away outnumber the crude.
  2. Archaic:  All that time redirected away from hunting and spent gathering,  the increase of population that led to restricted movement and increased dependency on local flint sources seems to have had an effect on the quality of craftsmanship overall.  In no way can the overall level of craftsmanship in the Archaic hold a candle to the Paleo.  In the Archaic, stems on points becomes the norm:  square stems, rounded stems, ovate stems, diamond shaped stems, dove tail, turkey tail, beaver tail, side notched, corner notched and that bifurcate thing that looks all the world like a pair of balls dangling from the bottom of the blade.  In the Archaic, the hafting element of the point becomes a distinctly separate design entity from the blade.  This does not mean that there are no flashy, well executed points. There are, but they are the exception to the rule.
  3. Woodlands:  Craftsmanship gets even worse except in those regional centers (like Cahokia or Hopewell) where stability through agriculture creates specialization.  However, it appears that quality flint sources fall under the distribution and control of these regional centers and leave the outlying and smaller communities stuck with crappy chert. If you are not part of the trade network, if you have nothing to trade, you get nothing. You certainly do not have access to quality flint.  And apparently, the necessity to spend much more time away from hunting and directed to gathering just to hustle up the day’s meal leaves little time to master the art of flint knapping. Simply paging through Justice’s book, you can see the de-evolution of Woodland Era — a time of crude, lumpy, shapeless, and stylistically impoverished examples of workmanship. There were apparently no truly innovative adaptations of design.  Points appear as poor distant cousin of previous eras, something flint knapping expert Charles Spear of Peru, Indiana, would call “survival points, better than nothing.”