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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, September 2020

Problems in North American Chronology, Part 4: The Archaic Period

by: Bill Branch

The Archaic Period

The Archaic period is the single longest prehistoric period in North America as conceived by archaeologists today. As with all prehistoric periods, the estimated dates of its exact beginning and end vary from author to author and from location to location, but its duration in round numbers spans about seven to eight thousand years according to most contemporary sources, from roughly 8000 BC to 1000 BC. This represents well over half of the roughly 12,000 years that are supposed to have elapsed since the geological upheaval that terminated the last ice age. Despite its virtually incomprehensible duration, archaeologists, including the Smithsonian’s own authorities, have readily admitted that there is relatively little archaeological evidence to show for it, both compared to the density of material from other prehistoric periods and in relation to its own supposed time frame. This was the circumstance acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s William Funk in the Northeast reference volume quoted previously. It appears that in many ways archaeologists have a better understanding of the earlier Clovis period, despite it occupying a much smaller window of time even deeper in the past.

To clarify how archaeologists conventionally date this period, one may consider a few sources from reference volumes and specialized regional studies. The research gathered by Funk in 1978 draws from a number of other archaeologists who provide different date ranges in different geographical contexts. He cites research indicating that the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods as a whole overlapped each other for a significant amount of time, dating the Paleo-Indian period (to which Clovis belongs) from about 10,500 BC to as late as 6000 BC (a 4500-year period), and the Archaic from at least 8000 BC, when he estimates ice age megafauna to have gone extinct, to as recently as 1500 BC (a 6500-year period). Specifically, Funk references the work of Melvin L. Fowler of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the late authority of the Cahokia site near St. Louis, who was also responsible for proposing a chronological sequence of the Archaic period “arbitrarily divided into three subperiods: the Early Archaic, 8000–6000 B.C.; the Middle Archaic, 6000–4000 B.C.; and the Late Archaic, 4000–1500 B.C.” [1] When Funk explains that these periods were designated “arbitrarily,” he seems to be referring to the fact that these ranges merely divide the Archaic into uniform periods of about 2000 years each for convenience rather than based upon any particular evidence of cultural differentiation, though the Late Archaic is extended an extra 500 years of transitional time into the Woodland era.

In the essay immediately following Funk’s in Northeast, James A. Tuck treats the development of subsequent Woodland cultures from environmental conditions which had developed “since prior to 3000 B.C.” [2] This indicates another overlap, this time transitional from the Late Archaic into the Woodland, leaving only about 3000 years (6000 to 3000 BC) as purely “Archaic.” It should be noted that all of this research was prior to both the Cactus Hill discoveries of the 1990s and the dramatic shortening of Clovis-era occupations by Waters and Stafford in 2007. While the evidence of a direct transition of Late Archaic cultures into Woodland cultures seems relatively straightforward, archaeologists still debate the relationship between Clovis and successor Archaic cultures, and what kind of contact those two categories of people or cultures may or may not have had with each other. These dates are also generalizations for an area covering nearly half a continent, within which a great diversity of cultural activities occurred at different times.

More recent research for more specific locations, such as Moore and Randolph’s 2011 study on the archaeology and geochronology of coastal North Carolina, for example, dates the Archaic period along the Tar River from 11,450 to 3200 years “before present” (as of 2011), or about 9440 to 1190 BC by the traditional calendar, a period of 8250 years in either case. [3] Kenneth Sassaman, an archaeologist with the University of Florida who specializes in the Archaic period, similarly described the Archaic in a 2010 publication as taking up “roughly 8,300 calendar years.” [4] In summary, contemporary research attributes more or less 8000 years to the Archaic period and its representative cultures, though Fowler in 1959 initially assigned it a duration of 6500 years. Scholars prior to around the mid-20th century did not recognize a formal Archaic period at all, though they were aware of relatively sparse archaeological strata evidencing prehistoric hunter-gatherers, with which they included the material culture we now recognize as Clovis.

