How did Natives Evolve and Prosper before the arrivals of Europeans in Kentucky?

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap (George Caleb Bingham, oil on canvas, 1851–52)

The prehistory and history of Kentucky span thousands of years and have been influenced by its central location and diverse geography. It is not known precisely when the first humans appeared in what is now Kentucky. About 1800 BCE, a progressive transition began from a hunter-gatherer economy to an agricultural economy. Around 900 CE, a Mississippian society took root in central and western Kentucky; by contrast, a Fort Ancient culture arrived in eastern Kentucky. While the two had many similarities, the characteristic ceremonial earthwork mounds built in the former’s centers were not part of the latter’s culture.

Pre-European History of Kentucky:

Paleo-Indian era (9500 BCE – 7500 BCE)

Based on the evidence in other neighborhoods, humans were likely living in Kentucky before 10,000 BCE, but archaeological evidence of their occupation has yet to be recorded. Stone tools, particularly arrowheads (projectile points) and scrapers, are the original evidence of the Americas’ earliest human activity. Paleo-Indian bands presumably moved their camps several times a year. Their camps were small ones, comprising 20–40 people. Band society was egalitarian, so there were no social leaders and no social classes or ranking. Scientific proof links indigenous Americans as descendants of Asian peoples, chiefly eastern Siberian populations. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been connected to Siberian populations by blood types, linguistic factors, and genetic composition as indicated by molecular data, such as DNA.

At the top of the last major Ice Age, between 8000 BCE–7000 BCE, Kentucky’s climate stabilized, leading to a rise in technology advances and a population that resulted in a more sedentary lifestyle. This warming trend eliminated the Pleistocene giant game megafauna, such as the giant ground sloths, mastodon, mammoth, tapirs, giant beavers, short-faced bear, bison, horse, saber-toothed tiger, stag-moose, peccary, and musk ox. All of these were native to Kentucky during the Ice Age and moved north or became extinct as the glacial ice receded.

Archaic era (7500 BCE – 1000 BCE)

By 4000 BCE, Kentucky tribes utilized native wetland resources. Extensive shell middens (ancient landfills, trash piles) are proof of their mussels and clams consumption. They left middens along lakes, but there is insufficient evidence of Archaic tribes occupying areas along coastlines before 3000 BCE. Old Kentucky natives’ social groups were small, comprising a few families. The artifact caches, large shell middens, dog and humans burials, and burnt-clay flooring establish native tribes living permanently in the location. The mussels, white-tailed deer, oysters, fish, elk, and turtles were the principal game animals of Archaic native tribes.

Woodland era (1000 BCE – 900 CE)

About 1800 BCE, Kentucky’s native American tribes began cultivating various wild plant species, transitioning from a hunter-gatherer market to an agro-based economy. The Woodland period describes the “middle” era between the mostly hunter-gatherers of the Archaic age and the agriculturalist Mississippian civilization era. The Woodland era is a developmental stage without any massive changes. Still, it is formed by continuous development in stone and bone tools, shelter construction, leather crafting, textile manufacture, and extensive agricultural cultivation. 

Researchers have recognized precisely separate cultures during the Middle Woodland era. Examples include:

  • Copena culture.
  • The Armstrong culture.
  • Fourche Maline culture.
  • Crab Orchard culture.
  • The Marksville culture.
  • The Havana Hopewell culture.
  • The Swift Creek culture.
  • The Kansas City Hopewell.
  • The Goodall Focus.

The remains of two different Woodland groups, the Hopewell (middle Woodland) and the Adena (early Woodland), have been discovered in present-day Louisville and northeastern Kentucky, and central Bluegrass areas.

Mississippian era (900 CE – 1750 CE)

Around 900 CE, maize became extremely productive, and the Eastern Agricultural Complex was soon replaced by the maize-based farming of the Mississippian culture period. The Mississippian period natives’ village life revolved around growing, planting, and harvesting beans and maize, which made up 67% of their daily diet. The women used stone and bone hoes for most of the cultivation work. They created the “Three Sisters” (beans, maize, and squash), which were smartly interplanted to take incredible advantage of each plant’s characteristics. Beans could happily climb the corn stalks, and the big-hearted squash leaves would shelter the soil and lessen weeds. White-tailed deer was the principal game animal that natives hunted. Mississippian civilization pottery was more elaborate and varied than that of the Woodland period, including decorations and painting, and a range of vessel forms such plates, bottles, jars, pans, funnels, pipes, colanders, and bowls. Potters added adorable handles to jars, and they attached animal and human effigies to some bottles and bowls. The ancient Mississippians’ elite lived in square houses, heavily built, on top of large platform mounds.

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap (George Caleb Bingham, oil on canvas, 1851–52)

Between 1662 and 1672 CE, the Europeans arrived and the new era of colonisation began.

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