Formative Period

Beginning around 4,000 - 5,000 years ago new features of subsistence, technology, and society began to appear at somewhat different times in different parts of North America. Settlements became larger, and there were more of them. Many settlements were located in ecotones, areas where two or more environments came together. By settling in such prime locations, people could exploit a wider variety of resources without having to relocate their homes. Over time, smaller camps were established in other areas, forming satellite communities. Eventually, each major community was surrounded by peripheral settlements and new forms of social and political relationships emerged, especially non-egalitarian political systems. Accompanying these changes were marked differences in wealth as well as access to goods and services, both within and between communities, resulting in some societies becoming highly stratified, with elites, nobles, commoners, poor, and vagabonds, and in some communities, occupational specialist guilds arose.

Major features of the Formative Period

Eastern North America - The Woodland Period

clear spaceShortly after 1000 B.C., three important innovations took hold in many societies in the Eastern Woodlands: pottery manufacture, deliberate cultivation of native plants, and burials under funerary mounds. Together, these three innovations launched Native American societies in the east on a multi-faceted path of cultural change and elaboration, culminating in the highwater mark societies of the Mississippian cultural tradition.

In eastern North America many groups began to supplement their gathering and hunting diet by the deliberate planting of native plants. The seeds (sunflower, goosefoot, marsh elder, gourd) eventually taken under domestication were collected from wild stands along river floodplains for centuries before they were cultivated deliberately. This development occurred within a number of more-or-less isolated gathering-and-hunting cultures living in small river valleys, with the cultivated plants filling a small niche in an otherwise very diverse diet of wild plant foods, fish, waterfowl, and game animals.

clear space Accompanying the rise of supplementary cultivation and more intensive exploitation of wild food resources was greater sedentism, regular social interaction and economic exchange, some degree of social ranking, and increased ceremonialism, especially surrounding burial and life after death. Shortly after 3000 years ago, powerful chiefdoms arose in the midwestern and southeastern parts of the U.S., societies among whom elaborate burial customs and the building of earthen burial mounds and earthworks were commonplace (giving rise to the common name "The Moundbuilders"). The best known of these moundbuilding cultures were the Adena and Hopewell centered in the Ohio Valley. The Adena lasted from about 1000 B.C. to A.D. 200; the Hopewell, from about 300 B.C. to A.D. 700. Although they shared many cultural traits and coexisted for several centuries, their exact relationship is not known nor do we know where either of the two cultural systems originated.

clear space The Adena were gatherers and hunters and also may have engaged in incipient agriculture - growing sunflowers, pumpkins, gourds, and goosefoot. But it is their earthworks, found in and around their villages, that affirm their high degree of social organization. Conical and dome-shaped burial mounds grew larger and more ambitious over the centuries and towards the end of Adena times, high mounds were constructed over multiple burials, with the corpses usually placed in log-lined tombs. The grave goods associated with burials tells us that there were social inequalities in the culture, while the raw material from which many of the grave goods were made speaks to long-distance trading networks.

clear space Hopewell culture sites contain many of the same elements as the Adena, but were generally on an enhanced scale--more, large earthworks; richer burials; intensified ceremonialism; greater refinement in art; a stricter class system and increased division of labor; more agriculture; a far-flung trading network; and Hopewell-associated sites cover a much larger territory. The Hopewell, like the Adena, constructed a variety of earthworks, many covering multiple burials, as well as large geometric earthwork enclosures.

Mississippian houses clear space Around 1200 years ago the focus of power (economic, religious, political) shifted to the Mississippi Valley and the southeastern part of the U.S. with the rise of the Mississippian tradition, fostered in part by the introduction and widespread cultivation of maize and beans that helped support higher population densities and more complex social and economic and political organizations.

clear space The Mississippian tradition represents the highwater mark of eastern North American Indian civilizations. Like their predecessors, the Adena and Hopewell, the Mississippian people relied heavily on seasonal crops of nuts, fruits, berries, and seed-bearing plants as well as hunting turkey, migratory waterfowl, and deer. But they were primarily agriculturalists, raising maize, squashes, and beans. This new subsistence pattern transformed society. Settlements became more complex with formal layouts of house groupings around open plazas and large earthen platform mounds. Society became more hierarchical as powerful religious and secular elites emerged.


