Archaic Period - Spreading Out and Settling In

About 11,000 - 12,000 years ago, the North American climate began to change. Exactly why and how this happened is still debated, but the change coincides with the catastrophic extinction of the big-game animals at the end of the Ice Age. The continental ice sheets were withdrawing and the melt-water from them filled valleys and basins, while the shorelines of the continents began to change as the then existing continental shelves came to be drowned by rising sea levels.

With the end of the Ice Age, world climate warmed up rapidly, environments changed drastically, the size and distribution of woodlands, prairies, river floodplains, deserts, deciduous and evergreen forests changed markedly, and a great diversity of local environments evolved. These new climatic and geographic conditions altered plant and animal life. There was a relatively sudden disappearance of many types of animals most of which were the so-called megafauna, or large mammals, such as the mastodons, mammoths, giant ground sloths, and other large-bodied herbivores. As these animals became extinct, so too did many of the carnivores that preyed upon them - the Alaskan lion, the saber-toothed cats, and the dire wolf, to name a few. Other species did not become extent, but underwent rapid selection for smaller forms. For example, the giant bison of the late Ice Age was replaced around 12,000 years ago by forms directly ancestral to the modern bison.

Exactly why these animals died out is subject to debate. At one time, some scientists argued that the ancestral American Indians of the Paleo-Indian period hunted these animals into extinction. But today such an hypothesis receives little support. Instead, modern scientists point to a period of rapid global warming at the end of the Ice Age. As the climate changed, sea levels rose, growing seasons became longer, and snowfall and annual precipitation decreased significantly. While many smaller animals could adapt to these shifitng conditions by modifying their ranges, the larger ones, placing greater demands on their environments, could not cope with the transforming world and were pushed beyond the brink to extinction.

In response to the changing world, the ancestral American Indians began to change their subsistence patterns, ultimately leading to increasingly more and more efficient and successful in exploiting a wide variety of resources. People still followed a seasonally migratory way of life and still depended on gathering and hunting, but their cultures were richer, technologically more advanced , and much more versatile than those of most of the Paleo-Indian period societies. This period which is ushered in by the end of the Ice Age and characterized by societies evolving a multitude of adaptive stratiegies to the stresses engendered by the end of the Ice Age is known as the Archaic.

Since archaic cultures evolved from Paleo-Indian ones it is often impossible to draw a sharp boundary between the two periods, especially since some cultural practices remained the same: a seasonally migratory way of life, gathering and hunting as the primary subsistence pattern. Yet important differences arose: people made new kinds of tools (especially tools for processing hard seeds and nuts, as well as baskets, nets, and fishing and birding tools), developed new techniques for making and using already existing tools, invented new ways of articulating with varied environments (both natural and social). During the Archaic period we see the first evidence of many significant cultural developments among the native peoples including far-flung regional trade networks (allowing for the exchange of raw materials, food items, exotic goods), the invention of a broad range of subsistence technologies and tools, the rise of part-time (and later full-time) occupational specialization. Unlike the lifeway that characterized the Paleo-Indian societies, with relatively few types of subsistence and settlement patterns and settlement locals, the Archaic period witnessed the blooming and profusion of many different lifeways and a spreading out across the North American continent and a filling in of virtually every environmental zone and microenvironment.

The subsistence focus was characterized by wide, if selective, exploitation of the environment whether the environment wasReconstruction of the LaBrea Woman, a skeleton recovered from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles. ON the basis on radiocarbon dating, it's believed she died about 10,800 years ago difficult, as in the deserts, or lush and inviting, as along the coasts and by wide estuaries, where the bounty of aquatic resources and waterfowl enabled them to live comfortable lives. In each region, people developed specialized knowledge of local resources and how to exploit them. Hence, tools became more diversified for more varied purposes and cultures tended to diversify and many regional specializations arose. In some areas of North America, the alterations people made to the changing world were relatively minor, while in other regions the alterations were dramatic.

In some areas people simply intensified already existing subsistence practices; in other areas people were forced to shift from hunting large game to taking medium and small game, supplimented by a wider range of plant foods; in in still other regions, fish and shellfish, along with a wide variety of plants, became the staple foods. In some regions, sea mammal hunting and fishing became a major focus while in interior locations dietary patterns emphasize little in the way of animal food, but a heavy reliance upon wild plants, especially the seeds and roots, as well as a wide variety of insects and reptiles. But despite these regional differences in specific resources, the trend in subsistence patterns was toward a more extensive use of plants and animals.

In most areas of North America people shifted their subsistence practices to a primary emphasis on vegetable foods, combined with hunting of smaller animals (squirrels, deer, rabbits), and in especially hosptiable areas, collecting shellfish, fishing, and taking of sea mammals. Once such area was the southern California coast where small bands blended fishing with marine mammal hunting as early as 8000 years ago. Another favorable area was the eastern woodlands where the people exploited a broad variety of foods including nuts, seed-bearing grasses, small game, and along the coast and rivers, fish and shellfish. This broad-spectrum gathering and hunting way of life lasted in some regions of North America into the middle and late 19th century.

And accompanying this expansion of the subsistence base was a reduction in the size of the territory within which specific groups ranged over in search of food. The changes in the subsistence patterns led to changes in other cultural patterns. As a result, individual groups of people began to differentiate from each other according to the specific regions they settled in - the archaic period people were evolving into a multitude of more complex gathering and hunting cultures, with no one cultural pattern predominating.

