Our knowledge of prehistoric people is based on artifacts that have survived. Because of the loss of less durable artifacts to the deterioration caused by time and environment, our knowledge of the earliest people is based on stone tools, their distribution across the landscape, and comparisons with other areas in the United States. Late prehistoric and protohistoric populations are better understood because of the survival of a wider range of artifacts and the excavation of burial sites and living sites.
The first people in West Virginia were Paleo-Indians (10,500–9000 B.C.). They were big game hunters whose ancestors were Asian. The climate at this time was much colder, and species such as mastodon, mammoth, musk ox, and caribou were hunted. Settlements were widely scattered and temporary. The characteristic artifacts of this period are fluted projectile points, including those known as Clovis and Cumberland. Many were made of high-quality flints from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Eighty-one fluted points have been reported from West Virginia. Several were found at Blennerhassett Island and sites along the Ohio and Kanawha rivers.
The Terminal Paleo-Indian period (9000–8000 B.C.) is marked by the appearance of a variety of corner and side-notched projectile points such as Thebes and Dovetails. These points have heavy basal grinding and flaking patterns characteristic of Clovis, but differ in that the blades are broader and the bases are notched rather than fluted.
At the beginning of the Early Archaic period (8000–6000 B.C.) there was a shift toward a more temperate climate which aided in the extinction of mammoth and mastodon. There was also a shift from big game hunting to more varied or broad-spectrum hunting and gathering, which included the hunting of deer and small mammals as well as the collecting of nuts, berries, seeds, and other plant foods. From the Early Archaic to the Protohistoric, deer provided from 70 percent to 90 percent of the meat in the diet of West Virginia Indians. A significant site for Early Archaic is the St. Albans Site on the Kanawha River.
The Middle Archaic period (6000–3000 B.C.) is characterized by a continuation of the broad-spectrum hunting and gathering. Ground stone tools are now included in the artifact inventory. Artifacts made by pecking, grinding and polishing include adzes, axes, and bannerstones which were used as balance weights on spear throwers. Mortars and pestles and nutting stones indicate increased use of plant foods. Greater regionalization is noted in new projectile point styles. Archaic projectile points were used with the atlatl (spear thrower). The Glasgow Site on the Kanawha River is a stratified site that spans this period.
The Late Archaic period (3000–1000 B.C.) was a time of population increase with more complex social organization. Several wild plants were cultivated and some, including squash and lambs-quarters, were eventually domesticated. Several distinct cultural groups appear. In northern West Virginia the Globe Hill Shell Heap and East Steubenville represent the Panhandle Archaic. These are the earliest sites with evidence of bone tool technology and human burials. In southern West Virginia the Buffalo Archaic is found along the Kanawha River floodplain. In the northern Ohio Valley, upper Kanawha Valley, and the eastern mountains, transitional Broad Spear points are occasionally found which originate in the Atlantic coastal zones and the Carolina Piedmont. These point types, associated steatite and sandstone vessels and cultivated sunflower represent a Transitional Archaic period dating from 2000 to 1000 B.C. Similar associations are found at Hansford on the Kanawha River.
Intensive use of the Mid-Ohio Valley began during the Late Archaic Period about 5,000 years ago. A pollen profile from Mason County indicates local vegetation disturbances were caused by fire and led to an increase of weedy seed plants, many of which were subsequently domesticated. Historic references indicate that Indians across North America used controlled burning as a land management technique, and these practices were used in West Virginia during the Late Archaic.
The Early Woodland period (1000–200 B.C.) includes two major developments, the manufacture of pottery and the construction of burial mounds. While pottery appears to the north and south about 1000 B.C. the earliest pottery in West Virginia appears between 400 and 500 B.C. Most Adena burial mounds date between 400 and 200 B.C. Hundreds of mounds were constructed along the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. The largest Adena Burial Mound is the Grave Creek Mound in Moundsville. Other large mounds that have been preserved include Criel in South Charleston, May Moore, and Camden Park. During this period local Indians continued to experiment with plant domestication and additional plants such as sunflower, lambs-quarters, smartweed, and maygrass were domesticated. Woodland horticulture is also documented in the analysis of charcoal from Woodland pits, which have an increase in pine and other woods that are associated with land clearing.
