Our First Native Americans – #8 – Archaic Cultures – David Haysley

Our First Native Americans – #8

The cultural changes that our first citizens experienced over the first 15,000 to 25,000 years were classified as the:

  • Paleo Lithic Stage
  • Archaic Stage
  • Transitional / Formative Stage

The #7 blog insert was information on the Paleo Lithic Stage of Cultures. The second stage of Paleo Cultures for our Native Americans was the Archaic Cultures.  This stage saw changes in technology and life style that led to the Formative Stages (the stages that begins to resemble the Native Americans as we studied them over our lifetime).  This insert provides information that this novice obtained with his study of this Archaic period (3000 to 6500 year ago.

Archaic Stage

The Archaic Cultures are characterized by a foraging way of life with hunting and trapping of smaller animals as well as more reliance on fishing and the use of vegetation.   As expected, more information is available through archaeological discoveries for these cultures due to the better preserved artifacts which are not as old as the lithic culture artifacts.

Archaic Stage

Use of Basketry and Netting Arrives with Archaic Cultures

One cannot draw a sharp boundary between the Paleo Lithic and Archaic Cultures especially at what is considered the very early stage of the Archaic Cultures.  Some cultural practices remained the same: a seasonally migratory way of life and foraging for food and survival materials.  The new cultures were; however, less nomadic with the establishment of settlements which meant that there were congregations of large groups.  The cultural changes also required new tools such as basketry, fish hooks , netting, food preparation tools such as grinding stones, scrappers, choppers, and of course a new and varied styles of projectile points.

Archaic Projectile Points

Bottom and Side Notched Projectile Points were PredominateStone Manos and

Manos and Metates

Metates (Seed and Plant Grinding Tools)

 Cultures became more dependent on terrain and natural resources provided by geographical settlement areas.  It’s during the Archaic Period we see the first evidence of many significant cultural developments among the native peoples such as trade activity between settlements exchanging raw materials, food items, animal skins, and fabricated tools.  Evidence also shows that they development occupational specializations such as hunters, cooks, tool makers, and basket weavers.

Groups became more involved in creating a “tribal” style of life and social complexity increased. The Groups were most likely composed of several nuclear families, perhaps linked maternally or patriotical ancestry.   It is also likely that a respected older individual acted as headperson of the band, leading discussions and acting as a mediator in disputes.

Burial of the deceased was a practice which goes back to Paleo Lithic period but with the Archaic Culture the burials became more ritualistic.  The burials would show respect and love for the deceased individual.  Obvious care was taken in dressing and leaving the deceased with prized possessions and in a protective state.

Ritualistic Burial

Ritualistic Burial of a Respected Member of a Native American Archaic Group)

Numerous cultures developed within the Archaic Stage (1,500 to 8,000 years ago) with each culture variance dependent on survival conditions within specific areas.  The more notable Archaic Cultures have been grouped as cultural “Traditions” and classified on a geographical basis:  Eastern Tradition, cultures east of the Mississippi River; and Western Tradition, cultures west of the Mississippi River; and, Northern / Arctic Archaic tradition, cultures in Canada and arctic region.

Western Tradition Cultures:

  • Desert Culture
  • Cochise Culture
  • Old Cordilleran Culture

Eastern Tradition Cultures:

  • Old Copper Culture
  • Red Paint Culture

Northern /Arctic Cultures:

  • Paleo- Eskimo Culture
  • Dorset Culture

Significant North American Indian Archaic Cultures by Geographic Locations

Significant North American Indian Archaic Cultures by Geographic Locations

 Western Tradition

The distinguishing characteristics of each of the Western Traditional Archaic Cultures are very subtle and for this novices somewhat difficult to determine. Brief description of each are provided with detail that could be collected from the research.

Desert Culture (3000 to 10,800 years)

Desert Culture was evident in the Great Basin geographical area in the present-day states of Utah and Nevada as well as substantial portions of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado and smaller portions of Arizona, Montana, and California.  The early Desert Culture Native Americans, like the Paleo Cultures, traveled extensively in small groups, probably extended families, in search of food, water, and other survival needs.