The Southwest

clear space In the southwestern region of what is now the U.S., similar agricultural societies were emerging. Maize agriculture reached this area from Mexico sometime aroud 3200 years ago and by 2300 years ago sedentary farming villages were scattered throught the region, eventually giving rise to the several great southwestern farming based traditions including: Hohokam, Mogollon, Anasazi, and Salado.

clear space The Hohokam tradition emerged between 2000 and 1500 years ago in central and southern Arizona and lasted until about 450 - 500 years ago. When archaeologists first excavated Hohokam settlements they believed that the people were immigrants from northern Mexico who brought their extensive irrigation agriculture, ball courts, and earthen platform mounds with them. This scenario is no longer believed. Instead, the Hohokam tradition is now seen as an indigenous development from local populations who enjoyed complex trading and ceremonial relationships with people all over the southwest and northen Mexico, borrowing ideas and items of material culture when it suited them and blending them with their own to create a vibrant culture.

clear space Hohokam subsistence was based on maize, beans, gourds, cotton, and other crops, as well as on gathering. Crops were planted to coincide with the semiannual rainfall and flooding patterns, cultivating floodplains and catching runoff from local storms with dams, terraces, and other water catchment devices. They also practiced irrigation from flowing streams, building canals (some as much as 10-15 kilometers long) to carry water from streams and rivers to their fields.

clear space The Mogollon tradition emerged from Archaic roots between 2300 and 1800 years ago and lasted until between 1200 and 550 years ago when it became part of the Anasazi tradition. Centered in western New Mexico, the Mogollon was an agricultural tradition in which gathering and hunting were always important. Unlike the Hohokam who depended extensively on irrigation and water catchment devices, Mogollon agriculture was primarily rainfall based.

clear space The best known and most intensively studied of the three archaeological traditions of the southwestern U.S. is the Anasazi, believed by most archaeologists to be ancestral to the cultures of the various Puebloan nations: the Hopi, the Zuni, and those groups living along the upper reaches of the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. Like the Hohokam and Mogollon, Anasazi roots lie in Archaic cultures that flourished in and around the Four Corners area where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet. Even after taking up maize agriculture seriously some 1600 years ago, the Anasazi still made heavy use of wild vegetable foods. Like the Hohokam, they also used irrigation and water impoundment techniques where practicable, but most of their farming depended on dry agriculture and seasonal rainfall.

Pueblo Bonito clear space Before 1200 years ago, the Anasazi lived in semi-subterranean pithouses. But shortly thereafter, the basic Anasazi settlement pattern evolved and above-the-ground houses were substituted for the pithouses, which developed into kivas, subterranean ceremonial structures found in every large village. By 1000 years ago, large settlements of contiguous dwellings (which the Spanish called "pueblos") became the rule with clusters of rooms serving as homes for separate families or lineages. Around 900 years ago, the population congregated in fewer but larger pueblos located in densely populated areas with some pueblos located under cliff overhangs, the so-called cliff dwellings. It was around this time that the so-called "great houses" developed. One of these, Pueblo Bonito (pictured above), was a huge D-shaped structure of 800 rooms rising several stories. Within the pueblo were large open courtyards and several kivas, one of which was 60 feet in diameter with wide masonry benches encircling the interior.



Paleo-Indian Period | Archaic Period | Formative Period

Anthropology 7 Homepage | Preface | Syllabus

Brief Historical Overview
| History: Before the Europeans | History: After European Contact

Regional Lifeways

Cabrillo Anthropology Department Home Page | Cabrillo College Home Page

Last Updated 18 Feb 2000 by CSmith