The Middle Woodland Period (200 B.C.–A.D. 400) is poorly documented in West Virginia. In Central Ohio, the Hopewell flourished and built numerous large earthworks. In West Virginia, Middle Woodland phases included Armstrong in the south and Fairchance and Watson Farm in the north. Indians continued living in scattered hamlets and mound building was not as prominent, although Fairchance had a large burial mound associated with its settlement. Occasionally mica or prismatic bladelets made of Ohio Flint Ridge flint are found on these sites but no major Hopewell earthworks are documented in West Virginia.
The Late Woodland Period (A.D. 400–1200) was a period of transition characterized by population migrations and diffusion of major technological and social innovations. There was increasing dependence on domesticated plants, coupled with hunting and gathering. Most Late Woodland Indians continued to live in small hamlets and single-family farmsteads. One exception is the Childers Site, which is an intensively occupied Woodland village dating to A.D. 650. About A.D. 700 the bow and arrow was introduced into West Virginia and is identified by the presence of Jack’s Reef and Levanna Triangular projectile points at Parkline Phase sites in Putnam County. Shortly thereafter corn is introduced at Woods Phase sites (A.D. 700 to 1200) in Mason County. During most of the period local populations continued living on farmsteads and in small hamlets.
The Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 1200–1550) is marked by the advent of intensive corn cultivation and a more sedentary village life. Diagnostic artifacts include shell-tempered pottery, triangular arrow points, ceramic pipes, shell hoes, shell beads, bone beads, and bone fishhooks. Late Prehistoric villages were generally circular and ranged from two to five acres in size. There were three Late Prehistoric populations in West Virginia. The Monongahela were located in the northern and eastern panhandles. Villages making Page Cordmarked pottery were located at Tygart Lake and Seneca Rocks, with scattered temporary settlements in the eastern mountains. Fort Ancient villages were located in the southern half of the state along the Ohio, Kanawha, New, Bluestone, and Guyandotte rivers.
During the Protohistoric period (A.D. 1550–1690) Indian villages had access to European trade goods but no direct contact with Europeans. Buffalo, Clover, and Rolfe make up the Clover Complex. Buffalo and Clover are early protohistoric sites while Rolfe Lee, with the highest percentage of late trade goods, is the latest protohistoric site in West Virginia, dating to A.D. 1640. The Orchard Site appears to be an early protohistoric site related to the Madisonville Phase in the Cincinnati area. Other less well defined sites in southern West Virginia include Marmet and Logan, which have been largely destroyed by the expansion of those towns, and Snidow on the Bluestone River. A diagnostic artifact found on these sites is the shell gorget, which originates from village sites in middle Tennessee and indicates close political relationships between the two areas.
The question of who were the descendants of these protohistoric villagers still remains to be answered. These villages were abandoned by the mid-1600s because of Iroquois incursions. By the time white settlers entered the area in the 1700s, all of the villages were abandoned and West Virginia was used as a hunting ground by the Shawnee, Cherokee, and Iroquois tribes. While it has been suggested that Fort Ancient and the subsequent protohistoric villages may have been ancestral to the Shawnee, the burial practices at Buffalo and other protohistoric sites suggest that these villages were eastern Siouan, and may have been linguistically and culturally related to Siouan villages in Virginia and the Carolinas.
This Article was written by Robert F. Maslowski
Last Revised on November 23, 2016
Mayer-Oakes, William J. Prehistory of the Upper Ohio Valley. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum, 1955.
McMichael, Edward V. Introduction to West Virginia Archeology. Morgantown: West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey, 1968.
Maslowski, Robert F. Protohistoric Villages in Southern West Virginia. Upland Archeology in the East, Symposium 2. Harrisonburg, VA: James Madison University, 1984.
Cite This Article
Maslowski, Robert F. "Prehistoric People." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 23 November 2016. Web. 26 April 2017.