Aside from the passage in Funk’s article quoted previously, where he mentions the “paucity of data” with which the Archaic is “meagerly represented,” he adds later in the same article that, “For New York, New England, and adjoining areas…[New York archaeologist William A. Ritchie] has repeatedly noted the absence of extreme rarity of Early or Middle Archaic remains comparable to those of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys and the Southeast in general.…Until 1966, no Archaic assemblages in Pennsylvania, New York, New England, and the Upper Great Lakes could be confidently assigned an age as great as 3000 B.C.”, (emphasis added). [5] This is a particularly interesting admission for two reasons. First, the Mississippi watershed and southeastern United States are precisely the areas of study for which the first formal application of the term “Archaic” was developed by James Ford and Gordon Willey in 1941, so it would seem that occupations called Archaic are concentrated in the same areas that were later inhabited by Mississippian cultures. Secondly, and related to the previous point, Mississippian expansions occurred relatively late in prehistory and were built on top of these “Archaic” occupations, which other archaeologists have since associated with previous Hopewellian expansions due (at least in part) to similarities to earthworks of the Adena-Hopewell cultures of the northeast (in the Ohio Valley, around the Great Lakes, New England, and “adjoining areas”), where the Mississippian influence was negligible or fully non-existent.

In other words, there seems to be an uncannily inverse relationship between the times and places of early Adena-Hopewell occupation, and the presence of Archaic artifacts, despite certain visible similarities. Ford and Wiley specifically show Mississippian mound sites that were built directly on top of earlier “Archaic” mounds that more resemble the rounded Adena-Hopewell variety. Archaic occupations in the southeast, especially for the oldest inhabited sites, are virtually always in what later became Mississippian territory. By contrast, in areas with recognized Hopewellian occupations but little or no Mississippian occupations (such as the Great Lakes area and northeast more generally), there is an “absence or extreme rarity” of Archaic artifacts until (coincidentally!) the Late Archaic transitions into the Woodland period, when the Adena-Hopewell flourished. In areas that were occupied by Mississippian peoples, evidence of earlier “Archaic” occupation (including rounded burial mounds) are much more abundant. This suggests that “Archaic” cultures may represent more of an earlier cultural phenomenon related to the Adena-Hopewell complex than a stage of prehistoric development uniform to all cultures as initially argued by some, an idea which has been at the center of a longstanding debate ever since the idea of the Archaic period was first introduced in the 1940s.

Sassaman published a volume in 2010 entitled The Eastern Archaic, Historicized, in which he summarizes research history and problems that have plagued the study of the Archaic since its tentative conceptual development between the 1930s and 1950s. In the opening of his volume, Sassaman stresses the overall neglect scholars have shown this period despite the enormous and central span of time attributed to it:

“If the human presence in North America is at least 13,500 calendar years long, then at roughly 8,300 calendar years, the Archaic period comprises about 63 percent of the pre-Columbian past. Still, authors of syntheses published since 1980 devote no more than 30 percent of their pages to the period…and they average a lowly 16 percent. Contrast this with the attention to human experience after the Archaic period. Although it comprises only 21.3 percent of the total past, the last three millennia account for 73.4 percent of the pages of regional syntheses.” [6]

Sassaman suggests that the Archaic period has been neglected by archaeologists and ethnologists because it is “sandwiched between two pillars of origins: origins of humans in general [in North America] and origins of humans most familiar to us,” in other words between Clovis and their forebears, and the earliest origins of historically-recognizable Native American tribes during the Woodland period. [7] One could perhaps attribute a better understanding of the earlier Clovis period to a greater academic interest in it, but this hardly resolves the problems inherent to the Archaic itself. While he seeks to explain the lack of academic literature devoted to the period, Sassaman does not directly address the relative absence of material evidence itself to which Funk earlier alluded. Since modern archaeologists excavate archaeological sites strata by strata, and since these same sites were frequently occupied by successive phases of prehistoric cultures for reasons rooted in local geography, a lack of academic interest in the period should have no bearing on the relative quantity artifacts deposited in soil strata by successive cultural phases or periods before reaching sterile earth, for example.

