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Prehistoric Native Americans on the Carolina Coast: hunting, pottery, beliefs, games, food harvesting and house building

Posted By ShoutCarolina,Date: 05.12.2011

The Horry County Museum has an extensive collection of prehistoric Native American artifacts to showcase the human lifestyle before the European invasion. The museum is located near Conway Riverwalk entrance and is open Tuesday to Saturday 9AM to 5PM. Admission is free.

Humans may have inhabited North America as early as 35,000 years ago and were present in South Carolina by 12,000 B.C. Paleoindians were hunters and gatherers who formed small mobile groups. They followed herds of mammoth, elk, bison, big cats and giant ground sloths.

Paleo tools included throwing points, scrappers, hammers, bone awls and needles. Spear throwing bison hunting scenes Human possessions were scant and archeological finds from this period usually contain only prey remains and discarded flakes and scrapers.

Paleo hunters used natural traps like sandy river bottoms and marshes, where large animals could not maneuver well and often became mired down. Another tactic used on herd animals, such as the bison, was to chase them over a steep drop off and butcher them on location.

A breakthrough hunting tool arrived during the Archaic period (8,000 to 1,000 B.C.): a spear throwing device known by the Aztec word “Atlatl”.
Hunting tool used by archaic Indians It consisted of a 6 feet long shaft called a dart made of river cane and a small foreshaft made of wood or bone.

The foreshaft would detach from the main atlatl spear and embed in the target. The dart could then be picked up and another foreshaft quickly inserted for a subsequent shot. The ingenious device gave the convenience of multiple shots in an easy to carry package.

It greatly increased the force and speed of the throw while reducing the risk of injury when hunting large animals. Some consider the atlatl weapon introduction as important as the invention of guns.

Native American arrow heads from Paleo, Archaic and Woodland periods
Paleo points were made from a wide variety of fine grained or glass like stone such as chert, chalcedony or obsidian.
Native American arrow heads
Archaic people produced distinctive artifact types.

Points and knives exhibited regional as well as local variations. Identified notched points are Clovis, Suwanee, Dalton, Palmer, Taylor, Mardaway side notched, and Kirk corner notched.

Clovis points were formidable and beautifully constructed weapons. They were shafted with sinew to a short wooden or bone handle which in turn was fitted into a socket on a longer shaft to make a sharp tipped lance.

Woodland period (1,000 B.C. to 900 A.D.) points changed to a stemmed basal style. The elongated base made it easier to attach the points into the dart stem, and increased the power and accuracy of the throw.

Pottery designs during Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian periods
Native Americans used a variety of materials to add strength to their pottery. Archaic pottery was tempered with fibers from grass, roots and Spanish moss, needed into clay to add strength during firing. South Carolina Stallings Islands pottery artifacts are some of the oldest found in North America.

Woodland pottery was usually tempered with crushed rock or grit instead of vegetable fibers, and it was finished with several characteristic decorations.
Fabric impressed cord marked and stamped pottery techniques
Introduced in Alaska around 1,000 B.C. cord and fabric markings were produced by paddling the wet clay surface with a stick wrapped with cord or fabric.

The stamped pottery technique was similar except the wooden paddle had design patterns carved directly into it which were then stamped into the wet clay. Other decorations consisted of incised or punctuated lines made with sharp instruments.

Mississippian period produced the most elaborated pottery. Although plastic decorative techniques from earlier periods continued, new ideas were introduced such as trophy head vessels, long-neck water jugs, round bottomed pots, and painted vessels.

Beliefs and entertainment
For many Southeastern Native Americans, like the the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek, “Uktena” was a horrible creature of the underworld, part reptile, part bird and part deer. It was a fearsome enemy to human beings: seeing one brought about misfortune while smelling its breath brought death. Uktenas are frequently depicted in Southeastern Ceremonial motifs, on shells and pottery.

Cherokee Indians pottery artifact Uktena motif

Chunkey, also known as chunkee, chenco, tchung-kee or the hoop and stick game, Chunkee stone artifact used by Archaic Indians was a very popular Native American game that originated around 600 B.C.

Players will roll a disc shaped stone across the field and then try to throw a spear as close as possible to the stopped stone.

Chunkey was played in huge arenas where significant gambling and wagering took place.

The falcon dancer/chunkey player was an important mythological figure from the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.

