Pre-European habitation and culture
Paleo-Indian era (9,500 BCE – 7,500 BCE)
Based on evidence in other regions, humans were likely living in Kentucky prior to 10,000 BCE, but "archaeological evidence of their occupation has yet to be documented". Stone tools, particularly projectile points (arrowheads) and scrapers, are the primary evidence of the earliest human activity in the Americas. Paleo-indian bands probably moved their camps many times a year. Their camps were typically small ones, consisting of 20–50 people. Band organization was egalitarian, so there were no formal leaders and no social ranking or classes. Scientific evidence links indigenous Americans as descendants of Asian peoples, specifically eastern Siberian populations. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been linked to Siberian populations by linguistic factors, the distribution of blood types, and in genetic composition as reflected by molecular data, such as DNA.
At the end of the last Ice Age, between 8000–7000 BCE Kentucky's climate stabilized, leading to a rise in population and technology advances that resulted in more sedentary lifestyle. This warming trend killed the Pleistocene big game megafauna, such as the mammoth, mastodon, giant beavers, tapirs, short faced bear, giant ground sloths, saber-toothed tiger, horse, bison, musk ox, stag-moose, and peccary. All of these were native to Kentucky during the Ice Age, and became extinct or moved north as the glacial ice retreated.
No skeletal remains of Paleoindians have been discovered in Kentucky, and while many Paleoindian Clovis points have been discovered, there's scant evidence that the Paleoindians at Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky hunted mastodons.
The radiocarbon evidence indicates that mastodons and Clovis people overlapped in time; however, other than one fossil with a possible cut mark and Clovis artifacts that are physically associated with but dispersed within the bone-bearing deposits, there is no incontrovertible evidence that humans hunted Mammut americanum at the site.
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Archaic era (7,500 BCE – 1,000 BCE)
By 7500 BCE, a catastrophic extinction of large game animals at the end of the Ice Age changed the culture of this area.
By 4000 BCE, Kentucky peoples exploited native wetland resources. Large shell middens (trash piles, ancient landfills) are evidence of their consumption of clams and mussels. They left middens along rivers, but there is limited evidence of Archaic peoples occupying areas along coastlines prior to 3000 BCE. Archaic Kentucky natives' social groups were small, consisting of a few cooperating families. The large shell middens, artifact caches, human and dog burials, and burnt-clay flooring prove Archaic natives lived in permanent locations. The white-tailed deer, mussels, fish, oysters, turtles, and the elk were the dominant game animals of Archaic natives.
They developed the atlatl, which made it easier to chuck spears with greater velocity. Other tools Archaic natives used were grooved axes, conical and cylindrical pestles, bone awls, cannel coal beads, hammerstones, and bannerstones. Hominy holes were used too. Hominy holes were a depression worn in sandstone by a person grinding or pulverizing. They were used by women who ground hickory nuts or seed to make them easier to use for food.
The people buried their dogs within shell (mussel) mound sites along the Green and Cumberland rivers. At Kentucky's Indian Knoll site, 67,000 artifacts were uncovered, including 4,000 projectile points, and twenty-three dog burials, seventeen of which were well preserved. Some dogs were buried alone, others with their masters; some with adults, male and female, and others with children. Archaic dogs were medium-sized and stood about 14–18 inches (360–460 mm) tall at the shoulder. They are very likely to have been related to the wolf. Dogs had a special place in the lives of Archaic and historic indigenous peoples. The Cherokee believed that dogs are spiritual, moral, and sacred. The Yuchi are a tribe known to have lived around the Green River and they may have shared these beliefs.
The Indian Knoll site, located along the Green River in Ohio County, Kentucky, is older than 5,000 years. While there is evidence of earlier settlement, this area was most densely occupied from approximately 3000–2000 BCE, when the climate and vegetation were nearing modern conditions. The Green River floodplain provided a stable environment, which eventually supported the people's agricultural development early in the late Holocene era. The abundant food resources and nearby mussel bed made it ideal for Kentucky natives to permanently settle.
At the end of the Archaic period, they had cultivated a form of squash, which were used both for their edible seeds and dried and preserved as containers (gourds).
Woodland era (1,000 BCE – 900 CE)
About 1,800 BCE, Kentucky's native Americans had started to cultivate several species of wild plants, transitioning from a hunter-gatherer economy to an agricultural-based economy. The Woodland era represents the "middle" era between the mostly hunter-gatherers of the Archaic era and the agriculturalist Mississippian culture era. The Woodland era is a developmental stage without any massive changes, but is constituted by a continuous development in shelter construction, stone and bone tools, textile manufacture, leather crafting, and agricultural cultivation. Archeologists have identified distinctly separate cultures during the Middle Woodland period. Examples include the Armstrong culture, Copena culture, Crab Orchard culture, Fourche Maline culture,
the Goodall Focus, the Havana Hopewell culture, the Kansas City Hopewell, the Marksville culture, and the Swift Creek culture. The remains of two distinct Woodland groups, the Adena (early Woodland) and the Hopewell (middle Woodland), have been found in present-day Louisville, and in the central Bluegrass and northeastern Kentucky areas.
Some Woodland tribes were able to get copper from Lake Superior, conch shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains.