As Funk himself states in relation to the Archaic in the northeast, “there is no denying the extreme paucity of Early to Middle Archaic manifestations relative to Late Archaic materials in upstate New York and New England. It seems clear that sampling factors alone do not account for the difference.” [8] The deficiency of material evidence is therefore not simply a result of disinterest, nor even of looking in the wrong places. Neither does disinterest on the part of scholars resolve other problems with the Archaic period discussed later, such as what Sassaman calls the “one point type equals one culture mentality.” The only thing such disinterest might partially explain is why scholars have so far failed to address or resolve these problems.

While he does not address it directly, Sassaman understands that the Archaic has a reputation among archaeologists for providing scant evidence of human activity over an enormous span of time. This understanding is expressed obliquely when he writes derisively of the idea of the Archaic as “an intervening period of either slow, gradual change, or stasis. No revolutions occurred, no major events transpired, and change, when it elapsed, was gradual. Even the environment did its part to keep things quiet.” [9] Yet the only counter he offers to this perception is the lack of academic interest just mentioned, which is neither a substantive nor even relevant response. He nonetheless provides two quotes from two other authorities expressing this same perception in different ways, Jerald Milanich and Bruce D. Smith:

[Milanich (1994):] “The environment did not change quickly during the Archaic period. Although the beginning or end of a wetter or drier period is assigned a specific date, that date is a convenient marker approximating the start or end of a gradual trend.” … [Smith (1986):] “There is, in fact, very little in the archaeological record of the Southeast to suggest that the middle Holocene witnessed an ever increasing inventory of tool types or that any technological innovations of a revolutionary nature took place.” [10]

Both of these authors reiterate the perception that nothing of consequence seems to have occurred during the Archaic despite the mind-boggling duration flippantly attributed to it. In fact, the long duration of the period is precisely why so little appears to have taken place for so long. Note that Milanich’s statement in particular even brings the environment itself into the lack of activity, suggesting not only a lack of archaeological development but relatively static or at least very gradually changing environmental conditions associated with the period as well. This only adds to the inexplicable nature of the problem, as it seems intuitive that several millennia of relative environmental stability should provide ideal conditions for human population growth, especially compared to the relatively cold, turbulent, and generally inhospitable conditions in which the Clovis culture rapidly spread across the entire continent and beyond. Yet there is no evidence for the Archaic period experiencing anything like the explosion of activity during the earlier and more turbulent Clovis period until the transition into the more agricultural and populous Woodland period.

Even taking into account the lack of agriculture, and supposing that population sizes remained small as a result, multiple hundreds of generations of hunter-gatherer societies should have left behind a considerable accumulation of material at every place where these successive generations made their shelters or found outcroppings for their tool production, and these should not be so rare or difficult for archaeologists to locate, especially since Archaic sites in themselves have not been particularly difficult to locate (they are often immediately below Woodland occupations!). The manufacture of stone points at rock outcroppings alone, year after year, hunting season after hunting season, lifetime after lifetime, multiplied by hundreds of generational iterations, should have produced a quantity of evidence fully proportional to seven or eight millennia of continuous activity, and yet archaeologists have difficulty providing even a small handful of sites to satisfy this expectation.

Even considering the nomadic nature of natives of this period, the stone outcroppings on which they depended for their tools remained stationary and would presumably have been revisited repeatedly, generation after generation, for thousands of years by communities so conservative in their methods of subsistence that they seemingly failed to even develop new variations of stone tools for hundreds of years at a time. When one also considers that the earlier Clovis people, who were also hunter-gatherers, may have left behind all of their physical materials in as little as 200 or 300 years, the idea that material evidence for several millennia of subsequent Archaic occupations should be so rare seems even more inexplicable and absurd. By all appearances, the material evidence associated with the Archaic period would be much better suited to a significantly shorter span of time, in which context these problems would be instantly resolved. Since challenging the gradualist chronological framework is effectively verboten, however, modern academia rules out the option of dramatically shortening the Archaic period by default.

