When most of us think of Vermont, we think of the state which was created in 1777 and joined the Union in 1791. But the past 200 years comprise only a tiny fraction of the long history of human life in this region. The nearly 11,500 years of human history that preceded the creation of our State encompass Vermont's long and rich archeological heritage.
Vermont's archeological heritage may not have the grandeur and mystique of Egyptian pyramids or Mayan temples, but the importance of prehistoric archeological sites should not be judged by their physical beauty or massive scale. Instead, we should evaluate them on the basis of the stories they can tell about the lives of the hundreds of generations of people who lived and died before the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1609, the beginning of Vermont's historic period. Vermont's prehistoric archeological sites reflect singular responses to what has always been--from the very beginning of human time here--a very special place.
It is hard to believe that Vermont ever looked other than the way it does now. It is even more strange to contemplate the post-glacial landscape as it may have looked just before Vermont's first Native Americans settled on this land that is now our state. Based on some radiocarbon dated sites from elsewhere in northern New England, it seems that our earliest people--called Paleoindians--began to move into Vermont by about 9,000 B.C., at the end of the last ice age. The environment was similar to what we see in today's Arctic regions: a barren tundra which gradually gave way to a park tundra of spruce, fir and birch that sustained mastodons, wooly mammoths and large herds of caribou. Paleoindians hunted big game as well as a range of smaller mammals. Their hunting tool kit featured a type of spear point unique to this period of prehistory, the fluted point.
Since the great weight of the glaciers had depressed the land, once the glaciers receded sufficiently northward, the Atlantic Ocean flooded the St. Lawrence Valley and filled up an enormous basin with marine water. This inland ocean, called the Champlain Sea, supported an assortment of marine animals including various species of whales and seals. The former beaches of the Champlain Sea are now high and dry and far from the present shorelines of Lake Champlain. About 20 Paleoindian sites have so far been found, including the remains of a small Paleoindian camp discovered in the 1930s in the sand dunes of Highgate. At many of Vermont's Paleoindian sites, the raw material for stone tool manufacture originated as far west as central New York, as far east as northern Maine and the Massachusetts coast, and as far south as southeastern Pennsylvania. Either people moved great distances within short periods of time, or extensive exchange networks were common. We believe that other Paleoindian sites exist still intact and that, although rare, they will eventually be discovered through concentrated effort.
By 7,000 B.C., hardwood trees familiar to us today in Vermont such as beech, oak, ash and maple, began to appear in the Champlain Valley, but the uplands remained dominated by conifers. The newly developing lake, pond and wetland environments provided improved habitat for birds, other animals and a variety of useful plants. If available food resources are diverse, plentiful and--most importantly--dependable, more people can live in a given area since they are more secure in their ability to obtain food. Therefore, in this period, which we call the Early Archaic period, small communities settled into favorable areas, local raw materials were used almost exclusively, and populations gradually increased.
The roughly 30 sites discovered from the 1,500 year period between 7,000 B.C. and 5500 B.C. have been identified primarily on the basis of small, bifurcated base or side-notched spear points used for hunting. It seems that small groups of people lived over a broad territory throughout the more fertile lowlands of the Champlain Valley and along the Walloomsac River in southwestern Vermont. What we know about this period of time, however, is little indeed. We know even less about the subsequent Middle Archaic period dating between 5500 and 4000 B.C. We can count on a continuity with some of the old ways of life, such as fishing, hunting, and gathering of plant foods, all according to the seasons.
By the beginning of the Late Archaic period, around 4000 B.C., the generally warm regional climate seems to have fostered a blooming of human populations. Not only could groups exploit the increased food resources in the rich valleys and bottom lands, but the upland regions of Vermont, especially adjacent to lakes and ponds, also witnessed a proliferation of animal and plant communities during this time.
