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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, March 2021

Problems in North American Chronology, Part 6:
“The Adena Emperor Wears No Clothes”

by: Bill Branch

The previous five installments of these articles published last year drew attention to problems in the prehistoric timeline of North America. These problems include unresolved questions, contradictory data, problems in research methodologies, and general controversies relating to everything from how and when geological features such as the Carolina Bays formed, to establishing proper chronological sequences and relationships between the largest prehistoric cultures.

The previous articles looked at the period from the end of the last ice age to the Archaic period, but the vast majority of actual archaeological artifacts in eastern North America are attributed to communities and cultures which were not established until the Late Archaic at the earliest, and often not until the later half of the Woodland period or during the Mississippian period. Since most archaeological evidence comes from these most recent eras, there is a much greater volume and complexity of data relating to these eras.

Debating What “Late Archaic” and “Early Woodland” Really Mean

What exactly makes a prehistoric people qualify as “Woodland” as opposed to “Archaic” or any other period has remained poorly defined ever since the terms were introduced in the mid-1900s. It is not the appearance of ceramics that sets them apart (some Early Woodland people did not have ceramics, while ceramics in the Savannah Valley and elsewhere are dated to the Middle Archaic). It is not necessarily any great change in population size, either (Late Archaic settlements were larger in some areas and Early Woodland settlements larger in others), nor subsistence patterns, nor any other one, consistent thing that uniformly applies across all Woodland sites. Nor is it even a specific time period, as demonstrated by the fact that Woodland period and the Mississippian period largely overlapped, and are defined more by cultural differences than dates. Which cultures are categorized as “Woodland” varies in archaeological literature from region to region and from author to author, but the period self-evidently begins by conflating the past of at least three distinct and historically-documented groups of people living in the Northeast at first contact, namely the ancestors of Algonquians, Siouans, and Iroquoians.

After several decades of collecting and classifying artifacts from thousands of archaeological sites, and publishing detailed regional studies of every watershed in the East, many archaeologists believed the vagaries concerning the definition of “Woodland” could finally be clarified if only a “big picture” narrative could be pieced together from all the regional studies. Kenneth Farnsworth and Thomas Emerson believed this, and in November 1982 they organized their second annual archaeological seminar at Kampsville, Illinois to define Early Woodland and justify its distinction from the Late Archaic or Middle Woodland. Though their primary focus was upon the Midwest and the central Mississippi Valley, attendees also cross-referenced data from the peripheries of the Mississippi Valley and ultimately nearly the entire eastern half of the continent. The conclusions of the conference were published four years later in 1986, in a collection of studies and summaries of regional archaeology contributed by a number of regional authorities.

Though they began with optimism that they might clarify the issue, a “Review of Interpretations” by James A. Brown of Northwestern University noted that the archaeologists could not come to a common consensus on what “Early Woodland” meant, and that “the Early Woodland period is vulnerable to conceptual obsolescence” as a result. [1] Contributors representing Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota noted that there was little or no evidence for an Early Woodland time period at all in their parts of the country, while contributors from other regions were drawn to evidence suggesting mass migrations rather than in-situ “evolution” of cultures. The evolutionary stage model may appropriately be “vulnerable to conceptual obsolescence,” as Brown stated, because of how poorly the model conforms to and makes sense of the available evidence, as documented below.

Here are some of the highlights of the conference’s deep-dive into Early Woodland boundaries around the Mississippi Valley, from its various contributing authors.


“For the most part, Early Woodland components are known only from the presence of a few thick interior-exterior cordmarked sherds and perhaps a “diagnostic” projectile point or two in mixed collections.” Mixed collections are artifacts from a single site or complex which had no clear stratigraphical order, but mixed multiple cultures and time periods together in a single strata, such as surface finds. Archaeologists have dated Early Woodland in Michigan to as early as 600 BC, yet there is no evidence for any significant activity until “five centuries later [with] the appearance of Middle Woodland burial mounds and artifact assemblages. The period between these two occurrences remains very poorly known and until recently there have been no radiocarbon-dated sites within the latter part of the Early Woodland.” [2]

“The Late Archaic in western Michigan is very poorly known.…The available evidence indicates that Hopewell Middle Woodland is intrusive into Michigan from the Illinois area.” [3]

So to condense this summary of western Michigan, the Late Archaic “is very poorly known” there, the Early Woodland is attested by “only…a few thick interior-exterior cordmarked sherds and perhaps a…point or two,” and the first significant activity after those eras came with the Hopewell culture, likely “intrusive…from the Illinois area.” Effectively, evidence for both the Late Archaic and the Early Woodland periods is relatively lacking in western Michigan. Obviously this does not mean that centuries or even millennia of actual time surrealistically failed to pass in Michigan, nor that it was totally unoccupied during that time. These are instead observations which explain the stratigraphic sequence by pointing to the centrality of distinct ethno-cultural or ethno-genetic groups, their migrations, and their interactions with one another over long periods of time. In this way, the typical Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian settlements could have all existed at the same moment in prehistory, because the terms represent distinct cultures more than they do time periods. Even the Paleoindian (Clovis) and Archaic strata are in reverse order at some sites, as mentioned previously.