The Origins of the Archaic Period as a Concept

The modern, formal idea of an Archaic “stage” or period of development first emerged from analyses of archaeological field work the 1930s and 1940s. A great increase in archaeological surveys during this time was spurred on by a proportional increase in federal funding from the Roosevelt administration during the Great Depression, when agencies such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid teams of laborers who typically had little or no archaeological training to quickly survey and excavate numerous prehistoric sites. These surveys and excavations were often conducted on a rushed schedule before the construction of dams or other public works projects which threatened the integrity of these sites. The archaeological work conducted by these teams has itself been the frequent target of criticism by later researchers, however, who complain of the complete destruction of many earthworks and other sites with little professional documentation to show for it.

In 1941, James A. Ford and Gordon R. Willey published their consequentially influential paper in American Anthropologist establishing a framework for the prehistoric chronology of the eastern half of the United States. Their study was based on the work recently conducted across the country by the WPA and other agencies and institutions. [11] The authors described the new era in American archaeology as:

“…a remarkably rapid increase in information concerning the prehistory of the eastern part of the United States in the last ten years. This has been the direct result of archeological researches undertaken by several federal agencies and by universities or other institutions in nearly every one of the states. Undoubtedly the large amount of apparently disconnected data now in print, or yet unpublished but serving as common topics for discussion among specialists in this field, must be confusing to those who wish to make a survey of the prehistory of this area.” [12]

In an effort to alleviate this confusion, Ford and Willey attempted to synthesize the work of regional archaeologists and organizations such as the Southeastern Archaeological Conference to create a ‘big picture’ framework for the entire eastern half of the United States. The part of eastern North America which they sought to generalize was not just east of the Mississippi River, but east of the Rocky Mountains, an area which they termed the “Eastern Maize Area” in reference to the prevalence of domesticated corn. They recognized the Mississippi River and its major tributaries as the “heart” of this region due to factors including its geographic centrality, dominant cultural influences (including, as it turns out, the introduction of corn from Middle and South America), and the fact that it was home to the largest and densest population clusters in prehistoric North America.

Mississippian peoples dominated most of this interior area between the Rockies and the Appalachians, and generally south of the Great Lakes, at least by the late prehistoric era. Later archaeologists would realize that the Mississippian influences were a relatively late arrival in most of this area, with Mississippian influence still expanding up the Ohio River at the time of first European contact, but it does not appear that this sequence of events was yet clearly understood in 1941. More peripheral areas of eastern North America away from this central cultural complex, including the Great Lakes region, the interior of Canada beyond them, and the northern part of the Atlantic Coast on the opposite side of the Appalachian Mountains, exhibit little to no evidence of Mississippian occupation at any time. These peripheral areas conform less to Ford and Willey’s model of prehistoric development and were perhaps its most fatal flaw for a national application.

Since isotopic dating methods such as C-14 had not yet been developed in 1941, Ford and Willey relied primarily upon stratigraphy to establish their chronological sequences. Analyzing the layers of soil from mounds in the Mississippi watershed and along the Gulf Coast, it was the deepest and earliest archaeological strata which they categorized as “Archaic.” Though earlier American archaeologists had applied the term “archaic” in various contexts, these two authors were now formalizing the term for a specific and technical meaning. They described their use of the term “Archaic” in the following passage:

“It appears to be justifiable to apply the name “archaic” to the earliest known cultural horizon in the East. The cultures of this period were “archaic” in the true sense; horticulture was lacking, pottery is either absent or makes its appearance late in the stage, and the abundance, variety and quality of artifacts do not compare with the more complex later developments. On the other hand the archaic cultures established a complex containing many elements which lasted on into later periods. This stage appears to provide a sort of foundation cultural pattern for the East into which new traits and complexes were intruded to form the later cultural stages.” [13]

Note that when Ford and Willey state that the Archaic was “a sort of foundational cultural pattern for the East into which new traits and complexes were intruded,” it is not clear that the intrusions they had in mind included the likely violent displacement of Hopewellian peoples by later Mississippians migrating up from the Gulf of Mexico. (The very idea that different prehistoric communities could have been violent towards each other seems to have often been discouraged in earlier literature, despite its obvious historical reality when the first European explorers arrived.) Nor could they have considered this, since the full range of the Hopewellian cultural spread was not yet clear, and neither was the identity of the Mississippians yet well developed. Instead, as other archaeologists clarified into the 1950s, they seem to have been implying that the Archaic was a developmental phase more or less common to the entire eastern half of the continent, from which prehistoric natives peacefully progressed into more differentiated cultures.