The archaeological site discovered in 1949 known as Danger Cave near Wendover, Utah provided well preserved artifacts from the Desert Culture period.  The type and design of the artifacts basically distinguished the Desert Culture from the other Archaic Cultures. They found leather scraps, netting, basket fragments, and bone and wood tools such as knives, weapons, and millstones.

Danger Cave - Utah    Desert Culture Netting

Danger Cave near Wendover, Utah and Netting Artifact Discovery

Still part of a nomadic lifestyle there shelters would have been temporary and most likely they lived in caves or rock shelters if available.  If needed they would construct shelters with brush or skins providing minimum protection from the environment.  A camp style life would have been the norm.  For clothing they used animal skins which would be woven together with plant fibers and/or sinew.

As time progressed, they made more use of numerous types of vegetation in the form of seeds, acorns, roots, pine nuts, and berries for food.  Baskets woven from plant fibers were most likely used for collecting the vegetation. Stone bowls and hammer stones were used to mill seeds into flour for baking a type of bread and they used sharp-edged stones for chopping stalks and stripping fibrous material. Evidence of Archaic Cultural type food preparation tools have been found at archaeological sites throughout their settled areas.

The Desert Culture people used the spear and the atlatl, as did their predecessors, for hunting larger game such as the deer, antelope and mountain sheep. For rabbits and other small animals they used netting made of plant fibers for snaring the animals.  Their movement would coincide with the seasons for hunting as well as growth of vegetation and water supply.  On leaving a camp, they would leave behind the heavier tools they used for hunting, fabrication, and food preparations for their return with the next appropriate season.

Later in this culture, they demonstrated a more sedentary lifestyle, living for much longer periods in one site as a “base village” and using hunting and gathering parties to collect food and other survival materials.  Their shelter became more substantial and took the form of “pit houses” (structures built over shallow pits dug into the ground and constructed with stones and brush and plastered with mud).  A more social community was being developed which showed an interest in outside or spiritual beliefs and new customs that included how they honored their dead with burial ceremonial methods.

Desert Culture Pit House

Image of Archaic Desert Culture Pit House

 Cochise Culture (2500 to 9000 years ago)

The long lasting Cochise Culture or Tradition is named after Lake Cochise, an ancient lake which is now Willcox Playa in Willcox, Arizona inside Cochise County.  This site is where, in the 1940’s, extensive archaeological discoveries were made that are attributed to the Cochise Culture.

Cochise Culture - Willcox Playa                Cochise Culture - Willcox Playa - 1.gif

      Willcox Playa in Arizona (now mostly a dry lake-bed)

The Cochise Culture experienced three phases or stages as time progressed. Its earliest phase, known as the Sulfur Spring Culture, existed as early as 7000 years ago. This phase is characterized by signs of foraging vegetation for the primary food source over the hunting of animals.   Milling stones for grinding wild seeds and various scrapers, but no knives, blades, or projectile points where found at the Whitewater Draw discovery sites near and around Lake Cochise. (Some remains of food animals, both extinct and modern, were also found indicating that hunting was still and important for their existence.)

The second phase, Chihuahua Culture, has been dated to between about 3500 to 5500 years ago. Tools from this phase include a variety of projectile points and many seed-processing artifacts. Discovery of many and varied projectile points showed a returned interest in hunting, and the remains of a primitive form of maize (found in Bat Cave site which is now part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park) suggest the beginnings of farming.  There was also evidence of large base camps with storage pits indicating a degree of permanence in lieu of the nomadic life style.

The San Pedro phase of the Cochise Culture followed the Chihuahua Phase in the Southwest (mostly Southern New Mexico area) around 2200 to 3500 years ago. San Pedro sites had pit houses about 1 ½ feet below the ground level and shelters were more substantial requiring building techniques that would allow them to be used for extended periods.  There was also use of caves and cliff overhangs for living quarters which indicated a progression toward the Anasazi Formative Stage for these Native American. Artifacts have also indicated that this culture began fabricating and using pottery.  Without question the San Pedro communities were cultivating maize and other crops.

