The Hoosier's story – Prehistoric life - 1,000 BC to 1500

The development of ceramic pottery during the Early Woodland Period (1,000 to 200 BC) is a defining characteristic between Archaic and Woodland peoples. This technology spread from the Southeast United States to the Ohio River Valley around 600 BC and revolutionized cooking and storage.

Along the way, this evolutionary leap enhanced the region’s early occupants’ capacity to live more settled lives. Pottery vessels reduced the time needed for hunting and gathering. And their durable nature ensured predictable sources of food into the future. Additionally, cooking in them allowed more nutrients to be extracted from their plant and animal staples.

The Hoosier National Forest’s verdant uplands remained hunting grounds in Early Woodland Indiana, with rockshelter excavations indicating nuts, deer, turkey, turtles, and other animals were dietary mainstays. Continuing the Late Archaic practice, rockshelters were used as seasonal camps, serving base camps or villages in the larger river valleys. Some people were probably gardening in summers.

Flowerpot-shaped with heavy walls and flat bottoms, the nascent ceramic vessels of the Early Woodland period were made from local clay mixed with limestone, sandstone, and other local stones to control for shrinkage during firing. While no intact pots have been uncovered anywhere in the Ohio Valley, a few fragments have been found in the Hoosier.

Reliance on Wyandotte chert for spear points and tools persisted during Early Woodland times, and the Harrison County stone became a commodity that was traded throughout the Eastern Woodlands for raw materials, including copper and marine shells from the Northern Great Lakes, and for goods, including copper axes.

Among the Early Woodland natives were the Adena cultures, whose earthworks are preserved in the White River Valley in Madison and Henry Counties and the Whitewater River Valley in Southeast Indiana.

During the Middle Woodland Period (200 BC to 500 AD), the region’s prehistoric inhabitants likely organized into what today would be called tribes, with hierarchical social organizations and complex cultural activities. They built elaborate earthworks complexes that include burial mounds and enclosures at villages and ceremonial sites.

No Middle Woodland mounds have been found in the Hoosier, though some that remain undocumented have been reported nearby. Camps and villages were numerous in Southwest Indiana and probably occurred in the national forest as well.

The Mann site in Posey County—a downriver village that lasted from 200 to 450 on the Ohio—featured an array of mounds and enclosures, alongside evidence of extensive inter-regional trade that included marine shells, copper ornaments, and obsidian from the Yellowstone region. Large quantities of Wyandotte chert were brought to this site and manufactured into spear points, cache blades, and flake knives. Aragonite from Wyandotte Cave has also been found at this vast village and ceremonial center.

Closer to the Hoosier, a piece of a carved pipe made of aragonite from the same cave was recovered from Arrowhead Arch in Crawford County. It was found in deposits with a radiocarbon date of about 155. 

An abundance of artifacts from Rockhouse Hollow and other Hoosier sites—projectile points and pottery sherds, for example—suggest that Middle Woodland people lived in and used Hoosier rockshelters for seasonal shelter and camps. As their numbers grew, they journeyed into the hill country to hunt and gather where game and nuts were more abundant than in the areas near their settlements. Trading parties likely stayed in rockshelters while traveling throughout the Eastern United States.

During the Late Woodland Period (500 to 1500), settlements included small villages dispersed across the land; and major ceremonial centers were abandoned. Significant evidence of this period has been recovered along the Ohio in Perry County, the White River Valley in Orange and Henry Counties, and the Wabash River Valley in Montgomery County.

Ceramic fragments show Late Woodland Period Yankeetown Phase people lived at Rockhouse Hollow for a limited time around 900-1000. Their main villages were more than thirty-five miles away on the Ohio River.

Two important developments occurred during this period: the bow and arrow and intensive agriculture of crops, such as corn and squash.

The small, triangular arrow points required by the bow reduced Late Woodland reliance on high-quality Wyandotte chert, which had been used for thousands of years. During this time a variety of other local cherts gained favor.

Indiana archaeologists differ on when the Late Woodland Period ended, dating it variously to 1000, 1100, 1200, and 1500. The latter is used by the U.S. Forest Service in Looking at Prehistory, which discusses the Oliver Phase peoples (1200-1450) in Late Woodland, overlapping with the Mississippian Period (1000-1650).

A 1993 excavation at the Hoosier National’s Cox Woods on the Lick Creek in the White River Watershed uncovered an Oliver village that included houses organized in a ring around a central plaza, further encircled by a double-walled earthen enclosure. Radiocarbon dates suggest the village may have been established around 1300 and lasted to at least 1400. Surveys of the surrounding area indicate smaller gardening and collecting camps.

Refuse heaps suggest these Oliver Phase people consumed thousands of meals that included corn, fruits, nuts, and wild plant seeds, along with deer, elk, turkey, and other animals.

Photographs: Hoosier National Forest, Crawford County


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