The Archaic Period of Georgia prehistory lasted from about 10,000 to 3,000 years ago. Archaeologists have divided this very long period into three main subperiods: Early, Middle, and Late. Each is distinguished by important changes in cultural traditions, which generally follow a trend toward increasing social complexity.
The Early Archaic Period in Georgia and elsewhere in the eastern United States was approximately 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. At that time most of Georgia was covered with oak-hickory hardwood forests. Large Pleistocene animals such as bison, horses, mastodons, mammoths, and camels had become extinct.
Early Archaic people were hunters and gatherers who lived in small groups or “bands” of twenty to fifty people. They hunted white-tailed deer, black bear, turkey, and other large game animals and collected nuts, roots, fruits, seeds, and berries. They also caught or collected turtles, fish, shellfish, birds, and smaller mammals. Some of their foods were available only during certain seasons. Archaic bands probably moved around in search of seasonal foods, mates outside of their social group, and sources of stone from which they could make spear points and other tools. There is little archaeological evidence that they stored foods or stayed for long at one location. Their houses were small but provided simple shelter from the elements. The people built hearths for fires with which to keep warm and cook their food.
The territory of an Early Archaic band in Georgia probably was not very large, although a few archaeologists believe it may have coincided with entire river valleys. Various bands probably congregated at certain locations at particular times of the year. There they could socialize, share food, and find mates. They could also exchange stone tools, foods, and other supplies unavailable in their own territory.
Archaeologists identify Early Archaic sites by the presence of certain types of stone spear points that usually have notches on the bases. These notches were used to help tie or attach the stone points to a spear shaft that was probably made of wood. Sharp serrated edges on some spear points suggest that they were also used as knives, possibly for butchering game. Early Archaic people also made stone scrapers, which may have been used to prepare deer hides for tanning, as well as other stone tools that could have been used for carving wood or bone and processing plant foods. In Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida they are known to have used tools made from organic materials, including bone points, atlatl hooks (for throwing javelins), barbed points, fish hooks, and pins; shell adzes; wooden stakes and canoes; and cloth and woven bags. These items have not been found, however, in Georgia.
The Middle Archaic Period lasted from approximately 8,000 to 5,000 years ago. This was a time of changing climatic conditions in which the area may have become significantly drier and warmer than it is today. Pine forests would have expanded into areas previously dominated by oak and hickory. At this time hardwood forests may have receded farther north into the Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions. Gradually increasing populations of Native American people adapted to these environmental changes to create a distinct culture known as the Middle Archaic.
Middle Archaic people are thought to have reduced the area of their territorial movement. The primary evidence of this change appears in flaked stone tools, which represent essentially the only remains of this prehistoric period in Georgia. Preserved organic material has rarely been recovered from excavated Middle Archaic sites in the state. For the most part, locally available sources of stone were used, which suggests that the people did not travel far and had limited exchange of goods with other geographic areas. For example, Middle Archaic stone tools in the Piedmont indicate a preference for locally available quartz to the near exclusion of cherts found in the northwestern or the Coastal Plain regions of Georgia. Artifact collections from Middle Archaic sites generally consist of tools including well-made projectile points, small- to medium-sized flake tools, ground stone tools, and chipped stone debris. The rather low diversity of projectile point styles in the Middle Archaic Period suggests that many tasks were being performed with easily produced flake tools.
In the Piedmont, Middle Archaic sites are frequently found in such upland settings as ridge crests. In other parts of Georgia, sites from this period appear less frequently but those sites occur in more varied locations. Hunting and gathering continued as the primary way of life through the Middle Archaic, with few drastic changes from the preceding period. Middle Archaic people probably relied on more locally available resources. Shelters were probably insubstantial in construction and temporary in nature. At present, there is no evidence of long-term habitation sites in Middle Archaic Georgia.
The Late Archaic Period lasted from about 5,000 to 3,000 years ago. At this time native societies grew and the people traveled long distances to trade for exotic goods. Their territories shrank in size, and some built more permanent settlements. Although certain of these traits appeared earlier, they were well established by the Late Archaic Period. Artifacts associated with this period include large stone knives, darts, and spear points with stemmed hafts, cooking slabs made of soapstone (a soft stone that retains heat well), fiber-tempered pottery vessels, and soapstone vessels. Late Archaic tool kits included atlatl weights, grooved stone axes, metates (or grinding slabs), and stone drills. The people lived in permanent houses, including shallow, oval-pit houses and larger sub-rectangular wattle-and-daub dwellings.
Settlements in the Late Archaic Period were often near rivers. Their taste for freshwater shellfish is indicated by their creation of large shell middens (trash heaps). The premier example of an Archaic shell midden is the Stallings Island site on the Savannah River near Augusta. Late Archaic people disposed of their dead by cremation and burial, and it is during this period that we see the first evidence of mound construction in North America. As the landscape of Georgia filled with people, there was less territorial range for individual groups. They developed new social mechanisms for establishing relationships with neighboring groups.
Many clues to Late Archaic society are revealed in the evolution of cooking technology. Late Archaic pottery from the Savannah River valley from as early as 4,500 years ago is the oldest in North America and among the oldest in the world. About 3,500 years ago soapstone bowls manufactured at dozens of quarries in northern Georgia were traded across hundreds of miles. Some found their way as far west as the central Mississippi River valley and as far south as the Florida Keys. Many of the cultural traits possessed by later Indian groups in the Southeast had their origin in the Archaic Period.