The introduction of pottery, its widespread use, and the increased sophistication of its forms and decoration, first believed to have occurred around 1,000 BCE, is a major demarcation of the Woodland era. Archaic pots were thick, heavy, and fragile, but Woodland pottery pots were more intricately designed, and had more uses, such as for cooking and storing surplus food. Woodland peoples also used baskets and gourds for containers. Around 200BCE, maize production migrated to the eastern United States from Mexico. The introduction of corn is when Kentucky natives slowly changed from growing indigenous plants to a maize based agricultural economy. In addition to cultivating corn, the Woodland people also cultivated giant ragweeds, amaranth (pigweed), and maygrass. The initial four plants known to have been domesticated were goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri), sunflower (Helianthus annuus var. macroscarpus), marshelder (Iva annua var. macrocarpa), and squash (Cucurbita pepo ssp. ovifera) (gourds). Woodland people raised tobacco in their gardens, which they used for smoking, especially for rital purposes. Woodland people still used ground stone tools, especially for processing nuts and seeds. They mined both Mammoth Cave and Salts Cave for gypsum and mirabilite, a salty seasoning. Shellfish was still an important part of their diets, and the most common prey was white-tailed deer. They continued to make and use spears, but late in the Woodland era, the straight bow became the typical weapon of choice in the eastern United States. This is shown by the reduction in size of arrowheads during this period. In addition to bows and arrows, some southeastern Woodland peoples also used blowguns.
Between 100 BCE and 450BC, the native Americans in Kentucky begin to build earthwork burial mounds, which indicates social change. The Woodland Indians buried their dead in conical, and then later flat, or oval-shaped, burial mounds, which were often 10 to 20 feet (3.0–6.1 m) high (like Serpent Mound). This practice resulted in the Woodland people being called the Mound Builders by 19th-century observers.
The increasing use of agriculture during the development of the Eastern Agricultural Complex meant that Kentucky natives' shifted from nomadic culture to living in permanently occupied villages. They then lived in bigger houses and larger communities, although intensive agriculture did not begin until the Mississippian era.
Mississippian era (900 CE – 1750 CE)
In 900 CE, the Kentucky's natives' variety of corn became highly productive. The Eastern Agricultural Complex was replaced by the maize-based agriculture of the Mississippian culture era. The Mississippian era natives' village life revolved around planting, growing, and harvesting corn and beans. Corn and beans made up 60% of their diet. Stone and bone hoes were used by the women for most of the cultivation work. They produced the "Three Sisters" (maize, beans, and squash), which were interplanted to take advantage of each plant's characteristics. Beans could climb the corn stalks, and the large squash leaves would shelter the earth and reduce weeds. White-tailed deer was the dominant game animal that was hunted. Mississippian clay pottery ceramics were more varied and elaborate than those of the Woodland period, including painting and decorations, and a range of vessel forms such a bottles, plates, pans, jars, pipes, funnels, bowls, and colanders. Potters added handles to jars, and they attached human and animal effigies to some bowls and bottles. The elite of the ancient Mississippians lived in rectangular houses, substantially built, on top of large platform mounds. Their houses contained burned clay wall fragments (daub), which demonstrate they decorated their walls with murals. They lived year-round in large communities, some which had stockades to protect their settlements, and had been established for centuries. An average Fort Ancient or Mississippian town had about 2,000 people living in it. Some people lived in smaller farms and hamlets. Larger towns, centered on mounds and plazas, served as ceremonial and administrative centers. They were located near the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys and their tributaries: rivers with large floodplains. These were sites of farmland, transportation routes by river, and backwater plants and animals.
A Mississippian culture developed in western Kentucky and the surrounding area, while a Fort Ancient culture dominated in the eastern portion of what became Kentucky. While the two cultures are similar in numerous ways, the Fort Ancient culture didn't have the temple mounds and chiefs' houses like the Mississippian culture had.
There are many Mississippian town sites in Kentucky, such as the Adams, Backusburg, Canton, Chambers, Jonathan Creek, McLeod's Bluff, Rowlandtown, Sassafras Ridge, Turk, Twin Mounds, and Wickliffe sites. The Wickliffe Mounds in far western Kentucky were inhabited from 1000-1350 CE. There were two large platform mounds and eight smaller mounds scattered around a central plaza. They traded with North Carolina, Wisconsin, and the Gulf of Mexico societies. The community of Wickliffe had a social hierarchy ruled by a hereditary chief. The Rowlandton Mound Site was inhabited from 1100 to 1350CE. The Rowlandton Mound site occupied a 2.4 acres (0.97 ha) site, which also a large platform mound and an associated village area, similar to the Wickliffe Mounds Site. It is probable that these civic sites were established originally by local Late Woodland peoples. The Tolu Site was inhabited by Kentucky natives from 1200–1450 CE. The Tolu site originally had three mounds: a burial mound, a substructure platform mound, and one other of undetermined function. It also had a central plaza, and a large, 6.6-foot (2.0 m)-deep midden area. A rare Cahokia-made Missouri flint clay 7-inch (180 mm) human effigy pipe was found as this site. The Marshall Site was inhabited from 900 to 1300CE; The Turk Site was inhabited from 1100 – 1500CE; and the Adams Site was peopled from 1100 to 1500CE. The Slack Farm was populated from 1400-1650AD. This had a Native American mound, and extensive village occupation. As many as a thousand or more people could have been buried at the seven cemeteries at the site. Some were buried in stone box graves. Native Americans abandoned a large late Mississippian village in Petersburg that contained "at least two periods of habitation dating to 1150 A.D. and 1400 A.D." French explorers in the 17th century documented numerous tribes living in Kentucky until the Beaver Wars in the 1670s.
The late Mississippian period overlapped with the tribes of the historic period who were encountered by the French, Spanish, and English colonists. Native groups known to have lived in Kentucky include, but are not limited to: Cherokee (in southeastern Kentucky caves, and along the Cumberland River); Chickasaw (in the western Jackson Purchase area, especially along the Tennessee River); Delaware (Lenape), Mosopelea (at the mouth of the Cumberland River); Shawnee (all throughout the Bluegrass State); Wyandot, and the Yuchi (on the Green River). Hunting bands of Iroquois, Illinois, Lenape, and Miami also visited Kentucky.