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Native peoples and the land

Extensive human modification of the land in Northeast Ohio is a recent phenomenon. For eons, the region underwent drastic changes attributable solely to natural causes, and the human cultures that first inhabited it developed largely in response to this evolving natural landscape.

Glacier edge<br />Prehistoric peoples at the edge of a retreating glacier, detail from an exhibit at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

From mastodons to maple syrup: The prehistoric landscape of Northeast Ohio

By Benjamin Hitchings

Life on the tundra

Imagine waking up one morning wrapped in skins and lying beneath a rock overhang. Pretend for a moment that instead of driving to work, you spent your day chipping a spear tip out of flint, attaching it to a stick, and chasing animals as large as elephants. If you had lived in Northeast Ohio 11,000 years ago, that's what you would have done.

The earliest inhabitants of this region are known as the Paleo-Indians. They were hunters, drawn to the area by the relative abundance of large game. Archaeologists identify the remains of these people by the presence of a special "fluted" projectile point, or "arrowhead," chipped from flint. Paleo-Indians attached these points to the ends of wooden spears and used them to hunt mammoths, mastodons, bison, giant elk, caribou, musk oxen, and other "megafauna" that inhabited the region.

The climate at this time was comparable to the tundra found today in Alaska and Northern Canada, but perhaps a bit milder. Samples of prehistoric plant pollen indicate that the terrain included expansive meadows of lichen and herbs dotted with stands of spruce, fir, dwarf willow, and birch trees. This so-called "park-tundra" appears to have supported a greater amount of animal life than the tundra found today in northern latitudes. Overall, the landscape that emerged following the retreat of the glaciers was characterized by low-growing foliage and an abundance of water.

This low-latitude tundra, however, was only a temporary phenomenon. Gradually, a boreal forest dominated by conifers began to replace the tundra. This in turn gave way to a deciduous forest as the glaciers continued their retreat to the north. Archaeologist Ronald J. Mason writes that "within a few thousand years of deglaciation most of the Great Lakes supported a deciduous forest of oak, hickory, birch, beech, and hemlock, with elm, maple, and basswood increasing with time."

As the vegetation changed, so did animal populations. By 8,500 B.C., most of the large animals had either fled north with the receding tundra, like the caribou and musk-oxen, or had disappeared altogether, like the mammoth and the mastodon. The extinction of these latter species coincides with the increasing presence of the newly-arrived human populations. While Paleo-Indian populations were of an extremely low density compared with human populations today, some archaeologists speculate that they may have hastened the disappearance of these creatures. Nomadic hunters, these people followed the herds until a changing climate displaced the plants that the animals depended upon.

Adapting to hardwoods

Ecosystems that had retreated south during the Wisconsin Glacial Stage advanced steadily north as the climate grew more hospitable. This process culminated in the re-establishment of the hardwood forest around 8,000 B.C. In contrast to the tundra and the boreal forest, which supported a limited number of plant and animal species, the deciduous forest hosted a wide diversity of flora and fauna.

One particularly significant change was the relative size of the animals. While the Paleo-Indians could harvest large quantities of food at a time by hunting the relatively slow megafauna, the next people, the Archaic Indians, lived in a landscape populated with smaller and swifter creatures. In this world, hunting did not yield nourishment as readily. To survive in this altered landscape, Archaic Indians began to supplement their diet with seeds, nuts, fish, and shellfish. While their predecessors had been hunters, the Archaic peoples were hunter-gatherers.

This development is reflected in the more varied "tool kit" assembled by these populations. Among other things, this period marked the advent of the mortar and pestle, used to grind plant foods. Adaptations such as this improved the chances for survival. By the late Archaic period, human populations had grown dramatically, as evidenced by the substantial increase in the number and size of the prehistoric sites uncovered from this time period.

Bows and beads

The advent of ceramic pottery is generally used by archaeologists to mark the end of the Archaic and the beginning of the Woodland Period around 1,000 B.C. In terms of lifestyle changes, this transition point is somewhat arbitrary. For the most part, the Woodland Period marked a continuation of the technological developments begun in the Archaic.

Tools continued to grow in complexity. Developments included bone fish hooks and slate sinkers that were attached to fishing nets, as well as the "atlatl," a throwing stick with a stone weight used to hurl a spear at game. Bows and arrows first came into usage sometime after 900 A.D. Copper beads were also in wide circulation, as evidenced by their presence at the Girdled Road Site in Leroy and Concord townships in Lake County.

During the Woodland Period, human populations practiced a "modified nomadism" that included an increasing attachment to specific places. They exploited a variety of foods, depending on what was most abundant at a given time during the year. In this way, their lifestyle became increasingly linked with the seasons.

Also during this time period, modern archaeologists were first able to link archaeological remains with specific cultural traditions. This led to a realization that the Portage Escarpment, which separates the Allegheny Plateau in the present-day "Heights" area from the Lake Plain below, marked not only the interface of two environments—the plains to the west and the Northeastern woodlands to the east—but also the contact line between two different cultural traditions that had developed in response to each landscape. (To date, however, no archaeologist has established any link between this prehistoric east-west cultural division and social differences felt in modern times.)

