Prehistoric Overview

Projectile points in chronological orderThe prehistoric overview is a brief summary of Native American cultural development in Pennsylvania.  This process begins over 16,000 years ago with the earliest inhabitants migrating into the New World during the Ice Age.   The process ends in Pennsylvania during the early 18th century when native populations are forced to leave due to the overwhelming intrusion of Europeans.  Between the times of their arrival and dispersal, there is a fascinating story of an incredible variety of developments in culture, which archaeologists define as a society’s way of life, passed from generation to generation.  It is important to remember that culture change, or evolution, is not simply a gradual increase in cultural and technological complexity with “man pulling himself up by his own boot straps.”  It is a series of changing adaptations in reaction to changing natural environments, increasing human population density, and influences from adjacent cultures. 

Pennsylvania is on the edge of several environmental zones and several cultural areas.  Bordered by the Canadian and New England boreal forest to the north, coastal environments to the east, and fertile valleys of the Piedmont zone to the south, the region is situated at the crossroads of the cultures that occupied these zones.  This results in a series of cultural adaptations and changes that make Pennsylvania archaeology both complicated and fascinating.

All of the information on prehistoric Native Americans in Pennsylvania comes from the scientific study of archaeology.  Archaeologists have divided Native American cultural evolution into at least five time periods – the Paleoindian, the Archaic, the Transitional, the Woodland and the Contact Periods.  The Archaic and the Woodland are further divided into Early, Middle and Late.  These generally correspond to changes in artifacts, and archaeologists believe that this means there were changes in the way in which people lived, acquired food, organized their families, and practiced their religious beliefs.  Archaeologists call this cultural evolution.  




(Susquehannocks and other
historically recorded tribes)
1550 A.D. - 1780 A.D.

This was a period of cultural transition, fragmentation and eventual
collapse. Europeans moved into
Pennsylvania and
essentially displaced Native American cultures. Native made
objects were replaced by European equivalents such as iron axes,
brass kettles and glass beads. Extensive warfare occurred for
control of the fur trade and land acquisition

(Late Prehistoric)
800 A.D. - 1550 A.D.

 Horticulture was practiced across the state and, by the end
of this period, most groups practiced agriculture and lived in
permanent stockaded villages. Native Americans organized into
tribes. Numerous pottery shapes and designs were used along
with elaborate clay smoking pipes. Stone celts were common and
the bow and arrow developed as the main mode of weaponry.

(Adena and
regional equivalents)
Hopewell and
regional equivalents)
1200 B.C. - 800 A.D.

 Horticulture began in western Pennsylvania and hamlets became
more common. Ceremonialism and wide spread trade continued
from the early
Woodland period. A variety of cord marked,
stamped and net marked pottery styles emerged. In eastern
Pennsylvania, this period is poorly known, but permanent
occupations seem to be more common.

Semi-permanent settlements began during this period. Fired clay
pottery was introduced from the south along with stone gorgets
and tube-shaped smoking pipes. Trade was widespread and in
Pennsylvania, burial mounds, burial ceremonialism and
larger semi-permanent villages developed.

(Terminal Archaic)
1200 B.C. - 1800 B.C.

A climatic change resulted in less precipitation and Native Americans
focused their activities on floodplains. New tools were developed
to adapt to this environment, including soapstone bowls and
broad bladed spear points reworked into a variety of knives, drills,
and scrapers. The first evidence of extensive trade is found in the
form of highly desired stone used for making tools.

1800 B.C. - 8000 B.C.

 Hunters and gatherers used a variety of special tools such as axes,
atlatl (spear thrower) weights, grinding stones, stone drills and a
diversity of stone spear point styles. They hunted and fished, and
collected plant foods in an emerging deciduous forest. Native
American groups continued to migrate through a cycle of seasonal
rounds but territories became smaller compared to Paleoindian
times. The population gradually increased during this period.

8000 B.C. - 14,000 B.C.

Paleoindians were highly nomadic foragers in a late glacial/early
modern environment. They hunted, fished and collected a variety
of animal and plant foods. In the northern parts of the state, their
annual migration route covered hundreds of miles. The most
distinctive artifact is the fluted spear point. Scrapers were used for
working hides and making wooden and bone tools.