A Brief Introduction to the Prehistoric Communities of the Congaree River Floodplain, Congaree National Park

Meredith D. Hardy, Ph.D.
Southeast Archeological Center
National Park Service

Archeologists divide cultural histories of regions into cultural chronologies, with numerous local phases and traditions fitting into broader conceptions of cultural periods. These divisions are based in observed patterns and changes in many kinds of artifacts, locations and forms of settlement, practices such as gathering food and producing tools and other items, and the extent, or absence of, interactions on both local and long-distance regional scales. What follows is a brief presentation of the cultural history of the Congaree River Floodplain, a general description of the ancient societies that occupied the South Carolina Inner Coastal Plain and Fall Zone regions. There are many questions that remain unanswered regarding the lifeways and practices of these communities, questions that can only be addressed through extensive, systematic archeological inquiry.

Cultural Overview

The current archeological evidence indicates that prehistoric occupation of the area occurred throughout the 10,000 year time span covering the Paleoindian through the Late Mississippian Peiods. Presumably, short-term forays into the area by these peoples occurred periodically, in order to take advantage of the natural plant and animal resources that inhabited the area.

It appears that Paleoindian (ca. 9500 - 8000 b.c.) peoples arrived in the present-day South Carolina area during this climatic transitional period, initially hunting the megafauna, then preying on the non-herding species. However, by the beginning of the Early Holocene period (ca. 8000 b.c.) most of the megafauna had disappeared. In the Congaree River valley, the Buycks Bluff site, located across the river from Congaree National Park in the Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve, has been dated to the Paleoindian Period. It is likely that the Southeastern Paleoindians were fairly generalized hunter-gatherers who pursued a wide range of animals, including the megafauna that became extinct near the end of the Pleistocene age (Goodyear et al. 1989). Hunting techniques that appear to have been used by Paleoindian peoples include the ambushing of animals at salt licks, watering holes and river crossings (Tankersley 1990:97).

The Archaic Period (ca. 8000 - 6000 b.c.) has been subdivided into three chronological categories based generally on styles of projectile points: Early (ca. 8000 - 6000 b.c.), Middle (ca. 6000 - 3000 b.c.), and Late (ca. 3000 - 1000 b.c.). The changes in the styles of various projectile point types throughout the Archaic period are usually interpreted as a reflection of increasing numbers and diversity of social groups, in addition to changes in subsistence practices. Archaic peoples were most likely semi-nomadic, seasonally mobile bands of hunter-gatherers. The Early Archaic of the Inner Coastal Plain and Fall Line Zone of South Carolina is characterized by changes in lithic technology, where fluted lanceolate points gave way to side and corner notched forms (Michie 1996; Sassaman 1996). There were also changes in diet and subsistence in reaction to warming temperatures and changes in local environments. Because of these changes the Archaic toolkit was also modified, and now included tools for plant food preparation and processing (House and Ballenger 1976). People participated in long-distance trade networks to obtain stone materials. According to Anderson and Hanson (1988), these peoples maintained extensive ranges of settlement and hunting territory, with fall and winter sites occupied repeatedly for long periods of time and used as bases.

The Late Archaic was a period of major technological and economic change and innovation for South Carolina's prehistoric peoples. By the close of this period many Late Archaic groups over much of the state were becoming increasingly sedentary, participating in long distance exchange networks, experimenting with plant husbandry, and were making and using pottery; by 2500 b.c., pottery was being produced in the South Carolina/Georgia Coastal Plain, Inner Coastal Plain, and Piedmont areas. Communities consisting of large base camps, with smaller hunting and gathering parties likely broke off temporarily for specific excursions. These groups likely gathered together in the spring and fall, and dispersed during the fall and winter (Sassaman et al. 1990:3130-315).

The Woodland period (ca. 1000 b.c. - a.d.1000) is characterized by several important cultural changes, such as the establishment of semi-permanent or permanent villages, the widespread adoption of pottery, the construction of earthen mounds, and the expansion of horticulture (Struever and Vickery 1973; Smith 1986, 1989). The Early Woodland Period (ca. 1000 - 200 b.c.) is often viewed as a continuation of the Late Archaic, though people were establishing settlements in regions between rivers. Many people across the entire South Carolina Coastal Plain and Fall Zone were producing pottery. There was a gradual transition from seasonal camps to more permanent settlements. Thom's Creek-style occupations, with beginnings in the Late Archaic, tend to be concentrated in the Santee River drainage and the central coast of South Carolina, and their subsistence does not appear to have concentrated on gathering shellfish. By ca. 200 b.c., (Middle Woodland Period), people were staying not only in seasonal camps located on sandy ridges overlooking floodplains of hardwood swamps but also were now occupying bottomland zones with greater biodiversity, marking a return to consuming river resources (i.e. shellfish). By ca. a.d. 500, many of these seasonal camps were developing into widely dispersed, smaller sedentary, permanent villages. This was also the beginning of mound-building, and the presence of high status or value burial goods found with some individuals is likely evidence for difference in social status within communities; in other words, the presence of elites and commoners. People buried their dead in sand mounds and ridges, a practice found across the Georgia and southern South Carolina coastal areas. There was also an increase in localized regional pottery production, with many new styles of decoration being developed.

As populations increased, so, too, did horticultural practices. A wide variety of plants were cultivated, including sunflower, squashes and gourds, sumpweed, and maize (Crites 1991; Gremillion 1993). While some of these plants were being grown during the Late Archaic/Early Woodland periods, others, such as maize and beans, did not see a marked rise in popularity until the end of the Late Woodland. Based on current archeological evidence it does not appear that people living in the Congaree River Floodplain were horticulturalists until the Late Woodland.