Farming the land

Archaeologists generally point to the advent of agriculture around 1,000 A.D. as the beginning of the so-called Whittlesey Focus. Developed in southern climates, the practice of farming gradually made its way northward. Its adoption by people in the Northeast Ohio region radically increased their attachment to specific places.

In addition to providing a source of food that could be stored and consumed throughout the year, agriculture gave people a greater incentive to stay in one place. After making the investment of labor that agriculture required, inhabitants were not inclined to leave until the crops had been harvested. They were also more inclined to protect their investment. This change in land use not only encouraged people to become more sedentary, but also to begin defending their land. Increasingly, land became "territory" controlled by a specific tribal group.
Artifacts uncovered at the Reeve Site in Eastlake demonstrate the increasing practice of agriculture. The Indian Museum of Lake County has specimens of hoes and spades made of stone and animal bone.

Located on a bluff overlooking the Chagrin River, the Reeve site had a number of advantages. The river provided a route for travel, both inland and out onto Lake Erie. In addition, it yielded fish and provided fertile and well-watered soil for growing crops. The high bluff may have also provided protection from hostile tribes. For many years, archaeologists thought such bluff sites throughout Northeast Ohio were the remains of late prehistoric forts. Recent study, however, has provoked a re-evaluation of this assessment. Excavation at the Greenwood Village site in the Cuyahoga Valley has revealed a style of construction similar to that of ceremonial earthworks in Southern Ohio, leading experts to conclude that these structures had ritual rather than military significance.

Artifacts at the Reeve site also illustrate the food sources utilized by the Native American occupants. Remains found in fire pits and trash heaps at the site indicate that the inhabitants hunted everything from rabbits and squirrels to deer, black bear, and wild turkey. Fish in their diet included channel catfish, white bass, and yellow perch. Foods that were gathered included freshwater mollusks and snails, hickory nuts, grapes, and blackberries. The inhabitants cultivated white potatoes, beans, watercress, sweet potatoes, wild onions, and peas. In addition, they brewed drinks from sassafras bark and herbs, and drank the sap they collected from maple trees. As these foods indicate, agriculture may have helped smooth out the seasonal fluctuation in the food supply, but populations still depended heavily on hunting and gathering for their sustenance.

Tools used during this period included mortars and pestles for grinding grain, and "celts" made of granite and slate for skinning animals. Other items consisted of flint knives, bone awls, flint drills, necklaces made from animal teeth, clay pipes, "beamers" fashioned from deer bone used for removing the hair and flesh from animal skin, bone "planers" for removing the bark from arrow shafts, and bone needles for sewing.

One interesting fact to note is the complete absence of European trade goods at the various Whittlesey sites. While trade goods from other Native American cultures had made their way to the area, material culture from Europe had still not arrived. Soon, this changed dramatically.

Trade wars

In recent years, there has been much debate over which group of Native Americans last occupied the region prior to European settlement. A number of historians have maintained that this group had to be the Erie. This argument was based largely on a reference by Jesuit missionaries in 1641 to the Erie or "Cat Nation" that was said to inhabit the southern shores of Lake Erie. Archaeological evidence, however, indicates that the Erie Nation probably did not extend much farther west than present-day Erie, Pennsylvania.

Obscuring the whole issue is the general problem of tribal conflict and dislocation that characterized the region during this time period. The region may even have been essentially unoccupied for large stretches of time. One theory maintains that the Whittlesey Culture evacuated the area prior to the arrival of European trade goods. When these goods did arrive, along with traders and soldiers, Native American efforts to control the trade with Europeans led to widespread conflict between tribes. The result in Northeast Ohio was a series of brief occupations by a variety of different tribal groups.

By the time Moses Cleaveland and his party of surveyors landed in 1796, the region had been partially abandoned by indigenous peoples. Dispatched by a group of land speculators known as the Connecticut Land Company, Cleaveland's men spent the next two years dividing up the Western Reserve for sale to settlers from New England.

The arrival of the surveyors, then, marked the final stage in the displacement of one culture by another—a change that would have profound effects for the region. The history of these changes is the story of increasing separation from the land.

This essay appeared in The Greater Cleveland Environment Book published by EcoCity Cleveland in 1998. It was adapted from A Land Use History of Penitentiary Glen Reservation written for Lake Metroparks. 


Prehistoric periods of human occupation in Northeast Ohio

Paleo-Indians (9500-8000 B.C.): The first humans to occupy the Northeast Ohio region, the Paleo-Indians were big-game hunters who pursued mastodons, bison, and other large creatures across the tundra that formed in the wake of the retreating glaciers.

Archaic Period (8000-1000 B.C.): As the climate grew warmer, the hardwood forest returned, causing human populations to shift to hunting smaller game and gathering seeds, nuts, fish, and shellfish.

Woodland Period (1000 B.C.-1000 A.D.): This period is marked by the advent of ceramic pottery and the continued evolution of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Technological innovations included bows and arrows and fishing nets.

Whittlesey Focus (1000-1600 A.D.): During this time, human occupants adopted the practice of agriculture, dramatically increasing their attachment to specific places.

Proto-Historic Period (1600-1720 A.D.): This period was a time of tribal conflict and dislocation resulting in part from efforts to control the emerging trade in European goods. A number of different tribal groups occupied the region for brief intervals.


The manner of the country makes the usage of life there, and the land will not be lived in except in its own fashion.
— Mary Austin

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