Two of Tennessee’s best known prehistoric sites, Pinson Mounds in Madison County and the Old Stone Fort in Coffee County, date to the Woodland Period (300 B.C. to A.D. 900). Anthropologist Charles Hudson concluded that the Woodland tradition represented “probably the most distinctive, the most completely indigenous culture ever to exist in eastern North America.” (1)
The period was one of continuity and change for prehistoric Tennesseans. In general, Woodland peoples followed a hunting and gathering way of life similar to their ancestors of the Late Archaic Period, but they also learned to exploit the region’s resources in a more efficient manner. While seasonal exploitation of resources remained the norm, Woodland peoples collected and stored nuts, berries, and seeds. Remnants of hickory nuts, walnuts, butternuts, acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts, chestnuts, grapes, persimmons, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and honey locust pods have been found at Woodland Period sites. Practicing a more sedentary life and building more permanent dwellings than their forebears, Woodland peoples also demonstrated a preference for living near river flood plains. A considerably large trade network also developed among prehistoric peoples throughout eastern North America. Pinson Mounds, for example, has yielded artifacts from Georgia and Louisiana.
Agricultural practices began to emerge during these centuries. The Native Americans used both native and tropical plants. Seeds were cultivated from sunflowers, sumpweeds, and chenopodiums and taken from pigweeds, knotweeds, giant ragweeds, and maygrass. Tropical flint corn was acquired about A.D. 200. Other tropical plants included the bottle gourd and squash, both from present-day Mexico, which were made into containers.
Pottery also became widespread, with local groups making their own distinctive forms and decorating them in locally distinctive ways such as bird and serpent motifs. Luxury items included gorgets, which were flat objects of stone, copper, or wood designed to be worn on a cord and placed around the neck. They also beaded freshwater pearls into necklaces and bracelets and used them in clothing as beads. Prehistoric peoples fashioned platform pipes, a grave artifact, from stone or made them with pottery. Woodland period graves have yielded small, carefully crafted animal effigies as well.
The Woodland Period tradition of elaborate burials left a lasting mark on the landscape. Native Americans built large mortuary mounds and other monumental earthworks. In some cases, bodies were buried in log tombs, which were then covered with dirt forming the mound. Some burial mounds contained only one body; others contained multiple burials. The bodies were commonly accompanied by grave goods, including pottery, jewelry, and sheets of mica. Old Stone Fort is a significant example of another type of Woodland Period structure, a large ceremonial structure whose exact purpose and use are still unclear.