Middle Archaic in the Greater Southeast and Northeast Florida

By Kenneth E. Sassaman, May 2001

Until recently, the Middle Archaic period of ca. 8000 to 5000 years ago was regarded by archaeologists as a time of small, mobile, hunter-gatherer populations whose cultural differences could be explained by local environmental conditions. While environmental changes during this interval were indeed dramatic and consequential to humans, recent evidence from Middle Archaic sites across the Southeast, as well as northeast Florida, call into question many of our simplistic notions about this fascinating time period.

In the wake of a postglacial era that witnessed burgeoning human populations across the region, environmental conditions in certain locations became increasingly drier and hotter. In the lower Midwest and Midsouth, for instance, drier and warmer climate appears to have reduced the viability of upland habitat to support groups that had come to depend on mast, deer, and turkey resources for the winter. At the same time, riverine habitat appears to have improved as increased runoff from desiccated uplands enhanced the food potential of major river valleys. Patterns of regional settlement suggest that certain groups responded to these changes by intensifying the use of riverine locations. In some cases the change may have entailed permanent settlement of riverine sites; in others use of such sites was simply more redundant and intensive than before.

Changes in coastal habitat appear to have precipitated parallel developments. Sea levels rose rapidly after the Ice Age, appreciably slowing only after about 6000 years ago. Because rising seas have inundated the once-exposed coastal sites of Middle Archaic populations, we can only speculate on the human responses to environmental change. Still, enough evidence has now accumulated to suggest that relatively permanent use of the coast took place by at least the end of the Middle Archaic period, if not centuries before. Some of the shell middens and shell rings of Atlantic and Gulf coasts were initiated during the Middle Archaic and reflect intensive use of estuarine resources.

Not all Middle Archaic populations were on the pathway toward more permanent or redundant land use. Groups occupying the Piedmont of Georgia and the Carolinas appear to have actually increased their level of settlement mobility. The small size of their sites, coupled with evidence for simple, portable technology and generalized foodways, suggests a pattern of foraging quite different from riverine and coastal patterns. Whereas this difference has been attributed to local environmental conditions alone, other archaeologists have noted that interactions among regional populations may have contributed to differentiation in lifeways.

Cultural diversity and group interactions have become defining themes in recent research on the Middle Archaic period. Some of the new evidence for elaborate cultural expressions is indeed compelling. In northeast Louisiana, for instance, archaeologists have discovered that some of the region’s many earthen mounds date to at least 5500 years ago. Several of these sites include mounds arranged in elliptical fashion around a central plaza area and are reminiscent of the settlement plans of relatively complex societies. In the Midsouth archaeologists have documented an interaction network centered on the production of elaborate flaked stone tools. Although inconclusive, the evidence for trade appears to be linked to mortuary ritual, perhaps veneration for ancestors of special rank or significance. A similar network of exchange has been documented at Middle Archaic sites in the lower Midwest, this one involving the production of elaborately carved bone pins.

Florida’s Middle Archaic record is just as fascinating, and includes evidence for mound building, mortuary ritual, and long-distance exchange. Tomoka Mounds near Cape Canaveral and Tick Island on the St. Johns River are among the locations of mound construction dating to the Mount Taylor period, ca. 5500 years ago. Shell mounds on Tick Island were largely destroyed in the early 1950s, when they were mined for construction fill. When C. B. Moore visited the island in 1891, some of its mounds towered 20 or more feet above the river. Salvage excavations in 1961 confirmed that some of the mounds were initiated as mortuary monuments, as burials were decidedly concentrated at the base of the deposit. Tomoka Mounds lack evidence for mortuary functions, but contain artifacts imported from far away, including a cache of six bannerstones made on materials whose sources lie no closer than north Georgia.

As evidence for elaborate and diverse Middle Archaic traditions in Florida continues to grow, many issues remain unresolved. Were Middle Archaic groups on the St. Johns and on the coast fully settled or seasonally mobile? If mobile, did their annual settlement rounds include both riverine and coastal locations? Are riverine and coastal sites the remains of one people, or two or more different groups? Were mortuary mounds built to mark the territory of a people, or, alternatively, to integrate individuals of different ethnic identity? Was the crafting and exchange of elaborate material culture a means of building alliance among groups, and to what extent, if any, did participation in long-distance exchange confer status or prestige to individuals?

The Lake Monroe site encapsulates many of these key issues in its unusual mix of well-preserved subsistence data and elaborate material culture. As discussed elsewhere in this web page, faunal remains from Lake Monroe suggest that the site was occupied most of the year, but conclusive evidence for permanent settlement remains elusive. Data from slightly later period sites on the St. Johns have been equally ambiguous as regards year-round habitation, although almost certainly by about 3500 years ago the region was home to separate, relatively stationary groups on the coast and along the river.

Middle Archaic use of marine shell at Lake Monroe adds a new twist to the ongoing inquiry into regional settlement. The assemblage of whelk, cockle, and oyster shells recovered from Lake Monroe is unprecedented for an early riverine site. Being some 40 km from its source, the shell was either carried in directly from coast, or imported through coastal neighbors. Moreover, the toolstone used to make drills for producing beads was also nonlocal, coming from sources to west. Thus, the entire production process depended on materials that had to be acquired from afar. Although this fact alone does not resolve whether riverine settlement was permanent or seasonal, the geographic scope of exchange (and/or mortuary ritual) suggests Middle Archaic groups across northeast Florida were indeed culturally divided in ways that both enabled and regulated flows of personnel and resources among interior, riverine, and coastal populations. Our understanding of these diverse groups thus depends as much on the nature of interactions among them as it does on their respective relations to different environmental settings.