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Shenandoah Valley Archaeological Sites

Shenandoah Valley Archaeological Sites Challenge Orthodoxy about Early Humans in North America

The description of the period in the Southern Appalachians between 9,500 BC and 5,500 BC is generally brief in most books and web sites, or combined with the latter half of the Archaic Period, where much more information is available. Unlike the situation in the arid western portion of North America, no skeletons from this era have been found. Also, no stratified occupation sites have been found in the Appalachian Summit, where the lowest elevations today are 1,500 feet above sea level or greater. A few transient hunting camps have been identified, but these probably date from the period after 6,000 BC. Very few hearths have been confirmed in the higher elevations from which radiocarbon dates could be obtained.

The typical text that describes the Early Archaic Period in the Appalachians states that it was a period when American Indians adapted to the disappearance of large mammals and a warming climate. By the end of the Early Archaic Period (5,500 BC) North America reached its warmest climate in the past 30,000 year. The brief paragraphs go on to say that these American Indians were hunters, who lived in small migratory bands that never stayed in one location very long. Some articles mention a few Early Archaic archeological sites in the interior of the Southeast, but none of these sites are truly in the highlands.

Most book illustrations and museum exhibits about the Early Archaic Period always show a hunter or two stalking a single deer. In fact, both white tailed deer and Eastern Woodland Bison ran in large herds until the arrival of European firearms. Even today, herds of up to 50 deer can be seen in Cades Cove, Tennessee (Great Smoky Mountains) and up to 25 deer in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Early Archaic hunters probably drove herds of deer, bison and elk into traps or barriers where they could be speared at close range. White tail deer that were reclusive and semi-nocturnal were far more likely to survive the onslaught of firearms. Near extinction of the deer running in large herds, caused the deer to evolve in a relatively short time.

Northern Virginia sites change the textbooks

During the 1990s two very ancient stone quarrying sites were excavated in the northern Shenandoah Valley. They were the Thunderbird and Flint Run archaeological zones. The author was living near both sites while they were being excavated. The discoveries of the archeological teams working at these sites challenge the orthodoxy that Archaic Period inhabitants of eastern North America lived in small migratory bands. These discoveries should not be fully extrapolated, however, to the Southern Appalachians. The altitudes of the Shenandoah Valley sites are in the range of 560 feet (171 m) above sea level. The tops of the nearby Massanutten Mountains range around 1200 to 1500 feet (366 – 457 m.) The foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia and North Carolina are that altitude.

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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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