Archaic Indians Adapt to Warmer Climates Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

North American Archaic Indian cultures adapted to changing environments, evolving from hunter-gatherer bands into organized communities that supplemented natural food sources with cultivation, developed artwork, and formed trade networks.

Summary of Event

Archaeologists identify three major Archaic cultural areas and trace their evolution through the Early (8000-5500 b.c.e.), Middle (6000-3000 b.c.e.), and Late (3000-1000 b.c.e.) Archaic periods. The Western Indian culture extended from the Pacific Ocean east to the Rocky Mountains and south into Mexico. The Plains Indians ranged from the eastern Rockies to the Red River and lower Missouri River drainage area. The Eastern Woodland culture covered the United States from the Mississippi River eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. As climate changes brought environmental change, Archaic Indians adopted new technologies and lifestyles.

By 8000 b.c.e., the western United States and northern Mexico were undergoing searing heat and drought. Lakes evaporated, forests receded, grasslands withered, large game animals migrated to more favorable climes, and the Indians of the Southwest began their evolution into what archaeologists call the Desert Archaic period. Some archaeologists think that the Desert Archaic culture originated in northern Mexico, while others point to evidence of origins in southern California, Nevada, and western Arizona.

The Early Desert Archaic people traveled continuously in small bands in their seasonal searches for food and water. They may have built brush or skin shelters at campsites, or lived in available caves and rock shelters. They spent spring and summer in the mountains, hunting deer and gathering berries, acorns, and pine nuts, then returned to lower elevations for the winter. The hunters used spears and fiber nets for hunting mule deer, mountain sheep, and rabbits. Women used sharp stones and chopping blades to chop agave and yucca stalks, and stone bowls and mortars for pulverizing large seeds and cracking nuts.

The Middle Desert Archaic period saw an easing of the drought. As a result, the people settled into village life, growing maize, squash, and other crops in addition to hunting and gathering. Between 2500 and 1000 b.c.e., the Late Desert Archaic cultures established villages consisting of pit houses, fire hearths, and roasting pits grouped around a central plaza. They sent out hunting parties to bring back game, plants, and stone for tools. As the Late Desert Archaic people prospered, they opened trade routes to the Pacific coast and Mexico. Village workers dug wells to supplement water reserves. Craftspeople made bone and shell beads. Shaman artists painted and chiseled figures and symbols on stone surfaces, probably of spiritual significance.

When the Late Desert Archaic people faced another period of drought (c. 1000 b.c.e.), they enlarged the permanent villages with more pit houses. They expanded their range of wild plant resources and agriculture, adding pumpkins, beans, amaranth, and more productive strains of corn. They created methods of preserving and storing food and maintained caches of materials for tool and trade goods. Desert Archaic people honored some but not all of their dead with grave goods, suggesting differences in social standing or material wealth.

Early Archaic sites of occupation in the Plains and Eastern Woodlands are identified by tools required in big-game hunting—chipped stone spear points and knives, atlatls (throwing spears), and bone needles for sewing animal skins. By 7000 b.c.e., the large mammoths were gone and the Early Archaic people turned to forest mammals such as deer, bear, elk, fox, opossum, raccoon, squirrel, and rabbit, supplemented by nuts and plant foods. As the nomadic bands found plant and animal species in specific locations during particular seasons, the hunter-gatherers developed permanent camp sites and a regular pattern of moving to and from hunting and gathering grounds to coincide with the availability of resources at particular places.

There is little archaeological evidence of occupation in the Plains until about 2500 b.c.e. Campsites of big-game hunters dating from 5000 b.c.e. indicate that the Plains people remained primarily hunter-gatherer bands for another two thousand years, although sites at Mummy Cave and Medicine Lodge Creek in northwestern Wyoming show evidence of prolonged seasonal residence. Cultural evidence includes tubular bone pipes, fragments of coiled basketry and vegetable-fiber netting, leather scraps, wood trimmings, and flint chips. Refuse indicates reliance on numerous types of small animals and fowl for meat until the Late Archaic period, when the bison population began to recover from the severe drought.

