Every time my ventures into local history come in contact with Native Americans, I realize how little we know about their involvement in the Chartiers Valley. This is an interesting subject, one that must begin with an understanding of the evolution of these people from their earliest days at Meadowcroft Rockshelter up to historic times at Catfish Creek.
The discoveries at the Meadowcroft site have challenged conventional wisdom regarding the arrival of humans in the Western Hemisphere. Dr. James Adavasio’s excavation of the site in the 1970s encountered artifacts that suggest human occupation there as much as 19,000 years ago. If this is correct, it moves the date of human migration across Beringia back four or five millenenia.
Since then, there have been eight overlapping cultures. They are, in order: Paleo, Archaic, Late Archaic, Early Woodland (Adena), Middle Woodland (Hopewell), Late Woodland, Mississippian, Prehistoric, and Historic.
The Paleo-Indian culture occupied the Americas from their arrival until about 8,000 BC. They were nomadic big-game hunters who depended upon mammoths, giant sloths, and mastodons for their survival, supplemented by nuts, roots, and berries. The mega-fauna disappeared at about 10,000 BC, apparently because of climate change and/or over-hunting.
Next came the Archaic people, from about 8,000 BC till 2,000 BC. They too were primarily hunter/gatherers, but the extinction of the mega-fauna forced them to focus more on deer and small game. Bone fish-hooks, nets, and the atlatl were developed, as was basketmaking. The end of the Ice Age produced a fertile environment that facilitated this transition.
The Late Archaic Period continued the transition. Agriculture flourished in MesoAmerica. Maize (corn) was hybridized in Mexico. Copper nuggets were discovered in Michigan and hammered into crude tools and jewelry. The bow and arrow were developed. Next came the Early Woodland era, from about 500 BC to 100 BC. In the Ohio Valley this was the era of Adena culture, the mound builders. Their mounds apparently were part of burial rites. Frequently layers of mound were added to accommodate additional burials. Some mounds had diameters of three hundred feet. In a future column we will discuss Bridgeville’s famous Gould City Indian Mound.
The Adena people were part of an extensive trading network. The Ohio sites’ artifacts include copper from Michigan and seashells from the Gulf of Mexico. The gradual transition to an agricultural community required storage vessels; this led to the development of pottery production.
From 100 BC till 500 AD the Hopewell (Middle Woodland era) culture prevailed in the Ohio Valley. The Hopewell people were part of a massive network of similar cultures ranging from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
They expanded the concept of mound building into an art form, representing animals, birds, and serpents. There is also conclusive evidence that some of the earth monuments recognized astronomical events, the equinoxes and solstices, for example.
The Late Woodland people who occupied the Ohio Country from 500 AD till 1000 AD have not yet earned a specific name. Their settlements were larger than those of the Hopewell era and were often enclosed by defensive walls, suggesting the beginning of inter-tribal warfare.
The Mississippian Culture flourished from 1000 AD to about 1300 AD; its major metropolis, Cahokia, in Illinois held 20,000 people. In southwestern Pennsylvania a sister culture existed concurrently, the Monongahela People. Its relation to Cahokia was analogous to that of a rural area today to a big city. Cahokia prospered because of its maize production; a Monongahela village raised maize, but still depended heavily on hunting wild game.
The Monongahela villages contained as many as one hundred huts. An excellent small replica can be seen at Meadowcroft Village. The huts were wigwam-shaped pole structures covered with bark. The villages were palisaded, usually in the form of a circle. Some of them were on cliffs adjacent to a river, possibly for defensive reasons.
In addition to foodstuffs these people cultivated tobacco and hemp braid crops, which they traded with East Coast tribes. Their diet included small game, deer, turtles, fish, and shellfish. Readily identifiable by cord-marking decoration and by the addition of crushed granite or quartz to the clay, remnants of their pottery serve as valuable archaeological artifacts.
Five Monongahela sites in this area are listed on the National Register of Historic Places — two each in Greene and Fayette Counties and one in Westmoreland. Numerous other sites have been identified, including the well-known one in McKees Rocks.
This culture disappeared in the fourteenth century, as did Cahokia and the Anasazi culture in the Southwest. The fact that this coincided with the advent of “the Little Ice Age” suggests that climate change was involved and that the dramatically shorter growing seasons spelled the end of the maize-based cultures.
Next came the Prehistoric Era, running from 1300 AD to 1700 AD, when the influence of European traders and settlers became significant. In the 1600s Pennsylvania was occupied by perhaps ten thousand Native Americans — Delaware in the East, Susquehannock in the central portion, Erie in the northwest, and a few Shawnee in the southwest.
Their evolution toward a civilization culture had regressed. Their settled, agriculture-based life had reverted back toward one of hunter/gatherers. In the early seventeenth century Dutch traders in the Hudson Valley introduced firearms to the Iroquois in exchange for beaver pelts. This motivated the Iroquois to make war on their neighbors to the south in the 1648 AD Beaver War.
The Delaware were driven west, the Shawnee as far south as Florida, and the Erie and Susquehannock essentially eliminated. By the time the English had forced the Dutch out of their colonies, the Iroquois could properly claim that the Ohio Country belonged to them. By the time settlers arrived in western Pennsylvania, the Native American population there could be numbered in the hundreds.
We look forward to discussing the Historic era in a future column.