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A Brief Introduction to North Carolina’s Prehistory

At the end of the Ice Age (10,000–8000 B.C.) the earliest people in North Carolina, the Paleo-Indians, lived a nomadic life, traveling in small groups of one or two extended families. They traveled when and where food sources were most plentiful, hunting large animals and gathering edible plants. Archaeologists have found evidence in the state of these early people dating back to ca. 8000 B.C.

Once the Ice Age ended, the climate in North Carolina became progressively warmer. The forest changed as a result, giving rise to an abundance of nuts, berries, and small animals. The lifestyle of Indians gradually adapted to the changing environment. These changes ushered in the Archaic period of prehistory (8000–1000 B.C.). Indians of this period led a seminomadic lifestyle, moving seasonally to follow food sources. In spring they fished along the coast; in summer they occupied the flatlands to gather nuts and berries and to hunt small game; and in winter they moved closer to the mountains to hunt large game. The population increased dramatically during this period because food was abundant. The Indians developed new types of tools, such as scrapers, drills, axes, and nutting stones (stones with indents used for holding nuts to be cracked open). They also developed the atlatl, a carved stick with a hook on one end and a stone weight on the other. It was thrown like a spear, and in effect it lengthened the arm of the user, providing more speed and force.

During the Woodland period (1000 B.C.–A.D. 1550), Indians developed agriculture, a change brought about by culture, not climate or environment. Woodland Indians started settling along rivers in villages of one hundred to three hundred people. They made farm tools from animal bones and large shells and planted crops in valleys close to rivers to protect the crops from high winds and to use the water nearby. As soon as they harvested one crop, they planted another. They planted beans and maize together on mounds, so that the beans would climb the cornstalks. Around the mounds they planted squash, gourds, and pumpkins to keep out weeds. These plants—corns, beans, and squash—were called the “three sisters.” Woodland Indians made pottery by coiling long ropes of clay and smoothing them out to form containers for storing and preparing food. Pottery was also a form of artistic expression. The bow and arrow became the principal hunting weapon, although the spear and atlatl were still used. Woodland Indians had great respect for the dead and created special places and ceremonies to honor them.

Mississippian Indians (A.D. 700–1550) were the people European explorers met. The Mississippian created large political units called chiefdoms, uniting people under stronger leadership than Woodland cultures had. Their towns were larger and lasted longer. They constructed flat-topped, pyramidal mounds to serve as foundations for temples, mortuaries, chiefs’ houses, and other important buildings. Towns were usually situated beside streams and surrounded by defensive structures. These changes came in part from the invasion and hundred-year stay of Indians from the south into North Carolina’s Piedmont.