Archaic Period

The Archaic in Tennessee is the longest defined prehistoric cultural period, spanning approximately seven thousand years. The beginning of the Archaic Period roughly coincides with the Pleistocene/Holocene glacial boundary at about ten thousand years ago. The period ends with the efflorescence of both ceramic technology and more intense horticulture, hallmarks of the succeeding Woodland Period. One of the original defining features of the Archaic Period, in fact, was the absence of pottery.

In general, small groups of highly mobile hunter-gatherers characterized Archaic settlement patterns. Aggregation locales, where larger groups of people congregated at certain times of the year, were not uncommon, especially as the Archaic Period progressed. Archaic people subsisted on acorns and other plant foods in addition to hunting game animals, primarily white-tailed deer, as well as some smaller animals. Archaic hunters did not have bow and arrow technology but instead used spears. Unlike their Paleo-Indian precursors, they were aided in this endeavor by the atlatl, or spearthrower, which allowed them to hurl their projectiles with greater velocity. Spear points were, on average, much larger than those used in the later Woodland Period. The lifeways of Archaic people, however, were not uniform and homogenous for the entire seven-thousand-year period. Archaeologists have historically divided the Archaic Period into three phases–the Early, Middle, and Late Archaic Periods–to delineate significant cultural changes. Some researchers also define a Terminal Archaic phase, which marks the Archaic/Woodland Period cultural transition.

The Early Archaic Period (8,000-6,000 B.C.) was one of great transition. The end of the Pleistocene brought environmental changes in both flora and fauna. Megafauna, such as the mammoth and mastodon, that dominated the Pleistocene epoch became extinct. The early Holocene was cool and moist but warmer than the previous epoch, one factor that may explain the megafauna extinctions. In addition, oak and hickory forests replaced grasslands and savannahs all over the Southeast. These changes do not appear to have adversely affected prehistoric peoples. Rather, they adapted well to them.

In Tennessee two major cultural variants of the Early Archaic are represented by projectile point/knife (PPKs) types–the earlier Kirk and later Bifurcate traditions. Two forms of Kirk PPKs are recognized. One is a generally large corner-notched point, while the other is a straight-stemmed and often serrated edge form. The corner-notched form chronologically precedes the latter. Kirk people subsisted largely by hunting deer and turkey but also relied on acorn and hickory nuts. There is evidence for seasonal base camps at the Icehouse Bottom and Rose Island sites on the Little Tennessee River. The Bifurcate Tradition differed from the Kirk primarily in the shape of their PPKs. Bifurcate points were notched both on the sides and bases. Subsistence was very similar to that of the Kirk people.

At the end of the Early Archaic Period, the region became very warm and much drier. This climatic change, termed the Altithermal, marks the beginning of the middle Archaic Period at about 5500 B.C. The number of recorded Middle Archaic sites is lower than that recorded for the Early Archaic, suggesting that perhaps this climatic change precipitated migrations to and from certain biotic provinces. Subsistence appears to have remained largely the same, although with the addition of a new pattern: Middle Archaic people intensively harvested fresh water marine resources, especially shellfish. The archaeological record shows vast accumulations known as shell middens; these can be several feet thick at Middle Archaic base camps like the Eva and Hayes sites. In Tennessee two regional variants are distinguished, again primarily by PPK types. Eva points are basally notched and this variant characterizes the western Tennessee River Valley, while the Morrow Mountain variant is typical of the eastern valley. Morrow Mountain points are very similar to Eva points but commonly have rounded bases. Ground stone atlatl weights (or bannerstones) used to hone balance and velocity, made their appearance in the Middle Archaic. Increasing evidence also exists of intentional burial of the dead during this time.

The Late Archaic Period begins at the apex of the Altithermal about 3000 B.C. Conditions approximating those of the present day were reached by 2000 B.C. In evolutionary terms, many changes rapidly occurred during this last phase of the Archaic Period. Population size increased significantly. The number of larger aggregation sites far exceeded that in the Middle Archaic. Ceramic technology began during the late Archaic. Late Archaic pottery from Tennessee is thick and crude and often fiber-tempered. The beginnings of plant domestication and horticulture also first appear during this time. Intensive deep cave exploration and utilization occurred as well. Late Archaic people produced the earliest cave art. Projectile point forms become more variable during the Late Archaic. Early on, both the eastern and western valleys are characterized by large, asymmetrical, straight-stemmed types. In the western valley, however, this type is called Ledbetter and is made of chert or flint. Eastern valley points are termed Appalachian-stemmed and are made largely of quartzite. Later point forms became more varied. Deep corner-notched forms are found in the western valley, small straight-stemmed types in the eastern valley, and shallow side-notched forms in the Cumberland Plateau region.

Thus, the Archaic Period, including its constituent phases and traditions, is essentially defined by its great age, lack of pottery until late in the period, and projectile point forms. Small, mobile groups of hunter-gatherers, exploiting a wide variety of terrestrial and marine resources, dominated the landscape. Larger groups of people aggregated at certain times of the year at seasonal base camps in the major river valleys in order to form alliances and find mates. Archaic hunter-gatherers explored and exploited a vast and diverse array of ecological niches across Tennessee.

Suggested Reading

J. A. Bense, Archaeology of the Southeastern United States (1994); Jefferson Chapman, Tellico Archaeology: 12,000 Years of Native American History (1987); J. T. Dowd, The Anderson Site: Middle Archaic Adaptation in Tennessee’s Central Basin (1989); T. M. N. Lewis and M. K. Lewis, Eva: An Archaic Site (1961)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Archaic Period
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018