The efficient hunters and gatherers of the Eastern Woodland thrived throughout the Archaic period. Early Archaic hunters and gatherers occupied base camps along major waterways and utilized nearby food and tool resources. Middle Archaic Indians in the southeast developed permanent settlements and adapted technology to exploit the specialized plant and animal resources of a specific environment. Excavations at sites near rivers and lakes have produced numerous stone tools, including knives, choppers, scrapers, gouges, perforators, drills, and hammer stones, as well as corner, basal, and side-notched arrow and spear points. Recent findings at the Windover site near Titusville, Florida, include bone and barbed points, fishhooks, pins, shell adzes, cloth fragments, and wooden canoes, which indicate an established community relying on fishing and gathering for subsistence.

As southeastern forests increased, the people developed tools for building canoes, housing, and other wooden objects. Archaeological digs of base camp sites along rivers and streams have uncovered storage pits, parts of house floors, and prepared burials, confirming the transition to permanent villages. Radiocarbon samples in Louisiana have confirmed mound-building traditions in use by 3000 b.c.e.

The Late Archaic period (3000-1000 b.c.e.) in the eastern United States was marked by the transformation of economies from family and community subsistence to extended trade networks. Pottery technology flourished and dispersed through the trade networks. Excavations reveal regional specialization by ethnic cultures whose tools and practices reflect their adaptation to the changing environment. In New England, for instance, smooth, half-moon-shaped knives were used to exploit sea mammals and forest animals for furs, food, and bone tools. The use of “sweet” acorns (with little tannic acid) marks the spread of Lamoka cultural patterns along the Susquehanna River and the Atlantic slope. South Atlantic coastal cultures settled in villages and utilized saltwater oyster beds as resources. In the Northeast, the forest culture is sometimes called the Shield Archaic, for the distribution of this Algonquian-speaking culture conforms to the spread of the Canadian Shield, a horseshoe-shaped geographic area covering eastern and central Canada and a small part of the northern United States. The Shield Archaic people were direct ancestors of the Algonquian tribes of the historic period.

Cultural differences were reflected in burial traditions. Unlike the pit burials found in Maine, in Newfoundland, and on the Quebec-Labrador border, the Eastern Woodland culture established villages with cemetery mounds of stone or logs covered with earth. In the Late Archaic Midwest, the dead were either cremated or interred in flexed or extended positions.

Shell ring sites along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, as well as the great earthen mounds of the Mississippi culture, appeared during the Late Archaic period. Kenneth Sassaman examined deposits at the Stallings Island site on the Savannah River upstream from Augusta, Georgia, and found evidence of intensive occupation for about two centuries beginning in 3000 b.c.e. Recent excavations at Mims Point in South Carolina uncovered houses of a Stallings culture community (c. 1600 b.c.e.) that were arranged in ringlike fashion around a communal plaza. A shell ring in Beaufort County contained pottery identical to the Stallings fiber-tempered pottery. Archaeologists speculate that the larger shell ring sites, like the massive earthworks at Poverty Point in Louisiana, served as regional centers for cultural ceremonies, games, and trade.


The Late Archaic period (1000 b.c.e.), marked the evolution of hunter-gatherer bands into organized sedentary communities, where subsistence depended upon agriculture and horticulture in addition to hunting and gathering. The appearance of fiber-tempered pottery in the southeastern United States and its spread northward and westward was a cultural advance that enhanced the development of widespread trade. The Desert Archaic culture spread throughout Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas, southern Utah, Colorado, northern Sonora, and Chihuahua, foreshadowing the rise of the Pueblos of the Southwest. The Eastern Archaic Indians initiated the mound-building traditions of the successive Woodland and Mississippi cultures.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fiedel, Stuart J. Prehistory of the Americas. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. An introductory overview of Indian life before European contact. Contains a substantial chapter on the Archaic period. Bibliography and author and subject indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jennings, Jesse D. Ancient North Americans. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1983. A textbook of essays tracing the origin and evolution of prehistoric Native Americans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kehoe, Alice B. North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981. Traces the evolution of the first inhabitants of North America, region by region, from prehistory to the present. Contains recommended readings and sources at the end of each chapter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mulloy, William. “The Northern Plains.” In Archaeology of Eastern United States, edited by J. B. Griffin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952. Interprets the evidence gleaned from sites on the Northern Plains. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prufer, Olaf H., Sara E. Pedde, and Richard S. Meindl, eds. Archaic Transitions in Ohio and Kentucky Prehistory. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002. A collection of essays on the Eastern Archaic period.

Categories: History