Major Features

A Diffuse Econony

Unlike their forebears who tended to concentrate on just a few widely distributed species of plants and animals, the Archaic people made use of a great many kinds of resources, with no one or two being the single most important ones. Not only did the Archaic people diversify their subsistence base, but they also shifted the focus toward a greater reliance on plants for food, craft materials, and medicine so that towards the end of the Archaic period (about 5,000 - 4,000 years ago) hundreds of plant species were being exploited. However, there is no evidence to suggest that resources were gathered and saved for use late in the year. Instead, they were used when and where available.

Seasonal Round

Also unlike their Paleo-Indian ancestors, who tended to restrict themselves to exploiting resources in just a few econiches, the Archaic folks learned how to exploit resources in many different environments, scheduling their movements to correspond with the seasonal availability of resources. In other words, camps were moved from one environment to another as part of a carefully scheduled seasonal round. In some parts of the state the annual round consisted of simply moving uphill or down with the seasons, spending the winter in a camp at lower elevations, migrating in the spring to the hills where they would remain until fall, when they returned to their base camp. This allowed people to reach several different ecozones when its most important seasonal resources were available.

Adaptations to Local Environments


Specialized Technology

Exploiting many different kinds of resources was made possible by the development of a specialized technology. In addition to the tool types of their forebears, the Archaic period folks created entirely new kinds of tools and technologies. Of the many technological achievements which helped Archaic societies exploit many new niches and perform subsistence tasks more efficiently, three stand out: the making of baskets, the production of milling tools, and the increasing technological sophistication of their hunting and fishing tools and techniques.


Milling Stones. Just as Just as baskets played an important role in Archaic and later cultures, so too did milling stones. Madestone bowl mortar of stone that was shaped by pecking and abrading rather than by flaking, these tools took two basic forms: the mortar and pestle, and the milling stone and mano, or handstone. Mortars (see image at right) and pestles were used primarily for pounding nuts, small seeds, acorns, and the bodies of small animals; the milling stone and handstone for grinding hard seeds. Millingstones appeared earlier and were more numerous than mortars and pestles until the Formative Period when acorn processing grew in importance. In addition to portable millingstones (if a 75 - 100 pound mortar can be called portable!), by the end of the Archaic some communities began to make additional mortars and milling surface on large rock outcrops, usually at campsites near oak groves and streams. Some of these bedrock milling stations are truly monumental. In California, at Chaw'se Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, located in the hilly and wooded Sierra Nevada foothills, is an outcropping of marbelized limestone with 1,185 mortar, holes, the largest concentration of bedrock mortars in North America. Undoubtedly, such features served as the hub of village life, a gathering place where women could relay news while they ground the day's acorn meal.

Although many of the innovations of the Archaic emphasize the importance of plants, other subsistence technologies also became more specialized. Hunters developed a wide array of new and innovative tools which increased the amount of animal protein in Archaic diets. New fishing tools, such as pronged spears, nets, toggles, hooks, and basketry traps, were developed. Specialized nets, looking something like tennis nets, were used during communial rabbit drives. Various nets and snares were used to take birds while large game animals were hunted using a spear-thrower.

Increasing Social Complexity

As every archaeologist knows, attempting to reconstruct the non-material aspects of an ancient society's cultural lifeways is, at best, a difficult task. This is so because so much of what makes up a society's culture are not things (tools, houses, grave goods, etc.) but the rules, thoughts, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships that produced the things. Consequently, archaeologists must rely upon other methods to reconstruct past cultural lifeways. One fruitful technique in some parts of North America is the use of ethnographic analogies, which involves the analysis of the material culture of historically known societies to learn the relationships between present-day cultural behavior patterns and material by-products that could be discovered archaeologically. Beginning with a well-recorded historical culture, the archaeologist works by progressive stages through time, using the modern culture an an analog to explain what's found in the archaeological record. Of course, the farther back one works, the more distant the relationship between the archaeological culture and the historic culture, and the more questionable the strength of one's reconstructions. Bearing this in mind, what can we say about the culture of Archaic Period societies?

The earliest Archaic cultures were not much different from those of the late Paleo-Indian Period, but between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago, a different lifestyle had emerged. The economy was much more productive so that permanent groups of 25-100 people could be maintained, forming bands. Larger and somewhat more complex than the micro-bands of earlier times, bands were composed of several nuclear families, perhaps linked patrilineally by common descent from a parent or grandparent. It's likely that a respected older individual acted as headperson of the band, leading discussions and acting as a mediator in disputes. Such an individual had no coercive power, but relied instead on charisma and respect accorded to the position of headperson.


Although the exchange of raw materials and finished artifacts occurred during Paleo-Indians times (as was the case at Monte Verde), it was at best irregular. It's not until the Archaic Period that we have first clear evidence of economic exchange. As populations moved into more and more ecological niches and societies became more complex, trade began to flourish, playing a role in the increase in population sizes and densitites and becoming an important factor in the transformation of Archaic cultures into different, more sophisticated forms. Although not as phenomenally complex as the trading networks of the succeeding Formative Period, trade during the Archaic served several important functions, providing:

Among the many items traded, either as raw materials or as finished artifacts, were obsidian, steatite, chert and other lithic materials, seashells (abalone and olivella), and crystals of quartz and tourmaline.


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Updated: 09 Mar 2000