Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Rethinking Taxonomies: Skeletal Variation on the North Carolina Coastal Plain

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Rethinking Taxonomies: Skeletal Variation on the North Carolina Coastal Plain

Article excerpt

The current archaeological model of cultural interaction on the North Carolina Coastal Plain during the Late Woodland period (A.D. 800-1650) divides the region into three groups primarily on the basis of language and artifacts. Human skeletal remains were brought into this ethnolinguistic model in order to correlate the visual appearance of crania with material culture, even though few of the skeletal populations had been scientifically studied. In spite of mounting evidence in the past decade of increased social complexity in the Late Woodland, some researchers still attempt classification of sites based on a checklist of characteristics. The present study was undertaken in order to assess the current archaeological model as it relates to human skeletal remains on the Coastal Plain. Using biological distance statistics based on cranial nonmetric (epigenetic) trait expression, biological interaction among the various native groups living along the North Carolina Coastal Plain was investigated. Only one statistically significant difference was found among the thirteen skeletal populations, thus hindering easy classification of human skeletal remains into discrete populations. These results indicate that a new model needs to be created to better understand the spheres of interaction among the natives on the North Carolina Coastal Plain.

The Coastal Plain of North Carolina was unique in the Late Woodland period (A.D. 800-1650) because of its location intermediate to the larger cultural and political complexes to the north, west, and south, its retention of material cultural traditions, and its situation as a nexus of three major linguistic groups: the Algonkian, Iroquoian, and Siouan language fami- lies. In recent years, North Carolina archaeologists have drawn from both primary and secondary sources of native culture and language to create an ethnolinguistic model that posits significant differences in both material culture and skeletal biology coinciding with linguistic groups during the Late Woodland. The primary problem, however, with population history based on archaeological remains in North Carolina is that, until recently, studies of variation have been outweighed by those that furthered the culture-history model of prehistoric North Carolina. Lack of popula- tion studies in the state's Coastal Plain has led archaeologists to view material culture as intimately linked to ethnohistoric and linguistic records of specific Native American groups and further linked to skeletal populations themselves. Archaeologists interested in the prehistory of North Carolina have adopted a tripartite division of native groups on the Coastal Plain into Algonkian-, Iroquoian-, and Siouan-speaking peoples based in large part on European travel diaries describing language differences and on secondary ethnolinguistic literature. Material culture such as pottery and biological remains such as skeletons are interpreted to fit this model. Skeletons, particularly crania, are assumed to be morphologically representative of their "group." Algonkians are supposedly longheaded and robust, while Siouans are short-headed and more gracile. This model is not flawed in that no physical differences exist among peoples of the Coastal Plain; it is flawed in its assumption that simple categorization of physical remains is possible based on size and shape alone, without regard to the biological diversity within and between populations.

David Phelps (1983) created three Late Woodland phases along the North Carolina Coastal Plain in response to a need for an archaeological model. Based primarily on ceramics and ethnolinguistic boundaries, this model has been extended to incorporate physical remains without thorough examination of the skeletons by biological anthropologists. North Carolina archaeology literature is full of statements such as "longheaded population," "robust Algonquian" (Loftfield 1990:119), and "gracile Siouan" (Coe et al. 1982). Phelps (1983:15) even stated that one can "accurately reconstruct . …

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