Ford and Willey added a few other important observations in regards to this “stage” of development. For example, these Archaic strata featured more primitive artifacts, but none of the “Folsomoid” (Clovis) points that had recently been uncovered in the canyons farther west. They thus distinguished the Archaic from the “Paleoindian” period being first defined around the same time. The Archaic strata also revealed conical mounds of earth as opposed to the platforms or truncated pyramids of the later Mississippian mounds common to their area of focus. This again fits the idea that the “Archaic” in the south was more of an early cultural phenomenon associated with the ancestors of the Hopewell people than it was a universal evolutionary stage of development.

Apparently realizing that their chronological model was generalizing at the expense of a more complex diversity of evidence, Ford and Willey qualified their work as pertaining primarily “to the prehistory of the southern and central parts of the eastern area. Even with this limitation it is not practical to discuss the cultural features of the various subareas and time periods in any detaill. [sic]” [14] The problem with that, however, was that local and regional surveys had dominated American archaeology up to this time, and many archaeologists felt that this “comprehensive outline” of prehistory was limited in its usefulness and explanatory power. Archaeologists such as Ford and Willey thus faced a tough sell in many cases, especially when the archaeology of smaller or peripheral areas differed from the generalized models based on the Mississippi watershed. Debates over the utility of such continent-wide frameworks continued into the 1950s and beyond, developing into two competing schools of thought which archaeologists today still seek to reconcile, to unite local prehistoric sequences with a continental ‘big picture.’

Foreshadowing a problem that would become even more pronounced in studies of the later Woodland period, persuasive presentations at the annual conference of the Society for American Archaeology in 1955, for example, failed to convince many of the attendees that such a generalized framework could be faithfully applied across the continent, and in particular outside of the Mississippi Valley. Virtually all of the attendees were experts in local prehistoric sequences, and they would have instantly recognized to what extent such a generic framework did or did not apply to the regions with which they were most familiar. What might be true of Archaic people in some areas was not true of Archaic people in other areas. The earliest inhabitants of the Great Lakes region defied early subsistence patterns by organizing enormous copper mining efforts, for instance. Like most of the northeast as a whole, there was never any significant Mississippian presence there, and natives of the northeast continued to build “Archaic”-type conical mounds all the way into the historic contact period, suggesting a specific cultural aspect to this type of construction rather than a universal developmental or evolutionary “stage.” Given these kinds of significant deviations from Ford and Willey’s interpretive model of the Archaic, it is not surprising that many archaeologists of the 1950s questioned its utility and its de-emphasizing of more localized work.

One archaeologist who resisted this push to generalize early societies into a universal developmental paradigm was Joseph Ralston Caldwell, who directed a number of excavations in Georgia from the late 1930s (for the WPA) into the 1950s. In his influential 1958 publication Trend and Tradition in the Prehistory of the Eastern United States, Caldwell “was opposed to the concept of a pancontinental evolutionary stage and instead favored a model of divergent economic patterns crosscut by regional traditions…Caldwell never suggested that Archaic populations existed in isolation from one another, but…began with geographic isolation between mother and daughter populations. Distinctive cultures then “evolved” through the gradual adjustments in behavior and technology that enabled local groups to sustain themselves as autonomous economic units through efficient exploitation of natural resources.” [15] Caldwell’s thinking represented many archaeologists of his era who had gained their experience through archaeological field work, often in coordination with the WPA, localized within a single state or otherwise more limited area. His perspective was not particularly popular with Ford and Willey’s school of archaeologists, however.

