Prehistoric South Carolina

Sometime during the last Ice Age human groups made their way to what became South Carolina.

Sometime during the last Ice Age human groups made their way to what became South Carolina. Current debate about the continent of origin of these immigrants suggests Asia, Africa, and Europe. Recent evidence, although scant, has suggested the possibility of humans in South Carolina as early as 18,000 years ago, but a time frame beginning by about 13,000 years ago is widely accepted by archaeologists. At that time the climate of South Carolina was similar to that of upstate New York today. With well-fashioned, stone-tipped spears, the people, dubbed Paleo-Indians, hunted now-extinct animals such as woolly mammoths, giant sloths, mastodons, giant land tortoises, and saber-toothed tigers as well as elk, deer, and other smaller game. Preservation of the skeletons of these extinct animals in association with artifacts has yet to be discovered in South Carolina, and contexts for such preservation may be limited to Carolina bays or the bottom of the ocean. One rib bone discovered out of context on Edisto Island exhibits what appear to be intentional cut marks. Due to acidic soils, moist climate, and the ravages of time, stone tools are the only artifacts from this time, and interpretations are largely related to the manufacture, use, and discard behavior of such tools.

Only a handful of Paleo-Indian spear points have been excavated from in situ (undisturbed) deposits by professional archaeologists in Allendale, Aiken, Darlington, and Lexington Counties. Lancelet shaped, fluted and unfluted spearheads similar to ones found across the United States have been found mostly by the public and have been recorded by the archaeologist Tommy Charles of the University of South Carolina. The spear points are found in a variety of locations, but places where large streams entered major rivers appear to have been favored by Paleo-Indians. These spear points have been made of a variety of local and nonlocal stone materials such as chert, quartz, rhyolite, and sandstone. Other common Paleo-Indian stone tools include scrapers, knives, and bola stones. Toward the end of the Paleo-Indian period during the Dalton phase, chipped stone axes appear to suggest large woodworking activities. The lack of preservation of organic items such as bone, wood, leather, cordage, and food remains hinders an exact interpretation of lifeways. Highly mobile, kin-based groups of hunter/gatherers foraging along the margins of large rivers are theorized.

At the end of the Ice Age about ten thousand years ago, climatic, faunal, and landscape changes affected societies, as evidenced by significant changes in weaponry. The period between ten thousand and eight thousand years ago is known as the Early Archaic period. During this time, the fluted point gave way to side-notched and corner-notched forms, and a spear-throwing device known as the atlatl was introduced to facilitate hunting smaller, faster game such as white-tailed deer. A seasonal movement strategy along the state’s major river systems is hypothesized from excavations along the Savannah River. This scheme began at the coast in spring to take advantage of earlier plant growth as well as trips made to stone quarries in the lower coastal plain to replenish tool kits, followed by summer in the upper coastal plain. Groups spent fall in the Piedmont, taking advantage of mast foods (nuts), persimmons, and deer and bear that reached maximum weight due to persimmon and mast-food consumption. Mast foods may have been gathered and stored in anticipation of winter shortages and larger group sizes. Winter was spent at the fall line, the divide between the coastal plain and the Piedmont, aggregating with similar groups to increase the size of the gene pool for potential mates, schedule movements, and hold ceremonies. Positioning settlement on the fall line during winter allowed exploitation of resources in coastal plain and Piedmont habitats at times of limited or marginal resource availability.

Starting about eight thousand years ago and continuing for three thousand years or so, human groups appear to have experienced a population explosion and also began to occupy habitats away from the major rivers. Up until this period, known as the Middle Archaic, stone tools were well made and resharpened for extended use. Expediently made stemmed spear points replaced notched forms at this time, and careful curation and resharpening of tools to extend their use life went by the wayside. Mobility was more than likely restricted by the establishment of territories and boundaries as populations became dispersed across the landscape. A worldwide increase in temperature about six thousand years ago likely also affected the lifestyle of prehistoric people.