“At the present time, it seems that Minnesota lacks a meaningful Early Woodland period and associated Early Woodland artifact complexes.” [4]

“Even if some of this material does date to the Early Woodland time period, it occurs in such small relative proportions to other apparently contemporaneous “Archaic” materials that it is probably meaningless to talk of an Early Woodland period for Minnesota.…Minnesota apparently lacks both Early Woodland complexes and a meaningful Early Woodland time period. A few archeologists in the state have recognized this absence by referring to the ca. 200 B.C.–A.D. 900 time period as Initial Woodland.…Why did Early Woodland cultural influence never penetrate the state, and why did the stylistically Early Woodland ceramic and lithic elements we do find arrive at such an apparent late date?” [5]

Notice two things in this last passage by Guy Gibbon: first, he notes that the Late Archaic artifacts in Minnesota significantly outnumber the Early Woodland artifacts, when the evolutionary stage model of prehistory leads one to expect the opposite; and second, he adds that the Early Woodland and Archaic materials were “apparently contemporaneous,” meaning that they were two distinct peoples who lived in proximity to each other during the same time period.


“During the span of time usually assigned to the Early Woodland period in other areas, south-central Wisconsin seems to have been occupied by peoples with a Late Archaic technology.” [6] Here again, this statement can only make sense if the terms “Early Woodland” and “Late Archaic” are more associated with distinct cultures than chronological time.

“The older, solid-carbon dates from the Oconto site have been discounted as being too old and inconsistent with younger dates provided by more modern techniques.” [7]

With respect to Wisconsin, Philip Salkin also discusses problems in radiocarbon dates which appear to create large gaps of inactivity between Late Archaic and Early Woodland sites, despite evidence elsewhere showing Late Archaic and Early Woodland cultures existing simultaneously. It is curious that radiocarbon dates conform to the evolutionary stage model of prehistory in this case even when the actual stratigraphical evidence clearly does not. If Early Woodland dates are too old, it creates an unexplained chronological gap between Early Woodland and Middle Woodland settlements and suggests that the continuity of occupation was interrupted, a circumstance for which there is often no evidence in the stratigraphy. If Early Woodland dates in Wisconsin are too recent, then they pull the Old Copper culture closer to the present, when Old Copper has previously been dated to much older than 1000 BC, and roughly contemporaneous with the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean. The date cited by Salkin seems rather recent for Old Copper artifacts (at least compared to other authors), but no matter what the absolute date range, the Early Woodland in Wisconsin represents the late stage of the copper-mining people. (It may be worth reiterating parenthetically that the greater Lake Superior region was not only home to the copper-mining culture but has also been recognized by linguists as the origination point for Algonquian dialects.)

Early Woodland cultures not only co-existed simultaneously with Late Archaic cultures in some regions, but in some cases with Middle Woodland cultures as well: “…we must face the possibility that Black Sand culture, at least the Prairie variant, co-existed with part of the Havana tradition. Such a state of affairs has much larger implications, for the possible co-existence of a typologically Early Woodland complex with a typologically Middle Woodland complex once again dramatizes the ambiguities of the McKern-derived taxonomic system wherein a single taxonomic term can simultaneously convey temporal and formal connotations.” [8]


“All of the few excavated and radiocarbon-dated Early Woodland assemblages in Iowa are from multi-component sites…Beyond these, the bulk of the evidence for the Early Woodland period comes from surficial finds of diagnostic projectile points and pottery.” [9]


“The Early Woodland is an enigma period in the prehistory of the eastern U.S. Until recently, it was viewed as a stage-like unit which spanned a time when events such as the introduction of the concept of ceramics, the beginnings of agriculture, the elaboration of mortuary ceremonialism, and the beginnings of mound building occurred across the Midwest…However, most of these traits have now been qualified to the point that they have lost their original significance.” [10]

“The question of whether mound building is associated with Red Ochre mortuary sites was debated even before the Red Ochre mortuary complex was formally defined, and has again been a contended issue in recent years.” [11] Marion Thick is the style of ceramics associated with the Red Ochre people, who also appear to have been the Old Copper people.