If locally- or regionally-oriented archaeologists such as Caldwell were skeptical of conceptualizing the Archaic period as a “pancontinental evolutionary stage,” as Sassaman describes it, then how might one characterize the archaeologists who were early proponents of Ford and Willey’s paradigm of stage-by-stage, “pancontinental” evolution? Sassaman explains that these proponents were inspired by a school of thought championed by Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe. Childe was the first prominent Westerner to openly promote the Soviet Union’s school of archaeological thought, or so-called “Marxist archaeology.” The American archaeologists who adopted ideas from this school of thought emphasized a more generic conception of prehistoric development, including the “Archaic stage,” which conformed to ideas of Darwinian evolution and downplayed regional variations in communities and cultures as more or less trivial or inconsequential. They posited that all of the inhabitants of North America were hunter-gatherers of more or less equivalent lifestyles and subsistence patterns who then gradually evolved into more complex agricultural societies with more developed ideas of social status. They emphasized considerations such as collectivized prehistoric labor to make tools or acquire food, idealizing the apparent lack of centralized power and the collective sharing of the “means of production” in these early societies, conforming to Soviet modes of thinking. Childe himself went so far as to question the utility or meaning of the very idea of differences in culture among prehistoric societies, and he also challenged the usefulness of investigating prehistoric linguistic groups or differences in physical anthropology. Areas of study that archaeologists had taken seriously for over a century, such as comparative linguistics and craniology, became increasingly neglected or even politically controversial after the 1950s due to the growing influence of this school of thought among academia.

Despite its growing influence in the decades that followed, ever-accumulating data forced proponents of this evolutionary conception of the Archaic period to continually rework their initial arguments until a consensus finally developed that the earliest iterations of the idea were fully outdated and obsolete. Thus the idea of an Archaic “stage” of development was replaced with more complex ideas of a prehistoric “period.” “With seven to eight millennia of existence,” Sassaman writes, “an Archaic period was too varied to be glossed as a stage, and today, only a few archaeologists embrace the concept.” Any attempt to generalize an archaeological era across the entire continent “obscured remarkable spatial variations, as well as change within the Archaic.” [16] Irresistible archaeological data finally brought an end to Ford and Willey’s initial conception of the Archaic, but by then the idea of the Archaic had itself evolved into the broader idea of a prehistoric “period” which persists until today.

While the original conception of the Archaic as an evolutionary stage lost the support of most archaeologists (if it ever enjoyed a true consensus to begin with), the idea of an Archaic period was never fully abandoned. Discussions of the meaning and significance of the period, as well as the dates attributed to it, simply became more complicated and varied. However archaeologists define it today, the period is now treated as canon in the conventional prehistoric chronology. Archaeologists may differ in the dates they assign to the period (as they do for all prehistoric periods), or how they choose to characterize the hunter-gatherer populations they associate with it, but there no longer seems to be any serious consideration as to whether the very idea of the period is built upon erroneous assumptions of prehistory.

The reason why archaeologists could never fully abandon the idea of the Archaic period is rather obvious: they would otherwise have an unconscionable seven or eight thousand years of empty time within their gradualist chronology, and no prehistory to fill it. The concept of the Archaic period, in any form, has always been firmly wedded to the 19th century gradualist school of thought mentioned in the first part of this essay. This is because the Native American occupation of North America had only been pushed back to the Pleistocene with the discovery of Clovis artifacts in the first half of the 1900s, and the Pleistocene had already been more or less firmly dated by the gradualist school of geologists. Thus, once evidence of the Clovis people had been discovered, and it was conclusively proven that prehistoric man occupied North America at the same time as mastodons and woolly mammoths, something akin to the Archaic period was immediately necessitated to fill the enormous theoretical void between the ice age and the mound builders, regardless of whether there was yet any archaeological evidence to justify such a long prehistoric era or not (and, of course, there was not and has never been). It is also therefore no coincidence that the formalized concept of the Archaic period first emerged in 1941, around the same time that the archaeological community was finally coming to terms with the Pleistocene antiquity of the Clovis artifacts discovered throughout the 1930s. The Clovis discovery effectively doubled the supposed antiquity of human occupations in North America as if overnight, but it left a considerable void in the intervening time which some period had to fill. Something equivalent to the Archaic period was thus an inevitable consequence of the Clovis discoveries combined with the pre-existing gradualist chronology.

