New Book Traces Rise and Fall of States Last Native Civilization: The Fort Ancient Culture

By Steelhammer, Rick | Charleston Gazette Mail, November 28, 2016 | Go to article overview

New Book Traces Rise and Fall of States Last Native Civilization: The Fort Ancient Culture


Steelhammer, Rick, Charleston Gazette Mail


While historians once considered the area that is now West Virginia to have been an Indian hunting ground with no permanent native settlements, village-dwelling native people had, in fact, been living here continuously for more than 10,000 years before the first colonists crossed the Alleghenies and "discovered" the land to the east, only to mysteriously disappear just before direct contact with the newcomers from abroad could have taken place. In her newly released book "Early Native Americans in West Virginia: The Fort Ancient Culture," Charleston archaeologist Darla Spencer tells the story of the last indigenous culture to flourish in the Mountain State.

The Fort Ancient people lived in fortified villages and farmed on the shores and in the fertile bottom-lands of the larger rivers in a swath of land stretching from Sistersville along the Ohio River in the north to Man on the Guyandotte River in Logan County to the south, and at numerous other sites along the Ohio, Guyandotte, Kanawha and Little Kanawha rivers.

Of the four time periods archaeologists use to distinguish technological and societal changes separating one age of native civilization from the next in our region, the most recent is the late prehistoric and protohistoric era, which occurred from about 1000 A.D. to 1700 A.D., the same period in which the Fort Ancient people farmed, hunted and lived in fortified villages along major rivers from Indiana to West Virginia.

Since the Fort Ancient culture had begun, thrived and faded into oblivion before it could be written about by European traders, trappers or settlers, it was lost to time until remnants of the civilization began turning up in archaeological excavations conducted in the 1880s by the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology.

"At that time, the prevailing thinking was that the mound- building cultures that left the most visible remains in the form of mounds and earthworks were not made by the ancestors of the Native Americans in North America, but by a mysterious superior race," Spencer wrote. "The mound explorations by the BAE put that idea to rest and determined that North America's indigenous people had, in fact, constructed the many mounds and magnificent earthworks found in the Ohio and Kanawha River valleys.

Work by the BAE included excavations of several nearby non-mound sites, which produced artifacts indicating a more recent occupation. Some of them were later determined to have been Fort Ancient settlements.

The Fort Ancient culture traces its roots to the rise of corn as a major food source for those living in the mid-Ohio Valley, allowing its people to spend less time hunting and gathering and more time at home, living a more sedentary existence than was previously possible, according to Spencer's book.

While early strains of maize, imported from Mexico through a network of native traders, had been grown earlier in small patches, it wasn't until about 1000 A.D. that corn became the region's primary diet staple, ahead of squash and beans.

Fort Ancient people supplemented their farm-grown food by hunting deer, elk, beaver, raccoons, and other game using the relatively new bow-and-arrow method, introduced to the region in about 750 A.D., and by gathering mussels from rivers and creeks and catching fish with bone hooks and antler-tipped harpoons. While bones found at Fort Ancient fire pits and disposal dumps included those from game animals ranging from squirrels and groundhogs to fishers and mountain lions, no bison bones were found at any of the 16 Fort Ancient town sites excavated in West Virginia, leading archaeologists to postulate that the meaty mammals did not migrate into the state until after last-known Fort Ancient settlement was abandoned in the late 1600s. …

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