First Peoples of Virginia


For decades, scientists and historians asserted that Indians arrived in the Americas via the Bering Strait land bridge 10-12,000 years ago. However, recent evidence suggests otherwise. Evidence of human occupation at least 18,000 years old was discovered at the Cactus Hill site, 45 miles southeast of Richmond, Virginia, in the mid 1990s. Now  new theories are arising to explain this new evidence; it is not clear precisely how long Indians have lived in the Americas.

Beringia Land Route and Pre-Clovis Sites

Numbered areas indicate pre-Clovis sites found, dating Indian presence earlier than had been previously thought.

Artifacts identified with Clovis technology have been found in every county in Virginia, demonstrating that early peoples moved throughout the region at least 13,000 years ago. Clovis points are characteristically fluted, and other items such as blades and cores can be identified by the flaking technique used. It is generally thought that PaleoIndians hunted large mammals such as mammoth and mastodon as well as smaller ones.

The Cactus Hill site, on the Nottoway River in Sussex County, provided evidence that native people were here earlier, about 18,000 years ago. These new discoveries raise questions about when and how Native peoples came to occupy the Americas, and new theories have been suggested that either complement or compete with the Bering Strait theory.


Clovis Artifacts

Clovis blades, cores, and a hammerstone

During the early Archaic period, 8000-6000 BC, the climate grew warmer and drier. People hunted smaller animals such as deer and elk as larger mammals became extinct. Daugherty's Cave, in Russell County, southwest Virginia, is an example of an early Archaic rock shelter, which yielded evidence of what people ate and how they spent their time.

During the Middle Archaic era, 6000-2500 BC, early peoples enlarged their tool kits to include atlatls--throwing devices that increased the distance and accuracy of spears. They also began using mortars and pestles to grind seeds and other plants they gathered.

The late Archaic period, 2500-1200 BC, was characterized by the presence of tens of thousands of people, settled mainly on the floodplains near rivers. They nurtured native plant species, such as sunflowers and edible grasses. They also developed soapstone technology, which revolutionized food preparation. They continued to live and work with domesticated dogs.

<em>Sara's Ridge</em>

This painting depicts Archaic-era lifeways at a Native community at Sara's Ridge, an archaeological site overlooking the Savannah River in the Carolinas, where scientists have discovered some of the earliest evidence of human dwellings.

During the early Woodland period, 1200-500 BC, people began making clay vessels, using the coil method. These vessels were much lighter and more versatile than soapstone.

During the Middle Woodland period, 500 BC-900 AD, populations grew and diversified. The Stone Mound Burial culture developed in the northern Shenandoah Valley. People began farming Northern Flint corn, originally introduced from Mexico but altered to suit the shorter growing season in the region. Spear use gave way to bow-and-arrow technology. Complex, ranked societies developed as trade networks expanded.

The Late Woodland period, 900-1600 AD, is the period most commonly associated with Virginia Indians, preceding their encounter with English colonists in 1607. During this period, people lived in semi-permanent towns and villages, and they traveled by dugout along the rivers. Artistic and ceremonial practices flourished. Beans and squash, including pumpkins, were added as staple crops. People also nurtured persimmon trees, grapes, and nuts. Their socieities were complex, sometimes ranked hierarchically, and they included the great paramount chiefdoms such as Powhatan's as well as alliances created by Siouan and Iroquoian speakers.

<em>The towne of Pomeiock</em>

Image of a palisaded Algonquian town drawn by John White, an English explorer, in 1585