Prehistoric food harvesting, processing and cooking tools
Around 10,000 to 12,000 B.C. the climate began a warming trend causing the extinction of many large animal species. The ever growing human population was forced to broaden its subsistence base to include different kind of animals and more plant foods.
Food harvesting techniques used by Native Americans
Archaeological discoveries in Mexico reveal that 5,000 years ago domesticated plants included corn, beans, squash and sunflowers.

What’s known as the three sisters planting - corn, beans and squash, emerged as the established crops agriculture. This type of planting kept the soil fertile while reducing weeds and pests.

As fertilizer Native Americans used tree ashes, leaf mold, swamp plants, fish and manure. The women worked the fields using digging sticks, hoes and rakes.

Digging sticks were made from tree limbs with a sharp end, hoes from tree limbs with either a shell or bone attached with sinew and rakes were made out of deer antlers.

Grinding stones were essential food preparation tools. Women used flat round stones to grind a variety of seeds, grains, nuts and small animal bones.

Coastal plains Indian culture artifacts

Native Americans used fire to cook food and keep warm, to clear land for farming and hunting, to control pests, and to communicate through smoke signals.
Fire tools used by prehistoric Native Americans The most used fire starting tools in prehistoric times were the fire drills.

The fire drill was a two-part tool consisting of a wooden stick and a piece of wood with a hole carved into it. The wooden stick was twirled rapidly in the hole, and after a while, the friction would heat the stick, make a spark and lit a bunch of dried grass or crushed bark to start the fire.

The bow and drill resembled the fire drill. It consisted of a wooden bow with a thong secured to stick that was attached to a board with a hole in the bottom. The bow acted like a saw to push and twist the stick against the fire-starting board, creating enough friction to start a fire.

After the Europeans arrival, mineral stones and matches replaced the fire drill as a faster and more convenient way to start a fire.

Native American house construction
Throughout history humans built shelters according to their lifestyle and cultural beliefs, geographic conditions, and available natural resources. There is a wide variety of Native American house building techniques, as showcased here.

Woodland Waccamaw House - During the Woodland period, foraging and gathering for a living required moving from place to place to harvest the best available food resources. Waccamaw Indians semi-nomadic shelter South Carolinian Woodland groups, like the Waccamaw, occupied seasonal campsites along the coastal plain to maximize their foraging.

Houses were built with available materials: cut poles, branches, thatch and striped tree bark.

Woodland people lived in circular huts with a domed roof made from saplings stuck into the ground with a bark or matted exterior.

They developed elaborate ceremonial rituals and mortuary practices. Historians call them the Mound Builders as numerous round burial sites have been found throughout North America.

Mississippian Circular Creek House - During the Mississippian period settlements ranged from small farmsteads to huge villages and ceremonial centers.
Native American mud and fiber house built on wooden poles
The cultivation of food crops brought the ability to feed large number of people with a relatively consistent supply of food.

People abandoned the semi-nomadic way of life and instead lived in permanent villages close to the fields.

The Mississippian-Creek house was constructed of cut poles placed in the ground and woven with branches and vines between the upright timbers. A mixture of mud and fiber was then used to plaster the walls providing a thick insulation against winter winds and summer heat.

Some large villages featured fortified protection walls and guard towers. Sadly, the high point of ancient civilizations in the Americas ended quickly when natives succumbed to infectious diseases brought on by early European explorers and settlers.

While at the museum you and the kids can enjoy the wildlife exhibits featuring black bear cubs, alligators, raptors and small mammals living in the Lowcountry.

If you go on vacation to Myrtle Beach here is a list of fun and affordable family friendly things to do.

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    2 Responses to “Prehistoric Native Americans on the Carolina Coast: hunting, pottery, beliefs, games, food harvesting and house building”

    1. Free kids activities near Myrtle Beach: visit Horry County Museum downtown Conway « Shout About South Carolina Travel, Family Attractions and Free Things to Do Says:

      [...] at the impressive collection of Native American artifacts from the Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian periods. There are various arrow points, atl-atl [...]

    2. Fun things to do with kids around Myrtle Beach for under $10 « Shout About South Carolina Travel, Family Attractions and Free Things to Do Says:

      [...] See how native people lived along the Carolina coast before the arrival of Europeans. The Horry Conway Museum in downtown Conway features a great [...]

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