Early Archaic Period


The Early Archaic Period (8000–6000 BC) is sometimes viewed as a transitional period from the first occupation of North America around 15,000 BC to a more settled time. In fact, some archaeologists include it as part of the Paleoindian Period (15,000–8000 BC), but the climate and ways of life in Virginia suggest important differences. As the temperatures rose and precipitation increased, deciduous forests spread, providing a greater variety of nuts, berries, and fruits for foraging. Mammoths and mastodons were by now extinct, but the Early Archaic people hunted deer, elk, and bear, banding together in larger groups but staying within smaller, resource-rich areas. (Archaeologists have proposed settlement clusters that more or less coincide with the routes of present-day Interstates 81 and 95.) Technology, meanwhile, responded to the changing environment and growing population. New, notched-point spearheads and arrowheads may have followed the invention of the spear-throwing atlatl, and the chipped-stone axe may have been a response to the newly forested areas.

People and Environment

Virginia was first occupied during or perhaps just before the Paleoindian Period by a distinctive people known as Paleoamericans. By the Early Archaic Period, the inhabitants of Virginia likely were the ancestors of latter-day Virginia Indians. Even with the end of the Ice Age (Pleistocene Age) in about 10,000 BC, the environment continued to change. Temperatures climbed and precipitation increased, so that by 8000 BC the deciduous forests had taken on their present hardwood attributes. Coastal Virginia sea levels, which during the Paleoindian Period had been close to 300 feet lower than they are now, began to rise, spreading water and creating the Chesapeake Bay and displacing the bands of hunters, gatherers, and fishers who had lived there.

It is unknown whether Paleoamericans hunted big game such as mastodons and mammoths, though fossils of these animals have been discovered near Saltville in southwestern Virginia. Either way, by the Early Archaic Period these large animals had become extinct. In their place, the people hunted deer, elk, bears, foxes, turkeys, squirrels, beavers, and waterfowl, depending on their region. They also fished and foraged for nuts, berries, and fruits. Animal skins likely provided clothes and shelter, although like the Paleoamerians, the Early Archaic people also used rock shelters such as Daugherty’s Cave in Russell County.

Settlements and Organization

Early Archaic people in Virginia appear to have lived in two broad population clusters: one that followed the Shenandoah Valley from just south of Winchester to just north of present-day Blacksburg, and another that followed the fall line north to south from Fairfax to Richmond to Emporia. The Tidewater, the Piedmont, the lower Shenandoah Valley, and areas to the west of the Blue Ridge Mountains do not seem to have been as heavily populated. Early Archaic people likely foraged on the slopes of the Blue Ridge but did not find over-the-mountain travel easy or useful. The fall-line cluster, meanwhile, may have coincided with areas of high-quality stone and other important resources. Whatever the case, it’s interesting to note that both clusters follow two main travel corridors of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Virginia: along Interstates 81 and 95.

Early Archaic people likely organized themselves in groups of twenty-five to fifty people that operated within definable territories, hunting and foraging whatever wild animals and plants were available. Members married outside of the group and traced their descent through the paternal line. In order to seek out marriage partners, scarce goods, and information, these smaller groups formed larger bands of fifty to one hundred fifty people, perhaps on a seasonal or ceremonial basis. A study at the Flint Run Archaeological Sites, near Front Royal, suggests that the area may have been a camp for one of these larger bands, while work at the nearby Thunderbird Archaeological Site has provided evidence of even larger, regional bands of five hundred to fifteen hundred people.

Material Culture

Like the earlier Paleoamericans, the Early Archaic people left behind tools made primarily of stone, but archaeologist William Gardner, working at Flint Run, has noticed a marked increase in the number of settlement sites and artifacts from one period to the next. This may reflect an increase in population, which may have pressured hunters and gatherers to seek out new areas and sources of food. This, in turn, may account for the new types of stone tools. In a move away from the Paleoindian Period’s Clovis points, Early Archaic people developed notched points, or spear- or arrowheads with notches cut into both edges at the base. This new technology may have been in response to the invention of the atlatl, a wooden tool that mechanized the throwing of spears, allowing for greater speed, distance, and killing capacity. In addition, archaeologists have uncovered spokeshaves—tools used to shape rods and shafts—as well as knives, gravers, and drills. Also new for this period is the chipped-stone axe, developed in response, perhaps, to the increase in deciduous forest area. New tools, then, responded to changes in the environment, which allowed for increases in population, which forced an already nomadic people to seek out new areas and new tools to adapt to these new environments.

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  • Fried, Morton H. The Evolution of Political Society. New York: Random House, 1967.
  • Gardner, William M. “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before: The Flint Run Paleoindian Complex Revisited.” Archaeology of Eastern North America 11 (1983): 49–64.
  • Gardner, William M. Lost Arrowheads and Broken Pottery: Traces of Indians in the Shenandoah Valley. Front Royal, Virginia: Thunderbird Museum, 1986.
  • Gardner, William M. “An Examination of Cultural Change in the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene (ca. 9200–6800 BC).” In Paleoindian Research in Virginia: A Synthesis, edited by J. M. Wittkofski and T. R. Reinhart, 5–52. Richmond: Archaeological Society of Virginia Special Publication No. 19, 1989.
  • Johnson, Allen W., and Timothy K. Earle. The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1987.
APA Citation:
Barber, Michael. Early Archaic Period. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/early-archaic-period.
MLA Citation:
Barber, Michael. "Early Archaic Period" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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