Archaic North America

Copper knife, spearpoints, awls, and spud, from the Late Archaic period, Wisconsin, 3000-1000 BC

Climate change brought changes in plant and animal life to the people of the early Holocene Epoch. How would they adapt?

Folsom Man had become more oriented toward a diverse social structure about the time that the climate in the Northern Hemisphere began to change. The great ice sheets began to melt, sending water cascading into valleys, producing more plentiful grasses and plants. The megafauna of the Pleistocene began to die out. It is speculated that the change in climate made food for these large animals scarcer and that smaller mammals adapted better and more quickly to the warming trend.

Soon the people of North America found themselves with smaller game to hunt. Population also began to rise. With the change in plant and animal life, the people of what has become known as the Archaic Period began to change the food they ate and the tools they used to slaughter, gather and process it.

Climate Change and Social Change

People began to gather and eat more vegetable matter as the climate made it more abundant. They found that with the variable climate they could follow the food in a yearly circuit. This had started with the late Folsom period and continued to grow into the Archaic Period.

As populations grew, hunts became easier. More people meant more need, but it also meant more hands to hunt, gather and process food and it meant that they could stay in one place for a longer period of time. They also had to find ways of storing food. During the Middle Archaic period people in some areas created baskets to hold and store materials. Others, in the Eastern part of North America, began to make pottery toward the end of the period.

Archaic Tool Box

Tools were made with a greater variety of uses. There were stone tools, drills awls, scrapers knives etc. Wood and bone became important components. Axes and hammers were made to work the wood. Other animal parts were used for storage and carrying such as stomachs and intestines. In some parts of the continent, projectile points and other implements were made from copper as people learned to separate the metal from ore. Another important tool found at sites is the grinding stone. Grinding vegetable materials especially grains, made them easier to masticate and to digest.


Men and women hunted. With the division of labor and more hands to do the work people found themselves less occupied with mere survival and began to create works of art. Wood and bone carvings have been found at Archaic sites as well finely woven baskets.

As there were differing jobs to be done people began to specialize. Women became more important. In fact some found it expedient to have more than one wife. Women did a lot of the gathering and preparation of meat. They also tanned and made shelters and clothing from the hides of the animals and wove baskets.

Spirituality and Burial

As people lived closer together and relied on each other more, spiritual traditions also grew. In eastern North America toward the end of the Archaic Period there were ritual burial practices. In the Southwest pit houses were built where religious ceremonies were held.

Adaptation and Diversity

Archaic peoples not only adapted to environmental change as a whole, but bands from various areas of adapted differently. For instance, the people of the Pacific Northwest used shells more than those inland. People inland would hunt animals like deer. Along what are now Oregon and Washington they would fish for salmon. In the Great Lakes tools were made of copper, while those made in the mountains used stone and wood. People became more regional in their technological approach to subsistence.

Materials not native to a group would be found amongst their artifacts. Shells might be found in mountain sites, copper implements could be found far from the Great Lakes region where they were made, implying trade relationships with people of other areas distant from their own. Cooporative relationships were formed with other bands for hunting, trading and social purposes.

The Archaic Period set the stage for greater diversity among “The People,” setting up the beginning of regional groups that would soon make up the many historic Nations of Native people in North America.


  1. Bousman, C. Britt et al; The Paleoindian, Archaic Transition in North America; New Evidence from Texas; Antiquity, December 2002.
  2. A Culture History of North America, PowerPoint by,