Archaic Period – 10,000 – 4,000 years ago

Painting of Archaic people

By 10,000 years ago, the climate had warmed, and the vegetation was slowly changing. The open forest of the Ice Age was being replaced by a denser spruce-pine forest similar to forests found in Canada today.  Deciduous trees, such as oak, chestnut, and maple were gradually migrating from the south, but these broadleaf trees did not replace the spruce/pine forest until after 9,000 years ago.  The human population gradually increased in size throughout the Archaic Period, during which people continued to hunt, fish, and gather wild plant foods.  The technology and the size of band territories evolved in response to the increasing population density and the continuing warming of the environment.  The Archaic Period is divided into three sub-periods based on changes in the types of tools and other artifacts that they used. 
The tool technology of the Early Archaic was similar to that of the Clovis people but instead of fluted points, distinctive notched spear points were used. 

Hunting in the dense coniferous forest was probably more difficult than in the open forest of Paleoindian times.  One means of increasing hunting success was the use of the atlatl or spear thrower. This device consisted of a flattened, wooden stick with a hook at one end to launch the spear.  It served to lengthen the hunter's throwing arm and increased the accuracy and speed of the throw.  Although the wooden atlatl is not preserved on archaeological sites, the stone weights that were placed on the end of the stick to increase its force are found on many Archaic Period sites.

Early Archaic chipped stone spear points
Early Archaic chipped stone spear points

Early Archaic populations were similar to Paleoindian groups in that they moved their camps frequently to be close to the food resources they needed.  They likely covered smaller territories than Paleoindian bands, but they continued to favor stone from a limited number of bedrock or cobble sources.  By all indications, their territories continued to be large. 

By 9,000 years ago, the beginning of the Middle Archaic, the climate had warmed enough to allow oak and other hardwood trees to flourish.  As a result, the forest was richer in food resources, including walnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts, acorns, seeds, and berries. The birds and mammals that feed on these resources provided game for the hunters. The period from 8,900 to 8,100 years ago is associated with the use of bifurcate-based spear points. These points are distinctive and are found throughout the Southeastern portion of the United States and the Ohio Valley, but only as far north as southern New England.  They seem to be associated with the spread of the oak forest and may have provided some advantage in this environment.  This spear point style may have been made by a different people than those of Paleoindian/Early Archaic times and may represent a migration of people from the south. 

 Bifurcate-base points
Bifurcate-base points

The Middle Archaic inhabitants of Pennsylvania no longer used the highest quality tool stone or carried it over long distances.  Their seasonal movements were over shorter distances and they usually used whatever tool stone was locally available. The period after 8,000 years ago is characterized by a variety of spear point styles, although few are distinctive in their shape, and they are difficult to identify in the archaeological record.   Except for wood working tools such as grooved axes, stone tools were general in function, such as scrapers and knives.

By 5,000 years ago, the beginning of the Late Archaic period, population density was relatively high for a hunting and gathering way of life.  There is an increase in the number of archaeological sites, and many of them are very large.  The obvious implication is that the hunting and gathering bands were larger.  While Early and Middle Archaic groups were likely made up of nuclear families or small extended families, Late Archaic bands may have included several extended families related by blood or marriage.  The size and composition of the band probably changed throughout the course of the seasonal round, based on the availability of food resources.  For example, spring fishing camps may have included the entire band of 100 or more people, while during the winter, the band may have split into nuclear family groups to better exploit sparse food resources.

Because of the increase in population density, the territories available to each band continued to get smaller.  As a result, bands intensified the exploitation of their territories by gathering a greater variety of food resources and by developing technologies to increase the efficiency of food gathering and processing.  For example, they developed a variety of tools for grinding seeds and nuts and they began fishing with nets to increase their harvest.  They used a variety of spear point styles and, as in the Middle Archaic, they were most frequently made from whatever useable stone was nearby.

Late Archaic tools, two drills (left) and two scrapers (right)
Late Archaic tools, two drills (left) and two scrapers (right)

The Middle and Late Archaic Periods represent a 4,000-year period of population growth and gradual change in cultural adaptations.  It may also have been a period of increasing group identification as related bands customized their adaptations to the specific environments in different regions of the state.  The southeastern (Piedmont Archaic), the southwestern (Panhandle Archaic), and the northern (Laurentian Archaic) portions of the Commonwealth each seemed to have had its own distinctive tool kit.  What is not known is whether these groups represented different tribes, or language groups, or whether they were simply selecting the most effective tools for use in different environments.

The Archaic period is an interesting time of improving environmental conditions, resulting in a rich environment for humans to live in.  Native American populations increased at least five-fold over Paleoindian times.  As the region filled up with people, groups were forced to exploit smaller territories.  Technology does not change significantly during the Archaic, but there is an increase in wood working tools, fishing tools, and seed grinding tools.  Along with the smaller territories, these tools obviously mean that people were being forced into using more efficient tools to gather food resources from smaller regions.