What was really going on between 3500 BC and 500 BC?
During the 1950s and 1960s the archaeological profession adopted a labeling system of cultural periods in eastern North America, which essentially took a “one size fits all” approach. The system was based on the presumption that all Native peoples in this vast region had similar lifestyles and the same level of cultural sophistication at any given time. They were assumed to be semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, who moved around the same occupation zone each year. It was also assumed that the first advanced “mound-building culture occurred around 500 BC in the upper Ohio River Valley, particularly in southern Ohio.
Mid-twentieth century anthropologists presumed that Woodland Period Indians only built small, conical burial mounds and lived in transient villages, while Mississippian Period Indians built permanent towns with pyramidal platform mounds. In reality, though, several pyramidal platform mounds were built in Georgia, northern Florida and Louisiana between 200 BC and 1000 AD.
Since the adoption of the cultural periods, technology for dating and analyzing human occupation sites has become much more sophisticated. Archaeologists were shocked to learn that the oldest known public architecture in the Western Hemisphere was in northern Louisiana. The Watson Brake circular earthworks and mounds date from around 3500 BC. Shell ring villages on the coast of Georgia were dated to about 2500 BC. Several large mounds in northern Louisiana were dated to a period between around 2000 BC and 1200 BC. A large platform village containing one of the largest mounds in the United States at Poverty Point, LA was found to be contemporary with the Olmec Civilization in Mexico, roughly 1200 BC to 500 BC.
It was not just the indigenous architecture in the Southeast that was found to be much older than assumed. During the late 20th century, forensic botanists also discovered that mankind began domesticating plants in the Southern Appalachians at least as early as 3,500 BC, perhaps 5,500 BC. An archaeologist has identified pollen from a primitive variety of maize (Indian corn) in southern Alabama that was dated to around 1200 BC. The oldest known pottery in the Western Hemisphere is being found in sites between the Savannah and Ocmulgee Rivers in Georgia.
There is an even greater mystery during the Late Archaic Period. Eastern North America and northwestern Europe shared artistic and architectural traditions during this time. You can visit museums in Waleska, GA and County Kerry, Ireland and see very similar petroglyphic boulders. You can visit museums at Poverty Point, LA and Skara Brae, Scotland and see “cooking balls” of identical design. The answers to these mysteries are still in the realm of speculation and theory . . . but the theories are interesting.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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