Helping to fill those thousands of years of what would otherwise be a prehistoric void has been the most persistent function of the Archaic. Gradualism, inherited from geological theories predating isotopic and other modern methods (yet used to calibrate them), placed the end of the Pleistocene to roughly 12,000 years ago, creating the theoretical existence of several thousand years which the Archaic period must bridge to the Woodland era. Even if the first formulation of an Archaic “stage” was fundamentally flawed, archaeologists could never fully abandon the idea no matter how poorly defined or attested by material evidence without simultaneously abandoning gradualism. It is for precisely this reason that authors such as Sassaman can dismiss the origins and philosophical foundations of the Archaic concept on one hand, but then write an entire volume validating the idea more in more general terms, all while never daring to question the overall chronological framework. In any case, modern academics are left with few other options than to work with the concept, given the continued and near-universal acceptance of the chronology of 19th century geologists. The edifice which has been built upon that chronology over the last two hundred years or so has seemingly become too monumental and entrenched to challenge at this point.

If, however, it were ever determined that there is no firm evidentiary basis for the enormous duration of seven to eight millennia of hunter-gatherers, then the conception of the Archaic period could be shortened while losing little or nothing of substance from the existing archaeological record. The material evidence attesting to the Archaic could be comfortably condensed into several centuries between the end of the Pleistocene and beginning of the Woodland period, or within a single millennia, rather spreading it out over several millennia and thus making existing evidence appear overly sparse and sporadic, along with the other problems. As the body of evidence stands now, the vast expanse of time attributed to the Archaic creates more questions and problems than it resolves. The dearth of material attesting to the hundreds of successive generations required by such a long period is only one of these problems, though a central one. Another problem relates to the rate at which different styles of stone points were developed, bringing us to the next topic: how long it took Archaic communities to advance from one style of stone tool to another. As one might imagine, gradualist chronology requires such developments to have been painfully slow and sporadic during the Archaic.


[1] Funk, 19–20; Melvin L. Fowler, “Summary Report of Modoc Rock Shelter, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956,” Illinois State Museum, Report of Investigations 8 (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1959).
[2] James A. Tuck, “Regional Cultural Development, 3000 to 300 B.C.,” in Northeast (Washington, D.C.: United States Government, 1978), 28.
[3] Christopher R. Moore and I. Randolph Daniel, Jr., “Geoarchaeology and Geochronology of Stratified Aeolian Deposits in the North Carolina Coastal Plain,” North Carolina Archaeology: Three Archaeological Symposia, Charles R. Ewen, Thomas R. Whyte, and R.P. Stephen Davis Jr, eds., North Carolina Archaeological Council Publication Number 30 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2011), 1-9.
[4] Kenneth E. Sassaman, The Eastern Archaic, Historicized (Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2010), 13.
[5] Funk, 20.
[6] Sassaman, 13.
[7] Ibid., 14.
[8] Funk, 23.
[9] Sassaman, 14.
[10] Ibid.; Jerald T. Milanich, Archaeology of Precolumbian Florida (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1994), 62; Bruce D. Smith, “The Archaeology of the Southeastern United States: From Dalton to de Soto, 10,500 to 500 B.P.,” Advances in World Archaeology 5 (1986), 21.
[11] Elisabeth Tooker, “History of Research,” in Northeast (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978), 13.
[12] James A. Ford and Gordon R. Willey, “An Interpretation of the Prehistory of the Eastern United States,” American Anthropologist 43, 3 (July-September 1941), 325.
[13] Ford and Willey, 332.
[14] Ibid., 326.
[15] Sassaman, 16.
[16] Ibid., 15.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024