“Sites having Marion Thick ceramics constitute less than 0.004% of the local archaeological site inventory. All are multicomponent and they are characterized by a paucity of Marion Thick pottery, the only unquestionably diagnostic item of material culture. Rarely have more than a few sherds been recovered from any given site location. This situation is probably not surprising since the Marion phase occupation seems to have been comparatively small and relatively short lived.” [12]

Of only three Early Woodland sites that Harn could cite in the central Illinois River Valley, none of them produced significant evidence of occupation: “Limited activity and the paucity of associated features in the first of these two occupation areas certainly suggest brevity, even though one had the heaviest concentration of artifacts of any of the three occupations.” [13]

“Except for the Black Sand phase, the lower Illinois Valley data base to support this chronology was thin indeed.” [14]

“There is accumulating evidence in midwestern archeology for occasional large scale population movements and shifting modal community locations…[which] very likely resulted in uneven archeological site distribution along resource-rich river valleys.” [15]

“The descendents of Florence phase people are as poorly known as their ancestors. It seems, based on very limited data, that the Florence phase may give rise to the very poorly known Columbia complex.” [16]

Gulf Coast:

“Between approximately 100 B.C. and A.D. 1, many of the ceramic decorative elements that were present earlier in distinct complexes in specific regions spread across the Gulf Coastal Plain and up the Mississippi Valley to become recombined in several regionally distinct Middle Woodland ceramic complexes.” [17]

Ohio Valley:

““Adena,” to continue the clarification of terminology, is that rather amorphous Early Woodland cultural manifestation in the Ohio Valley identified with burial-mound construction, elaborate mortuary ceremony, and such specific artifact classes as tubular pipes, semi-keeled gorgets, expanded-center gorgets, Adena ovate-based projectile points, hematite celts, copper bracelets, and Adena Plain, Fayette Thick, and Montgomery Incised ceramics…Because of the vigorous application of the “trait list” approach from the 1930s through 1960s, Adena grew rapidly by accretion and in the process lost any local integrity it may have enjoyed; it is now something of a catch-all for Early Woodland sites from Pittsburgh to Louisville.” [18]

“Because of certain late radiocarbon dates, some researchers maintain that Adena lags well into the Middle Woodland period, and hence it is partially contemporaneous with local Hopewell populations…Such an interpretation fails to explain adequately the lack of similarities between preserved Adena and Hopewell neighbors in such valleys as the Scioto and Hocking…and in fact is rejected by many Ohio Valley archeologists.” [19]

Professor Brown then summarizes the interpretations of all of the other contributing authors of the volume:

“The significance of pottery remains as obscure as ever.” [20]

“A major conclusion to be drawn from many of these papers is that the Early Woodland period cannot be described as a stage of cultural development. The period simply represents the time of initial ceramic development before the onset of the Hopewellian horizon of cultural interconnections.” [21]

“Further south in the Mississippi Valley region, Butler and Jeffries find continuity from the Late Archaic to the Middle Woodland, with only arbitrary divisions between these periods. The continuity extends strongly into the first millennium A.D., with no break in artifact styles or apparent basic adaptational patterns.” In other words, despite being labeled variously from Late Archaic to Middle Woodland, the archaeological evidence in this area indicates no cultural discontinuity, though it represents different Archaic and Woodland manifestations than regions farther north. [22] In this case, the respective Archaic and Woodland manifestations between the lower Mississippi and the upper Mississippi were culturally distinct and are only grouped together for living during the same general time period.

“The Red Ochre burial complex is now widely recognized to fall mainly within the Early Woodland period, although ceramics are absent in this complex.” [23]

“Seeman correctly observes that Adena is an abused taxonomic designation. It is one of the last of the trait-list-derived “cultures.” The very method by which this complex was constructed presaged trouble down the road when archeologists expected more of their taxa than a list of traits.…It is a loosely defined complex, basically, for burial mounds only, that is based on the widest circle of trait correspondences—including items now recognized either as horizon markers or as long-distance trade goods.…It is time that someone declares the Adena “emperor” to have “no clothes.”” [24]

Farnsworth and Emerson’s collection of studies is not alone in challenging the viability of the conventional terms. A more recent paper on “Adena Mortuary Patterns in Central Ohio” by Christopher Hayes in a 2010 issue of Southeastern Archaeology draws attention to the same taxonomic problems, and makes references back to Brown’s 1986 summary as well as two other studies from 2005. These last two studies, according to Hayes, “have noted correctly that it is one of the last trait-derived cultures that loosely associate a wide variety of Early and Middle Woodland mortuary practices in the Ohio Valley.” [25]

