Archaeology reveals a variety of societies in the region
by Rob Neufeld
There is no question that Native Americans have lived in this region for at least 10,000 years, but there is some question about whether they all were Cherokee.
David Moore, Warren Wilson College archaeologist, did a study of the Cherokee site on the Swannanoa River in 1982 and revealed its occupation by four successive Indian civilizations.
The first group in this area, Thomas Lewis and Madeline Kneberg state in their book, “Tribes that Slumber,” were “Ice Age hunters, wandering in small groups composed of several related families.” They’d followed the bison to the New World, and came in several waves from different parts of the Old World.
When the big game diminished, a new wave spread out, depending on nuts, staying situated more, and establishing an agricultural way of life.
The current Cherokee culture, two to three millennia old here, reveres agriculture; and Selu, bringer of corn.
“The first man and the first woman, Kanati and Selu,” Barbara Duncan and Brett Riggs relate in “Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook,” “lived at Shining Rock Wilderness…Their language and their traditions were given to them by the Creator.”
The Cherokee’s legendary beginning emerges with farming villages. Regarding what existed before that, the Cherokee “had a dim tradition of their ancestors having come to North America as part of a long, drawn-out mass migration in which the Delawares, an Algonkin tribe, formed the vanguard,” Lewis and Kneberg write.
The Delaware may have formed the vanguard, but Cherokee ancestors followed separately, for they spoke a different language from the Algonquin.
“Linguistically, the Cherokee belong to the Iroquoian stock,” James Mooney documented in “Myths of the Cherokee.” But they had split from those cousins long before the Algonquin had pushed the Iroquois Federation south, around 1500.
“The marked lexical and grammatical differences” between Cherokee and Iroquois languages, Mooney adds, “indicate that the separation must have occurred at a very early period.”
With all the migrations and phases—the Paleo-Indian, with the crossing of Bering Strait; the Archaic, armed with atlatls; the Woodland, featuring corn, bows and arrows, and pottery; the Mississippian, and its Pisgah phase villages; and the Qualla phase, beginning with DeSoto—it’s hard to determine the degree of conquest, inter-marriage, cultural borrowing, and invention involved.
One way to start an exploration of the history is with local archaeology.
Under the surface of a cornfield along the French Broad River on the Biltmore Estate, an Appalachian State University team found the remains of a Middle Woodland village that had traded goods with Indians in Tennessee and Ohio. Located at an ancient crossroads, it may have served as a major trading center. An unearthed ceramic leg indicates that some girl may have left behind her dolly.
On a Cane Creek site just east of Bakersville, a farmer let state and UNC archaeologists come in after having dug up weapons and tools without noting locations. Pottery shards revealed that a small village had persisted there in the late Woodland period, not trading and making basic goods until the Mississippians took over.
Beneath a football field at Cane Creek Middle School in 1990, a contractor stumbled upon a premiere 14th century town.
In Ravensford, on property they’d obtained from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a school, the Eastern Band of Cherokee discovered, in 2004, a prosperous Mississippian village built on a site used by Indians since 10,000 B.C.
The Industrial Park
The town of Franklin engaged Western Carolina University to dig into and study an Indian site located on one side of an-about-to-be-built industrial park.
Archaeologists quickly moved in to test three areas, and, in 1976, focused on one. Within their allotted time, they unearthed a burial site; a 1000 A.D. house; and a trench between the two.
In a plow zone, they found a quartz Clovis point, which in 9,000 B.C. would have been destined for a wooly mammoth’s hide.
The house opened the door to Mississippians who, after displacing Woodland people from the bottomland, established complex towns with temple-mounds.
Hiwassee Island, which Lewis and Kneberg had excavated before it had been inundated by a Tennessee River reservoir in the 1940s, is a supreme example of this culture among Cherokee.
The Macon County site features no mounds. Farmers had long ago leveled the fields. But nearby, in Franklin, stands the Nikwasi Mound, which once had supported a ceremonial building, and which, Duncan tells, “held the ever-burning sacred fire and was the dwelling place of the immortal spirit-beings, the Nunnehi.”
The gravesite on the Industrial Park land revealed a Woodland society that had been far more religious and organized than generally believed.
“The Woodland period Indians,” Susan Collins writes in a N.C. Archives and History publication, “buried certain individuals, possibly priest-chiefs, in special postures and with special goods, and they erected monumental mortuary buildings.
“They participated in a mineral trade network which crossed the Smoky Mountains (and they) made highly stereotyped pottery, suggestive of craftsmen who were occupational specialists.”
Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian at www.cherokeemuseum.org.
Visit the N.C. Office of State Archaeology at www.archaeology.ncdcr.gov.
See videos of archaeologists talking about regional sites at www.youtube.com/user/UNCarchaeology.