Exhibit: American Indians of Coastal Georgia

Published on: 10/5/2020
Native Americans

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“The more I consider the condition of the white men, the more fixed becomes my opinion that, instead of gaining, they have lost much subjecting themselves to what they call the laws and regulations of civilized societies.”

                                        - Tomochichi, Mico of the Yamacraws

 

American Indians were the original inhabitants of Georgia, having been here for at least 12,000 years. Massie's newest exhibit, American Indians of Coastal Georgia, explores the different eras in the evolution of American Indian culture in Georgia, including Europeans arrival to the New World in the last 500 years.

 

​PALEOINDIAN PERIOD

The first people to inhabit the Americas were the Paleoindians. They arrived by a land bridge connecting Asia and North America during the last Ice Age when sea levels were lower. The Ice Age ended approximately 12,000 years ago, causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise. The Bering sea covered the land bridge, blocking contact between the Old World and the New World. The Paleoindians hunted massive game, which researchers call megafaunas, such as mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, enormous buffalo, and six-foot-long beavers. Terrifying predators also roamed the landscape, such as the American lion, the dire wolf, and even saber-toothed cats. These megafaunas went extinct as the Ice Age ended, and most theories include the human predator as a cause for their demise.

 

ARCHAIC PERIOD

The archaic period in Georgia was about 10,000 to 3,000 years ago. During this period, American Indian people gradually transitioned from predominantly hunter-gatherer societies to semi-permanent lifestyle patterns. As human American Indian populations increased, interactions with other groups (trade and warfare) meant that groups needed strong leaders.

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Around 5,000 years ago, large complexes of shell rings and shell middens began to appear along the coast in Georgia. American Indians occupied these locations for much of the year because oysters and shellfish provided a stable food source. The shells would build up over many years, leaving behind evidence of human settlement.  The first pottery in North America was invented about 4,500 years ago on the Savannah River, near Augusta, Georgia. About 4,000 years ago, squash and gourds began to be domesticated and cultivated in the area.

 

WOODLAND PERIOD

From about 3,000 years ago to 1,200 years ago, larger and more permanent American Indian settlements appeared as populations grew. Ceremonies and rituals became elaborate, and large burial mounds like the Kolomoki Mounds in western Georgia became common for important figures. During this era, the invention of the bow and arrow makes hunting more efficient. Agricultural skills, methods, and technology improve. Trade networks begin to appear among the increasingly complex societies. Maize (corn) first arrive in Georgia from Mexico.

 

MISSISSIPPIAN PERIOD

From about 1,200 years ago until about 1600 A.D., complex American Indian societies flourished across North America. Powerful chiefdoms ruled over large areas, and the construction of enormous earthworks proliferated thanks to the labor provided by the cities that formed around these complexes. The Etowah Mound Site in north Georgia is one of North America's largest representative sites, consisting of sizeable flat-topped pyramid mounds at the center of a large surrounding town. At the height of its influence around the year 1100, Cahokia's city in modern-day Illinois outnumbered both London and Rome in population.

 

At the time of first European contact, the population of North America is estimated at 10 to 20 million people, and the combined population of all the Americas was likely larger than Europe's estimated 60 million people. Diseases such as smallpox brought by Europeans' arrival, however, decimated native populations and caused unimaginable destruction to these growing Mississippian societies. An estimated 90% of the population of the Americas died from these new diseases. By comparison, almost two centuries before, the Black Death, killed about one-third of Europe's people.

 

SPANISH PERIOD

The Spanish appeared on the Georgia coast in 1526 with the expedition and short-lived settlement of Lucas Vasquez de Allyon. When Hernando De Soto explored Georgia in 1539-40, he discovered that towns had been abandoned briefly before his arrival because of epidemics. In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles established a permanent settlement in St. Augustine and established lasting settlements a long Georgia's coast to the Altamaha River.

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Establishing a system of Catholic missions (misiones) supported by fortified garrisons (presidios) in the area then known as Guale (hwa-leh), the Spanish sought to convert the Indians to Christianity, build alliances with various tribes, and conduct trade and agriculture. In 1597, the Guale Indians, led by Juanillo, revolted against the Spanish and nearly destroyed all of their settlements before a joint Spanish-Indian force defeated them at Cumberland Island.

 

The Spanish rebuilt their settlement system only to see them destroyed again starting in the 1660s by raiding tribes from the interior led by another group of European colonizers, the English, with their bases in Virginia and later in the Carolinas. By the 1690s, the Spanish left Georgia and rarely ventured far north of the Castillo de San Marcos at St. Augustine.

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