The two most significant changes shown by the Cochise Cultures are in the first use of pottery and the reliance on maize as a food source. The late Cochise Cultures are a predominant sign of the life style change into the Transitional Cultures of the Southwest.

Old Cordilleran Culture

The Old Cordilleran Culture, named after the Pleistocene Ice Sheet that covered the Northwest potion of North America, was evident within the Columbia Plateau in what are now the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Northern California, and British Columbia.  It is believed to have originated in Beringia and migrated south along the Pacific coast.  However, some think that this culture came from Paleo- Americans that migrated to North America with the Pacific Coast Model (PCM).   From the coast the culture expanded eastward (inland) which provided this culture with technology in both sea fishing and wild game hunting.

Artifacts from this culture include spear points, bi-faced lanceolate shaped with no fluting, fish hooks, and food preparation tools for edible wild plants.  The size and shape of the spear points, which are referred to as “Cascade Points”, indicates that they hunted smaller mammals such as deer and bison.

Material used in fabricating their tools provides evidence that indicates that they were mobile and followed river edges for camp sites.  Vegetation was plentiful and varied in the form of seeds, berries and roots.  Also important was the cedar which provided the raw material from which houses, boats, baskets, boxes, clothing, and carvings of every imaginable kind were made.

Although this fact cannot be fully proven, tall carved poles which we now refer to a “totem poles”, according to oral histories, was part of the Northwest Coast Native American culture since ancient times.  This infers that that they could well have been part of the Old Cordilleran Culture. In North America, totem poles had become part of the cultures of the indigenous peoples the Pacific Northwest and serve many purposes beyond their beauty, and their meanings are as varied as the cultures that make them. Poles were erected to celebrate cultural beliefs, legends, notable events, and burial markers.

Ancient Totem Pole

Ancient Totem Pole

The culture transitioned into a complex array of varied linguistic and cultural development. This is evident with the many tribal groups which inherited the cultural lifestyle of the Old Cordilleran Culture such as the  Chinook, Tlingit , Tsimshian,  Bella Coola (Nuxalk) and many more familiar tribes.

Old Crodilleran Cultural Tribal Units

Tribal Groups with Old Cordilleran Cultural Traits

 Eastern Tradition

Old Copper Culture

The Old Copper Culture was centered in what are now the states of Michigan and Wisconsin and in the Great Lakes region. The name stems from the fact that it was within this culture that the archaic people began working with copper, which can be found in large nodules in this geographic location. Using cold-hammer techniques, they created a variety of distinctive tools and art forms.  Tools were made which could be used in the forest environment where they lived such as the ax, adze (wood scrapper), and gouge.  Weapons were also made using the copper.

Old Copper Culture - Knife

Hunting Knife Made from Copper and Wood from the Old Copper Culture

As this culture developed over thousands of years social changes became more evident with the establishment of base camps for a more settled life style that included more use of localized vegetation and small animal prey. Some discovered artifacts, very late in the Old Copper Culture phase, were personal ornaments, which reflected that there was more attention to personal needs and social interaction.  The life style demonstrated the transition into the early Woodland Culture which we know predominated this geographical area as early as 3000 years ago.

Red Paint Culture

The Red Paint Culture was predominately located in what is now the New England area of the United States and Atlantic region of Canada.  Little has been uncovered on this culture except for their unique burials.  They used large quantities of red ochre (earth pigment containing anhydrous iron oxide) to cover the bodies of the dead and the tokens (tools and clothing items) left with the body for some type of possible afterlife. They flourished 3000 to 5000 years ago and lived on the coasts and rivers. Evidence indicates that they were stable in specific areas relying on fishing, hunting small animals and vegetation for their food source.

Recoved red Ocrhe fragments from Red Paint Culture Grave Site

Fragment of Red Ocrhe Recovered from Red Paint Culture Grave Site

Image f Red Paint Culture Life Style

Image f Red Paint Culture Life Style

The Red Paint Culture eventually disappeared for unknown reasons.  Some suggest that geological studies on conditions in the New England coast area some 5000 years ago indicated that distant offshore earthquakes caused a series of tidal waves that destroyed their habitation area and they migrated inland eventually transitioning into a Woodland Culture.