It is during the Mississippian Period (ca. a.d. 1000 - 1600) that societies across the southeastern U.S., including the South Carolina Inner Coastal Plain, reached their greatest socio-economic complexity. This rise in organizational complexity is tied to the development of chiefdom societies, noted for the presence of social status ranks, centralized leadership, and specialized production of a variety of goods. Centers of power, marked on the landscape by earthen mound complexes, rose and fell as new settlements were established, alliances made, and trade networks were created, maintained, and broken. Villages during this period tended to be located along fertile river bottoms and valleys of tributaries, which were fertile and excellent for an economic system focused on horticulture and agriculture. Again, bottomland sand ridges were used to bury their dead.

Style and Interaction Networks

The study of styles and design elements is not solely for the study of cultural continuity and change over time, but can provide insight into definitions of group membership and social identity (Hegmon 1992; Parkinson 2006; Rice 2006:267 Wobst 1977). The range and spread of styles of artifacts, whether chipped stone spear or arrow points, other forms of stone tools, decorative elements carved onto bone and shell, and manufacturing techniques and decorative styles on pottery, are indicative of forms of communication and interaction. Similarities in decorative and stylistic elements are not necessarily only indicative of common physical origins or of movements or migrations across a landscape, but also of shared symbolic value and heritage through a variety of means of communication of ideas and knowledge. They are also illustrative of changes in networks of communication over time, and different styles rise and fall in popularity over time in different areas.

The societies of northwestern Georgia, the mouth of the Savannah River, and central North Carolina all influenced the peoples of the South Carolina Inner Coastal Plain and Fall Zone regions (Anderson 1989:105; Keel et al. 1996:30). As the archeological evidences stands today, it appears that the earliest presence of people in the portion of the Congaree River Floodplain that lies inside the boundaries of Congaree National Park dates to the Middle Archaic Period, in the form of Kirk Corner Notched and Morrow Mountain-style stone projectile points. However, it is possible that Paleoindian groups that were occupying the Buyck's Bluff site across the Congaree River entered the floodplain to hunt and gather foods. During the Late Archaic Period people using Thom's Creek-style pottery were staying in the floodplain (Figure 1). Both Stallings and Thom's Creek-style pottery have been recovered throughout a region spanning from the Savannah River to southeastern North Carolina, with the slightly older Stallings phase likely originating in the Savannah River drainage (Hardy 2008; Trinkley 1989:73).

By the end of the Early Woodland period there were influences from the south, as Refuge and Deptford-style pottery made its way into the region, as did Dunlap-style wares of northwestern Georgia, especially fabric impressed wares. This trend of southern influence continued into the Late Woodland and Early Mississippian Periods, where there are many similarities between kinds of artifacts (and pottery styles) spanning from eastern Georgia to southeastern North Carolina (Anderson 1989:101).

It appears that, based on the current archeological information available, that the Congaree River floodplain may have been a kind of "buffer zone" between the extensive ranked societies along the Savannah and Wateree River valleys during the Early through Middle Mississippian Periods. The floodplain could have been occasionally used for hunting or overnight camps during journeys.

At the end of the Mississippian Period, it appears that many of the chiefdom societies of the Savannah River basin were abandoning the region and spread in two general directions, to the southwest (the Oconee river drainage) and the northeast (the Santee/Wateree river drainage) (Figure 2) (Anderson 1994:67; DePratter 1989:143). These became the paramount chiefdoms known as the Ocute and Cofitachequi, encountered by Herando de Soto (1540) (Figure 3), Pardo (1566, 1567), de Torres (1628), and Woodward (1670). Shortly after 1670, the people of Cofitachequi dispersed, and by 1701, they were scattered across the region. At its zenith, however, likely around the time of de Soto's visit, the Cofitachequi chiefdom spread 240 kilometers out from the main town, and included the confluence of the Wateree and Congaree rivers. It is believed by many archeologists (Anderson 1994:58; DePratter 1989:140; Hudson, Smith, and DePratter 1984) that the main town of Cofitachequi was located near present-day Camden, likely at the Mulberry Mound site. Hudson, Smith, and DePratter (1984) have proposed that the town of Aymay (or Guiomae) was located at the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers, but its exact location remains unknown.

Finally, the Congaree people encountered by John Lawson (1966), in 1701, were likely a remnant group of the fragmented and dispersed peoples that once comprised the powerful Cofitachequi chiefdom. Their main village, located north of the Congaree River and possibly along the Wateree River or at the confluence of these two rivers, was small, consisting of only about a dozen houses.

Not long after Lawson's visit, the Congaree became involved in the Yamassee War (1715 - 1716), where they allied with the Santee, Yamassee, Creek, Wateree, Waxhaw, and other tribes in an unsuccessful attempt to drive the English out of the Carolinas. Over half of the Congaree and Santee were captured and sent to the West Indies as slaves (Swanton 1979). Those that remained went to live with the Catawba.


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Prehistoric pottery sherds recovered from Congaree National Park. A: Dunlap Fabric Impressed; B: Thom's Creek Drag and Jab Punctate; C: Refuge Dentate Stamped; D: Deptford Linear Check Stamped (crossed)

Postulated movements of Mississippian peoples in South Carolina and Georgia (after Anderson 1994:67; DePratter 1989:143)

Possible route of Hernando de Soto in Georgia and the Carolinas (courtesy of Julie Barnes Smith)

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