“Conceptual Obsolescence”

Taken altogether, archaeological literature shows the term “Woodland” to arbitrarily include some groups of people and while excluding others for no single, consistent reason. It includes people who lived during different centuries or even during different millennia according to radiocarbon dates, who came from distinct cultures and ancestries, and who migrated across the continent to spread their cultures into new regions over time. These different groups spoke different families of languages, had different material cultures, practiced different lifestyles, and preferred to live in different types of environments. So what does it actually mean to say that a culture is a “Woodland” culture, when that vague term could mean any of those things just listed? It is not a term which elucidates the identity of any prehistoric people or time period, but which confounds several of them into an “amorphous” “catch-all,” as Seeman noted of the term “Adena” as well. These groups have to be teased back out into their distinct origins and identities before any meaningful insight can be gained into what stories they might have to tell.

Though the dates which archaeologists assign to different prehistoric periods has changed over time, as mentioned in previous articles, the conventional chronology of North America was originally based on the idea that different artifact types represented different time periods. The general idea, in line with evolutionary stage archaeology, was this: first some millennia of Paleoindian artifacts, then some millennia of Archaic artifacts, then a few millennia of Woodland artifacts, all in a clear sequential order which neatly filled in the entire 10,000 or 12,000 years of prehistory (if only meagerly). Instead, archaeologists find that these sequences are not always in “the right order,” and often represent different people who lived next to each other and interacted.

These findings severely undermine the assumptions upon which the entire prehistoric chronology was initially based. It is useless to think of cultures becoming more sophisticated and “evolving” their tools over millennia, when it can be clearly seen in the archaeology that changes in tool styles were actually associated with changes in trade routes and related mass migrations. Artifact styles change suddenly in the stratigraphy not because centuries and millennia of manufacturing the same stone point over and over before finally reaching a “eureka” moment, but rather because an entirely new people showed up and brought a new tradition of making tools as quickly as within a single generation, and has nothing to do with cultural evolution. Extremely long periods of time are not required for cultural development of one type of tool to the next. In fact, overlapping the “time periods” in the manner in which they are observed mixed in the soil cannot serve to lengthen the total amount of absolute time which has passed, but only shrink it, even if the general “evolutionary stage” framework were retained.


[1] James A. Brown, “Early Ceramics and Culture: A Review of Interpretations,” in Early Woodland Archeology, Kenneth R. Farnsworth and Thomas E. Emerson, eds., Kampsville Seminars in Archeology No. 2 (Kampsville, Illinois: Center for American Archeology, 1986), 599.

[2] Elizabeth Garland, “Early Woodland Occupations in Michigan: A Lower St. Joseph Valley Perspective,” in Early Woodland Archeology, Farnsworth and Emerson, eds., 47.

[3] Garland, 75–76.

[4] Guy Gibbon, “Does Minnesota Have an Early Woodland?,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 84.

[5] Gibbon, 89.

[6] Philip H. Salkin, “The Lake Farms Phase: The Early Woodland Stage in South-Central Wisconsin Seen from the Lake Farms Archeological District,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 118.

[7] Salkin, 115.

[8] Ibid., 135.

[9] Joseph A. Tiffany, “The Early Woodland Period in Iowa,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 160.

[10] R. Barry Lewis, “Early Woodland Adaptations to the Illinois Prairie,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 171.

[11] Duane Esarey, “Red Ochre Mound Building and Marion Phase Associations: A Fulton County, Illinois Perspective,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 231.

[12] Alan D. Harn, “The Marion Phase Occupation of the Larson Site in the Central Illinois River Valley,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 244.

[13] Harn, 276.

[14] Kenneth B. Farnsworth and David L. Ash, “Early Woodland Chronology, Artifact Styles, and Settlement Distribution in the Lower Illinois Valley Region,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 326.

[15] Farnsworth and Ash, 447.

[16] Thomas E. Emerson and Andrew C. Fortier, “Early Woodland Cultural Variation, Subsistence, and Settlement in the American Bottom,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 512.

[17] Ned J. Jenkins, David H. Dye, and John A. Walthall, “Early Ceramic Development in the Gulf Coastal Plain,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 559.

[18] Mark F. Seeman, “Adena ‘Houses’ and Their Implications for Early Woodland Settlement Models in the Ohio Valley,” in Early Woodland Archeology, 566.

[19] Seeman, 567.

[20] Brown, 598.

[21] Ibid., 599.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 605.

[24] Ibid., 606.

[25] Christopher T. Hayes, “Adena Mortuary Patterns in Central Ohio,” Southeastern Archaeology 29, no. 1 (Summer 2010), 106–120.


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