Before the Europeans
Based on studies of artifacts found throughout the state, anthropologists know the first humans arrived to the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia at least 13,000 years ago, at the tail end of the Ice Age. During this Paleoindian Period, sea levels were over 200 feet lower than present levels, and large mammals such as wooly mammoths, horses, and camels were hunted for food and skins.
However, rapidly increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and efficient hunting techniques combined to quickly kill off these large mammals, relics of the Pleistocene Era, ushering in the Archaic Period. Still hunter-gatherers, Archaic Period Indians began turning to small game such as deer, bear, and turkey, supplemented with fruit and nuts.
The latter part of the Archaic era saw more habitation on the coasts, with an increasing reliance on fish and shellfish for sustenance. It’s during this time that the great shell middens of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts trace their origins. Basically serving as trash heaps for discarded oyster shells, as the middens grew in size they also took on a ceremonial status, often being used as sites for important rituals and meetings. Such sites are often called shell rings, and the largest yet found was over nine feet high and 300 feet in diameter.
The introduction of agriculture and improved pottery techniques about 3,000 years ago led to the Woodland Period of Native American settlement. Extended clan groups were much less migratory, establishing year-round communities of up to 50 people, who began the practice of clearing land to grow crops. The ancient shell middens of their forefathers were not abandoned, however, and were continually added onto.
Native Americans had been cremating or burying their dead for years, a practice which eventually gave rise to the construction of the first mounds during the Woodland Period. Essentially built-up earthworks sometimes marked with spiritual symbols, often in the form of animal shapes, mounds not only contained the remains of the deceased, but items like pottery to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.
Increased agriculture led to increased population, and with that population growth came competition over resources and a more formal notion of warfare. This period, from about a.d. 800–1600, is termed the Mississippian Period. It was the Mississippians who would be the first Native Americans in what’s now the continental United States to encounter European explorers and settlers after Columbus. The Native Americans who would later be called Creek Indians were the direct descendants of the Mississippians in lineage, language, and lifestyle.
Native American social structure north of Mexico reached its apex with the Mississippians, who were not only prodigious mound builders but constructed elaborate wooden villages and evolved a top-down class system. The defensive palisades surrounding some of the villages attest to the increasingly martial nature of the tribes and their chieftains, or micos.
Described by later European accounts as a tall, proud people, the Mississippians often wore elaborate body art and, like the indigenous inhabitants of Central and South America, used the practice of head shaping, whereby an infant’s skull was deliberately deformed into an elongated shape by tying the baby’s head to a board for about a year.
The influence and mystique of the micos were so powerful to the Mississippians that the tribes and the areas they controlled were simply named after the chiefs themselves. What the earliest European visitors thought were Indian place names—for example, Guale in coastal Georgia, in the vicinity of modern-day St. Catherine’s Island—were actually the names of the dominant micos in those areas.
By about a.d. 1400, however, change came to the Mississippian culture for reasons that are still not completely understood. In some areas, large chiefdoms began splintering into smaller subgroups, in an intriguing echo of the medieval feudal system going on concurrently in Europe. In other areas, however, the rise of a handful of über-micos subsumed smaller communities under their influence.
In either case, the result was the same: The landscape of the Southeast became less peopled, as many of the old villages, built around huge central mounds, were abandoned. As tensions and paranoia between the chiefdoms increased, the contested land between them became more and more dangerous for the poorly armed or poorly connected. Indeed, at the time of the Europeans’ arrival much of the coastal area was more thinly inhabited than it had been for many decades.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition