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By Tracy Loe

Human life on Georgia’s rivers stretches back 17,000 years and the riverbanks have witnessed it all—from small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers in the Paleo-Indian and Archaic periods and massive chiefdoms of the Mississippian era to waves of European settlement, the forced migration of Indigenous groups, civil war, and the rise and fall (and rise again) of industrial development. The waterways winding throughout the state provided trade routes, a source of food, energy to power industry, and fertile basins ripe for agriculture in a region that became increasingly populated and diverse throughout its history. 

In the early Archaic period about 10,000 years ago, some archaeologists believe small bands of people from various territories congregated along Georgia rivers at certain times of year for socializing, sharing food, and exchanging tools and supplies from neighboring territories. As tools and skills for hunting evolved through the Middle Archaic Period, settlements became more permanent by the Late Archaic Period (3,000-1,000 B.C.), including pit houses and wattle-and-daub dwellings near rivers and tributaries. Large shell middens indicate a diet consisting of freshwater shellfish. Horticulture became more central to life along the rivers in the Early and Middle Woodland periods, with archaeological evidence suggesting reliance on seed crops and the practice of forest clearing for fields. Ceremonialism became more prevalent and some of the earliest burial and platform mounds were constructed. During the Late Woodland period, corn agriculture became important in what is now northern Georgia. Small triangular stone projectiles dated to the Late Woodland period suggest that the bow and arrow was adopted, and that fortifications such as ditches and wooden palisades were built to secure settlements. During the Mississippian Period (A.D. 800-1600), people elaborated on these methods and horticultural skills improved. As farmers, it made sense for the Mississippian people to live close to rivers, as the floodplains replenished the soil for healthy gardens.

The Marietta Paper Mill at Sope Creek once supplied twine and paper to much of the South until its closure in 1902.
Photo credit: Tracy Loe / TAC

Mississippian people structured their society into chiefdoms in which social ranking was central. Elites had a higher social status than commoners, and groups of a few hundred residents comprised a village, usually containing a plaza, homes, and defensive structures. Villages with one or more mounds served as the chiefdom capitals where the Chief, temples, and other important civic structures were housed. Paramount chiefdoms were formed across the river valleys of Georgia, in which one chiefdom ruled over several others, overseeing territories that stretched hundreds of miles. In the late Mississippian Period during the 1500s, Hernando de Soto’s expedition traveled through the area—an early indication of European settlement that would drastically change the human landscape of Georgia and result in tragedy for the state’s Indigenous inhabitants. A paper published by Jacob Holland-Lulewicz, Victor D. Thompson, James Wettstaed and Mark Williams in Cambridge University Press, Enduring Traditions in the (Im)materiality of Early Colonial Encounters in the Southeastern United States (2020), challenges the notion that de Soto’s expedition and early contact with European settlers resulted in an extreme depopulation and destabilization of Indigenous societies in the southeast. Radiocarbon dating and archaeological data from the Mississippian mound at Dyar in central Georgia suggests that Indigenous Mississippian traditions persisted for up to 130 years after contact. 

A typical home at the Cherokee Nation capital, New Echota, is recreated at the national historic site. Photo credit: Tracy Loe / TAC

The 1600s and 1700s brought devastating disease and an ever-increasing European presence to Native American territories. Trade in European goods disrupted authoritarian structures of Native chiefdoms. Indigenous groups formed the Creeks and Cherokees in north Georgia. The Revolutionary War was fought at the end of the 1700s, and in the 1800s, a great betrayal became an integral part of Georgia’s identity: the forced removal of Creek and Cherokee people from their lands to designated territories in Oklahoma. In an era of treaties, resistance, forced migration, and the arrival of new groups to the area, the social landscape of Georgia grew increasingly complex. 

Given Georgia’s long history and dense populations, it would be challenging to tour all of the state’s archaeological sites, but for this same reason there are many ways to approach it. One could sample sites from different time periods in one area of the state—as this tour does—highlighting archaeologically significant sites near Atlanta from the Mississippian Period through the Civil War that can be visited through a series of day trips. 

This is an excerpt of the Lifeways on Georgia’s Waterways in American Archaeology, Summer 2024 | Vol. 28 No. 2. Subscribe to read the full text.