Skip to main navigation Skip to main content

Prehistoric Archaeology

Kentucky Pre-History

Kentucky has a rich and varied archaeological heritage, with archaeological sites being located in every county of the Commonwealth. To date, archaeologists have recorded more than 19,000 archaeological sites in Kentucky. Prehistoric sites include seasonal camps, villages, burials mounds, and earthworks. Native Americans occuppied some of these sites more than 12,000 years ago, while they occupied others less than 300 years ago.

Paleoindian (?12,000 to 8,000 B.C.) groups are thought to have arrived in Kentucky at the end of the last ice age at least 12,000 years ago. The climate in Kentucky was much colder and wetter then. Perhaps they came into the area on the trail of large game such as mammoth, mastodon, or bison. These animals not only provided meat, but skins for shelter and clothing. During this time period, people lived in small groups, which moved frequently. They often carried their belongings in skin bags and built temporary shelters poster for protection from the elements.

The Paleoindian toolkit consisted of well-crafted spear points. The size of these spear points reflect an extensive knowledge of how to work and shape stone. In addition to projectile points, flint knappers also made and used tools for scraping hides and wood. It seems likely that Paleoindians also made tools from wood and animal bones, but evidence for this has not survived in the archaeological record. Little is known about the ritual or ceremonial life of Paleoindians.

By the Archaic (8,000 to 1,000 B.C.) period the climate had become more like it is today. Climatic changes led to the extinction of large animals, such as the mastodon and giant bison. With the extinction of these animals Archaic hunters turned their attention to smaller game such as deer, turkey, and rabbit. They also collected wild plants for food and medicine and began to grow small gardens. Archaic groups made baskets for collecting, transporting, and storing their food.

During the Archaic period people tended to live in one place for longer periods of time than they had during the Paleoindian period. However, they continued to have a mobile lifestyle, never staying in one place for more than a few months. These camps were located in areas where they could exploit a variety of resources. Smaller seasonal camps also were located in rockshelters.

 Archaic hunters tipped their spears with notched and stemmed, not fluted, stone spearpoints. These used a spearthrower (atlatl) to improve the accuracy of their throwing. Sandstone nutting stones found at their camps imply that, as time passed, they came to rely more on plants for food. By 1,000 B.C., some Archaic peoples had begun to experiment with growing their own food. They let squash and small-seeded plants like goosefoot grow on the trash heaps near their base camps. Before long, Archaic women were planting seeds in areas cleared especially for that purpose.

The Woodland (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 1000) period is marked by the introduction of pottery. Early pottery was anything but portable. It was thick, heavy and fragile. However, pottery had definite advantages. It could be used for cooking, and could be made water tight. Surplus food could be sealed into it to protect it from pests. The use of baskets, gourds and other containers continued.  During the Woodland period, more time was devoted to gardening and cultivated plants became an important component of the diet. Plants, such as squash, sunflower, goosefoot, and maygrass are being grown. Woodland peoples also hunted a variety of animals and collected wild plants. They also tended to build bigger houses and to live in larger communities.

Woodland religious and ceremonial life is reflected by the construction of large earthen enclosures and mounds. Religious ceremonies were often performed within circular earthen enclosures. Burial mounds were constructed over several decades. Within these mounds some individuals were placed in logs tombs. Copper bracelets and mica cresents placed with some of these individuals reflects their status within Woodland society. It also indicates that Woodland peoples participated in long-distance exchange networks. Tobacco, which was grown by Woodland garderns was smoked at important events. During the Woodland period people also began to explore caves, such as Mammoth Cave.

 Late in the Woodland period, the bow and arrow was developed. For the first time small, true arrowheads replaced spear points, although spears continued to be made and used. The use of groundstone tools continued, and was especially important in the processing of corn. Stone celts were an improvement on the grooved axe.

By the Late Prehistoric (A.D. 1000 to 1750) period, village life revolved around the planting, growing, and harvesting of corn and beans. These plants supplied the Mississippian people of western Kentucky and Fort Ancient peoples of eastern Kentucky with as much as 60% of their diet. Late Prehistoric peoples added the hoe to their tool kit to work their agricultural fields.

New pottery vessel forms were developed during this period. They included jars, bowls, plates, bottles, and colanders. Handles were added to jars and human and animal effigies were attached to some bowls and bottles.

 During the Late Prehistoric period people began to construct rectangular houses. They also began to live in large year-round settlements, many of which were stockades. As many as 2,000 people may have lived in some of the large towns. These communities were ruled by hereditary chiefs, who lived on large platform mounds near the center of the community.

Late Prehistoric religious and ceremonial life is reflected in part by the figures depicted on  engraved shell gorgets. It also is reflected in the placement of whole ceramic vessels with shell spoons, pipes, and shell necklaces with the dead.

The arrival of Europeans on America's eastern shores brought this story to a close. Long before the first explorers and traders arrived, items of European manufacture filtered through the trade networks. Diseases, many previously unknown to the native residents, also outpaced the Europeans arrival in Kentucky. These diseases often wiped out entire villages, and native population levels rapidly decreased. By the mid 1700's only a handful of native settlements survived in Kentucky. By the early 19th century, the Native American had all but disappeared from Kentucky. Their tradition lives on in descendants who were exiled to other states when the area was settled by Euro-Americans and those who continue to live in Kentucky today. Their heritage survives in Kentucky's rich archaelogical record.