Culture History

Humans are thought to have moved into South Carolina by around 17,000 years ago, if not earlier. The earliest of these people are thought to have been highly mobile hunters and gatherers who followed herds of big game, such as now extinct species of elephants and bison (Goodyear et al 1989). As the climate warmed following the last Ice Age many species died off, but at the same time human populations grew. People intensified their hunting and gathering and focused more and more on smaller game and plant foods. Evidence for human presence in South Carolina shows continuous occupation by people making characteristic stone tools after about 12,000 years before present (BP).

Between about 5,000 and 4,500 years ago people began making pottery. The earliest reliable date in our database is 5,180BP, and it comes from a site on the lower Savannah River (Stoltman 1966).

Early researcher James Ford believed that colonies of seafarers moved up from the north coast of South America and brought their method of fiber tempered pottery making with them (Ford 1966). He noted differences in decorative motifs used by people on the Georgia coast, and in Northern Florida, and tied them to pottery types found in Colombia. He felt that this was evidence of multiple colonies. Others disagree, and feel that the concept of diffusion alone cannot fully explain the appearance of pottery (Sassaman 1993). Many favor an independent invention hypothesis.

Whatever happened, pottery making seems to have been taken up by groups of people whose cultures were not changed significantly by its introduction. They lived in small groups and continued to practice a mobile, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. One thing that did change was the adoption of shellfish gathering. Along the coast from Florida to the Santee River people built up shell middens, sometimes in ring forms. This is thought to be the result of seasonal aggregations that featured ritual feasting and other forms of exchange and intergroup cooperation.

As time passed the human population continued to grow, and people appear to have settled into smaller territories. These people were still not living in villages, but do seem to have been revisiting the same sites year after year, leaving behind broken pots, stone tools, and food remains.

Maize agriculture came into what is now the southwestern United States from Meso-America by around 2,000BC. Its use spread as strains resistant to frost were developed and by about 700AD it was being grown as far north as Canada. In Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina it was brought in by the Mississippian people.

This is the first major shift in lifeways that we can see archaeologically, as they brought with them characteristic religious and social practices such as village life and ceremonial mound building. The earliest date for maize found in the background research, 757AD, comes from the Rush site (9FL164), in Georgia. Two dates from North Carolina of 1,089 and 1,106AD show the rate of northern movement (Mountjoy 1989).

Mississippian people making complicated stamped Savannah, Etowah and related wares that Stanley South (2002; 1976) grouped as the "Chicora Ware Group" were active in South Carolina from around 1,000-1,500AD. During the 1,400s they abandoned the practice of building and worshiping at temple mounds, but continued to settle in villages and grow corn, beans, and squash.

Spanish explorers came through the state in the early 16th century and even established a colony called Santa Elena that lasted from 1565 to 1585. Along the coast the Spanish settled missions like the ones on St Catherines Island in Georgia (see Thomas et al 2008) which spread Christianity, and there was a limited amount of trading that brought European goods to the local people, but the Spanish did not have a major effect in South Carolina and North Carolina. This incursion is thought to have brought diseases that had more of an effect than trade and other forms of interaction.

The great nations of Europe began building empires of colonies around the world in the 16th century, and the Spanish at Santa Elena were joined by the English on Roanoke Island in the 1580s. This did not survive, but in 1608 a settlement in Virginia called Jamestown was established, and from it grew what is now the United States. The English pursued the Indian trade vigorously, but had limited interaction with the people of South Carolina before a settlement was made at Charles Towne in 1670.

The Carolina colony was focused on large scale agriculture, which required a large labor pool. Planters from Barbados among the early settlers brought African slaves and white indentured servants with them. Early settlers also traded with the Native Americans, and soon began taking slaves from their populations. When it was discovered that rice could be effectively grown in the swamps around Charleston this trade escalated. Among the natives of the Southeast slavery was not unknown. Usually the losers of intergroup conflicts were enslaved, but this was often at the family level, and not at the scale the English brought. English traders soon encouraged their Indian partners to go to war with their enemies and bring the slaves to the colony, where they were employed locally and exported to the Caribbean and the northern colonies.

Soon groups all across what became the eastern United States were in turmoil, beset by disease and fighting their neighbors and raiders from as far away as Canada. This resulted in the remnants of groups like the Sara of southern Virginia, and the Yemassee of northern Florida moving into the state. European settlers were fanning out from Charleston, and they soon came into conflict with the natives, which resulted in the Yemassee and Tuscarora wars in the 1710s. By the 1730s most Native Americans had left the coastal counties leaving behind small groups of "Settlement Indians."

The trade with the west continued and brought with it new groups of free natives, as well as more slaves. But the Europeans were hungry for land, and pushed the natives aside as quickly as they could. Remnant groups began to coalesce as the Catawba Nation by the 1730s (Merrell 1989). The only other large group in South Carolina was the Cherokee, who lived in the far northwest corner of the state.

The Catawba were traditionally the allies of the Europeans, fighting on their behalf, and receiving their protection from northern raiders in return. The Cherokee were more remote, and guarded their territory and traditional cultural identity more jealously. Nonetheless they were pushed back into the mountains and foothills. In 1838 they and other southern indians were forcibly removed, leaving behind only the few that managed to hide out in the remote mountains or who received help and shelter from their white neighbors (see Rodning 2008).

From the pottery perspective the period between the 1520s and the 1830s were marked by influences from outside of the state, such as painted and shell tempered wares. There also appears to be another result, as the well carved and carefully applied paddle stamping of the 1400s seems to grow progressively more sloppy and dissolute. The designs become more crude and get larger- "exploded" as some put it (DePratter and Judge 1989).

At the same time plain and highly burnished wares became more popular, and some natives made ceramics for trade that copied forms seen on Anglo-European pottery. These "Colono-Indian" (Noel Hume 1962) or "Colonowares" (Ferguson 1978) are seen in small numbers from the Mid-Atlantic states to North Carolina (see Brunswick, in South 1976). In South Carolina thin, highly burnished pottery makes up a small portion of pottery made for the enslaved people living on the plantations of the Lowcountry. 

After about 1810 the only Native Americans in South Carolina making pottery were the Catawba, who still practice this tradition today (see Holmes 1903, Harrington 1908, Fewkes 1944, Merrell 1989, Blumer  2004).