Humans first came to Vermont about 11,000 years ago, and the prehistoric eras in Vermont cover the story of the earliest human use of the landscape up to about 400 years ago, when the first Europeans came. Our understanding of these eras comes primarily from archeological work.
Paleoindian period, 11,000 - 9,000 Before Present (BP)
Burlington's landscape has changed dramatically since the glaciers started their retreat northward over 13,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated, they left park-tundra conditions in their wake. These wide, expansive grasslands supported small populations of Paleoindians, who were itinerant hunters following herds of elk, mammoths, and caribou through the Champlain Valley and the Connecticut River Valley to the east. These peoples are thought to have lived a nomadic life in small, dispersed bands. A few stone tools, mostly spear heads, that date from 11,000 to 9,000 years ago have been found in Vermont; some Paleoindian sites have been found along the former shorelines of the Champlain Sea. As rising temperatures continued to warm Vermont, the land continued to evolve, and spruce and fir started reclaiming the landscape. At the same time, over a hundred large mammals, previously a staple in the Paleoindian diet, were going extinct, whether due to overhunting, climatic shifts, or other environmental factors.
Archaic period, 9,000 - 3,000 BP
Over the next several thousand years, as the climate warmed and the forests returned, the human evidence changes, too. Drastic changes in the landscape made the Paleoindian way of living obsolete and rewarded those that became more sedentary. With the closing of the Champlain Sea, absence of large game, and presence of thick forests (the forests were beginning to switch to maple, birch, and beech by about 7000 years ago), Paleoindians needed to adapt to a changing world. a new way of life, known as the Archaic culture, took root in Vermont. Freed of the heavy weight of 10-20,000 foot-thick glaciers, the North American plate began to rebound, which closed off the Champlain Sea, and therefore access to marine mammals and large fish.
Foraging, fishing, and small game became increasingly important to the Indians. These alternatives provided a more diverse food source, but required new tools and skills to acquire them. These hardwood forests could not support large game such as before and hunting became less rewarding. Smaller game such as rabbit, deer, and squirrel could not alone sustain the human population. As a result, plants became increasingly important in daily life, not just as medicine, but as a staple food source providing year-round nutrition. By about 4,300 years ago, as the Archaic period neared its end, the forests of Vermont were much as we would find them today.
Woodland period, 3,000 - 400 BP
The human culture and use of the environment evolved again starting about 3,000 years ago into what is called the Woodland Indian era. People still hunted and gathered and moved around seasonally following food resources. But they became more river-oriented and began to create larger settlements near the mouths of major rivers and smaller sites along smaller tributaries and inland ponds. Settlements of multiple wigwams existed along rivers, in floodplains, and in the Intervale. Agriculture developed with the planting of corn about 700 years ago in some areas. Many artifacts have been found that date from 3,000 to 400 years ago, including pottery and smaller arrowheads have been found indicating that the bow and arrow had replaced the spear and atlatl.
Food was now primarily derived from domesticated plants. Agriculture made for a more sedentary life. By 2,600 years ago, corn and beans had been imported and traded north from Mexico. This supplemented squash that was already in cultivation. Clay pots would have served as cache sites to store the harvest. Clay from local river beds was used in making pottery and chert (sedimentary rock) was harvested from outcroppings along the Winooski for tool-making. But archeologists have discovered tools made from rock from non-Vermont sources (e.g. Onodaga Chert from New York, Mistassini chert from Canada) and pottery made in other styles (e.g. the Colchester jar from c. 1400-1550 in the St. Lawrence Iroquian style) which indicate a trade/exchange relationship with other cultures in New England.
As camps were located along streams, canoes became crucial for travel and fishing. Agriculture also gave rise to a less egalitarian society as evidenced by emerging burial ceremony of the Early Woodland. In the Archaic, individuals were buried in shallow graves with no adornment or offerings. By the beginning of the Woodland, however, we find offerings and jewelry buried with individuals. As the Woodland faded into the modern Abenaki, the land and available resources resembled those of today.
Abenaki period, 400 BP - present
The Abenaki, the people of the Dawn Land, are the inheritors of this intimate knowledge of the plant world. Their stories are rich in reverence for the spirit world of plants. So in the beginning, at the Council of Creation, the plant spirits offered themselves to be used by people to help them survive. Indeed their creation story tells of people being born without the necessary tools to survive in the cold northern climates of New England. In return, the people had to pay their respects and honor the plants through ceremony. In order to harvest plants, however, they needed stone tools and so Flint Mother gave of her spirit to people. Today, the Abenaki continue this tradition, cultivating dozens of plants and tending nearby wild populations. As the French and later the English entered the landscape they brought with them their own culture surrounding plants (and indeed brought many plants of their own: dandelion, buckthorn, and Queen Anne's lace).
Dunder Rock, which sticks out of Lake Champlain just west of Red Rocks Park, is thought to have been the final resting place of Odzihozo. In Abenaki legend, Odzihozo, literally "he who created himself", had molded himself from the dirt. In his excitement, he apparently forgot to make himself legs and so he crawled over Wabanaki, the Dawn Land. As he crawled he carved deep channels into the land, shaping the rivers and the valleys around the Taconic and Green Mountains. The last thing that he created was Bitawbagw, the lake between, or Lake Champlain. This was his greatest creation and he was so proud that he laid down in the water and turned himself to stone so that he could forever stay in his creation. Abenaki, even as recent as the 1940s left offerings of tobacco.
Integrating Cultural and Natural History
Even though there are almost no human features visible above the ground that date back to prehistoric times, knowing how prehistoric Native Americans used the landscape may change the way you see the physical landscape today. For example, a recent archeological excavation on a south-facing terrace above the Winooski River found evidence of an extensively used Woodland era camp site with many deer bones and stone tools for processing deer hides.
By looking at the soils types and landforms nearby, archeologists determined that an area just below the site was probably winter deer yard habitat during that time. The quantity of deer related pieces increased dramatically near the upper layers of the excavation, and led archeologists to wonder about whether this site was used into the early Contact era, and the deer were being harvested, the hides dressed, and then sold to Europeans. That river terrace was later farmed, and now has a cluster of family homes on it, but after the archeological dig, it will never look the same to those who know how it was used in the past. It shows us very clearly how different human cultures can use the same landscape very differently.
Archeological sites are scattered unevenly across the state, and some of the sites are sensitive. Many of these sites are located right here in Burlington, especially in the floodplains of the Winooski. To find out more about archeological evidence, contact the State Archeologist's Office in the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, the Vermont Archaeological Society, or the UVM Consulting Archeology Program.