A period from five thousand to three thousand years ago is called the Late Archaic by archaeologists and is known for important innovations, including tribal societies, clay pottery vessels, shell rings, and soapstone disks and vessels. Soapstone disks have been interpreted as cooking stones, which were heated and dropped into water to cook food or extract oil from nuts or used as charcoal briquettes are used in modern times. Polished stone artifacts such as winged atlatl weights, often referred to as “bannerstones,” and three-quarter grooved axes are found in artifact assemblages from this time period. Humans again focused their settlement along rivers as well as along the Atlantic coast, which during this time was about twelve feet below its modern position. The earliest house in South Carolina was discovered from this period at a site on Hilton Head Island. The structure is D-shaped, similar to others in Georgia and Florida. Fiber and sand tempered clay pots made their appearance and indicate a semi-sedentary settlement perhaps by season. These pots were molded or coiled with forms that included conical jars and semi-hemispherical bowls. Surfaces of clay vessels were left plain or deco- rated with various types of punctuations, including periwinkle shells at the coast. Shell middens (garbage piles made predominantly of shellfish remains but also containing other rubbish) accumulated around sites, giving further credence to extended-stay settlement. The middens were also used as architectural materials to construct fifteen rather impressive shell ring complexes along the outer coastal plain. Whether these were habitation sites, ceremonial sites, dance rings, or signs of conspicuous consumption has yet to be resolved. However, these sites remain important ecological as well as cultural time capsules due to the enhanced preservation afforded by the calcium in shell. Plant remains and animal bones, including carved bone pins and carved antler, have been recovered.

By three thousand years ago, at the beginning of the Woodland period, pottery began to spread and be made into different forms tempered with a variety of materials, including sand, crushed stone, crushed pottery fragments known as grog, and pulverized sandstone. Vessel surfaces were decorated with an ever-increasing number of techniques, including check stamped designs carved into a wooden paddle and applied to the outer surface of vessels in a process to meld together coils. Other effects include cord-marked, fabric-impressed, finger-pinched, and other decorations.

The bow and the arrow were introduced and the first small tri- angular-shaped points made their appearance in the archaeological record. Evidence of horticultural activities was preserved at the Pumpkin site in the Piedmont region, where goosefoot and may- grass seeds–oily, starchy grains–point toward human manipulation of natural species. Polished stone gorgets, drilled for suspension and often notched along the edges, suggest a nonutilitarian personal adornment function. The gorgets also might have been wrist protectors for archers, or they might have been fitted with cordage and then twirled to make noises.

The final period of South Carolina prior to European exploration and colonization is called Mississippian, due to the fact that the earliest manifestation of this culture appears in the midcontinent along the Mississippi River. The period is defined by temple mound construction, full-scale floodplain agriculture, fortified villages, and complex chiefdom-level societies. Temple mound sites are generally found along rivers that drain from the mountains to the sea. The mounds were built in stages, and the house of the chief and often temples were erected on the summits of these truncated pyramids. Early explorers noted that when a chief died, his home was burnt down, a new layer of earth was added to the mound, and the new chief’s home was built on top of the new layer. Extensive trade net- works were established for status items such as marine shell and copper. These materials were fashioned into jewelry worn by members of the upper class. Nonmound sites are also common across the state, as noted by the presence of carved, paddle-stamped designs on exterior surfaces. These were fashioned by the societies that were encountered by Spanish explorers in the early to mid–sixteenth century, which marked the beginning of the end for the progression of native culture.

With the arrival of the Spanish, French, and English during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there followed the great destruction of native society through the introduction of European disease and the devastating effects of slavery, abuse by traders, and warfare. Many aspects of Indian culture survive in modern culture, such as grits, and tribal names have been given to rivers and roads. Catawba potters still fire hand-built pottery in open fires, and some ten thousand South Carolinians claimed native ancestry in the 2000 census. Thirteen tribal groups were recently represented on an ad hoc committee on Native American affairs.

Anderson, David G., Kenneth E. Sassaman, and Christopher Judge, eds.

Paleoindian and Early Archaic Period Research in the Lower Southeast: A South Carolina Perspective. Columbia: Council of South Carolina Professional Archaeologists, 1992.

Bense, Judith A. Archaeology of the Southeastern United States: Paleoindian to World War I. San Diego: Academic Press, 1994.

Goodyear, Albert C., III, and Glen T. Hanson, eds. Studies in South Carolina Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Robert L. Stephenson. Columbia: Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 1989.

South Carolina Antiquities 25, nos. 1–2, special anniversary issue (1993).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Prehistoric South Carolina
  • Author
  • Keywords Sometime during the last Ice Age human groups made their way to what became South Carolina, Paleo-Indians, stone tools are the only artifacts from this time, Highly mobile, kin-based groups of hunter/gatherers foraging along the margins of large rivers are theorized, atlatl, earliest house in South Carolina was discovered from this period at a site on Hilton Head Island, great destruction of native society through the introduction of European disease and the devastating effects of slavery, abuse by traders, and warfare
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date December 6, 2023
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2022
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