It is very clear that Vermont's native people lived intimately on and within this landscape, and had a special relationship with the land. Residential and other activity sites left by these people have been found in all parts of Vermont, from lakeshore to mountain top, and evidence suggests that they returned to many sites again and again in the course of their seasonal rounds. The extensive array of woodworking tools found in sites of this period suggests that by now the dugout canoe was an important method of transportation on Vermont's waterways. For reasons we cannot yet explain, Vermont's late Archaic sites display an unprecedented, and never again to be repeated, use of highly specialized ground slate tools. It was also during this period that, for the second time in Vermont's prehistory, there is evidence of wide-ranging exchange networks. Although most of the stone used for tools derive from local sources, Late Archaic sites in Vermont have been found to contain such objects as a walrus tooth from Arctic Canada, copper tools and beads from the upper Great Lakes, and shells from the Gulf of Mexico. Trade and exchange networks served many purposes, one simple reason being to expand one's contacts in case times got tough. But trading systems also helped people obtain goods they did not have locally.
Compared to our knowledge of other parts of our prehistory, the Late Archaic period is outstanding in that many dozens of sites of this period have been found without much searching. Unfortunately, very few sites of this period have been professionally excavated and many sites have been plundered because they contain such a rich array of tools and other objects.
The period that began at 900 B.C., known as the Early Woodland period, saw several major changes, although the basic way of life did not alter much. Living patterns were still prescribed by the seasons, the pursuit of food and needed materials. Pottery first appeared in Vermont during this period; and we think that the bow and arrow also came into use for the first time.
The little we know about the Early Woodland period, which lasted approximately 800 years, has been learned from four exceptional cemetery sites. It should be noted that cemetery sites are sacred places to modern-day Abenakis, and that excavation of those cemeteries prior to 1972 was painful to Vermont's Native Americans. Nonetheless, this study showed that the trade networks in this period were of an extraordinary nature. Shell, copper and stone artifacts were acquired from as far away as northern Quebec, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, western New York and the Carolina coast. Clearly, the spiritual and ceremonial life of Vermont's early people was complex and an important part of their culture.
If there are burial sites from this period, it also stands to reason that residential sites must also exist in considerable numbers. A proposed bridge replacement in the town of Canaan on the Connecticut River resulted in the unexpected discovery and intensive study of a small, intact Early Woodland settlement. Analysis of this site has begun the process of understanding the day-to-day existence of people who lived more than 2,000 years ago. Beginning about 100 B.C., by the start of the Middle Woodland period, a long-term growth in the region's human population began. Again, as in the Late Archaic period, this population increase required that increasing numbers of environmental habitats, from mountains to valleys, be fully used to ensure that no single habitat or food resource was overtaxed. Diversification was apparently the best strategy for success. By A.D. 1050, at the beginning of the Late Woodland period, extensive settlements could be found in all of Vermont's river valleys. There were ebbs and flows of trading networks; and many stylistic changes in pottery occurred during this 500 year period. It was also during this time that the millennia-old seasonal cycle of hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild plant foods was now supplemented by the planting and harvesting of crops. Corn-bean-squash cultivation, introduced into southern New England and New York by about A.D. 1000, quickly became an important component of these early Vermonters' diversified strategy of success.
Our earliest known farm site is in Springfield, on the Connecticut River. By A.D. 1100--nearly 400 years before Columbus discovered America--corn, beans and squash were being cultivated and stored in pits beneath small houses located on the flood plain adjacent to the river. The arrival of Samuel de Champlain on Lake Champlain in 1609 marked the beginning of the end of a way of life that had persisted for nearly 11,000 years. Although earlier fluctuations in climate, forests and food resources over this very long period of time had previously required slow but continual changes in ways of doing things, the intimate balance between Native Americans and their environment had allowed them to adapt to these changes successfully. No such balance was possible with the arrival of, and rapid territorial expansion undertaken by the early European colonists, however. Natives suddenly found themselves competing for the same lands for crops, and European diseases to which they had no immunity decimated entire communities. War and dispersal dominated the Indian's world between 1600 and 1800 and, in the process, Vermont's native culture was nearly destroyed.
For over 100 centuries before the arrival of Europeans, thousands of Native Americans lived and died in the area now known as Vermont. Each one of those years spanned the four seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall, much as we know them today; a full range of living activities occurred during each season; and many of these activities left behind a tangible record in the soil. These remains are all we have to tell the story of Vermont's prehistoric past.
All information and photographs from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation
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The University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program
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