Northern Tradition

Paleo- Eskimo Culture 

The Paleo-Eskimo Culture was demonstrated by the peoples who inhabited the Arctic region from Beringia in North America to Greenland prior to the rise of the modern Inuit or Eskimo Tribes.  It is believed that the Paleo- Eskimo’s migration from Siberia to North America occurred later than the originating migrations by as many as 5000 to 7000 years. It is further believed through DNA studies that the Paleo -Eskimos were completely isolated from the previous migration groups and did not interbreed with them.  The DNA evidence also indicates that there were few women among them and interbreeding was common.

Image of Paleo Eskimo

Image of Paleo-Eskimo People

Their tools were quite small in size and included stone bladed harpoons, small projectile points that that could have been used as arrowheads, scrapers, small stone knives, and burins (stone chisels for making grooves in bone or wood).  They apparently used the bow and arrow (considered as one of the first – 4500 years ago) for hunting but a preference for heavy lances for killing at close range was predominate.

Paleo-Eskimo - “Arctic Small Tool Tradition”

Paleo-Eskimo – “Arctic Small Tool Tradition”

Our image of the American Native seems to always include the “bow and arrow”, which became a common hunting weapon within the classic cultures. The bow and arrow was probably first developed over 50,000 years ago in Africa.  Evidence of this, although not fully established, is from arrow heads found in South Africa.  As people migrated from Africa to other parts of the world this technology most likely spread into Australia, Europe, and Asia.   What is strange is that his bow and arrow doesn’t appear in North America until it apparently came into use during the Archaic and Formative cultural stages which began around 6500 years ago. It is an accepted theory that there were multiple origins in North American with the first evidential use of the bow and arrow  being in the far north (Arctic, sub-Arctic, and St. Lawrence Basin) about 4500 years ago.  In the Northeast (New England area) and the Great Lakes region these tools came into use around 4000 years ago.  Use by the Wood land Cultures in the Southeast was evident about 1000 to 2000 years ago. Finally, the bow and arrow arrived in the Western Plains, Plateau, Great Basin, and Northwest Coast around 600 to 1800 years ago.

The Paleo- Eskimo was slowly displaced in most Arctic regions by the Dorset Culture, disappearing almost entirely around 1000 CE.

Dorset Culture

Evidence of the Dorset Culture was discovered in Cape Dorset in Nunavut, Canada which is where it gets its name. (Nunavut is the large non populous Northern Canadian territory bordered by the Northwest Territory (west), Greenland (east), and Manitoba / Saskatchewan (south).  This culture was dominate throughout the Arctic Area until 1500 CE as warming conditions ushered in the Thule Culture.

These people adapted to living in bitter cold climates with a dependency on sea mammals. For this they made use of harpoon heads made in the form of small, triangular projectile points made from soapstone.  Their technology showed improvements in the fabrication of burins, scrappers, knives and in the development and use of the bow and arrow.

Dorset Culture Tools

Dorset Culture – Tools

There is also some evidence that they constructed sleds and kayak style boats.  From some of the unique tools discovered it appears that they could cut and form ice for building shelters for housing. In addition they developed and used the seal-oil or blubber burning heaters or lamps, called “kudliks”.  These lamps were used for centuries to come by the Inuit Tribes.

Kudlik – Seal Oil -Blubber burning Heater from Dorset Culture

Kudlik – Seal Oil /Blubber burning Heater from Dorset Culture

The most identifying artifacts found are of carved sculptures of animals and human faces made from bone, stone and ivory.  These artistic artifacts were found in abundance and have been dated to the late Dorset culture.

Dorset Culture Carving -Soapstone Bear Cubs from Northern Labrador

Dorset Culture Carving -Soapstone Bear Cubs from Northern Labrador

There is serious debate on what happened to the people of the Dorset Culture. The predominate conclusion is that the Dorset Culture began transitioning into the Thule Culture as the Thule people migrated from the Alaskan area throughout arctic area. It is evident that the Thule Culture did carry over some of the Dorset technology and life style.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s