By Mary Lynne Rainey, June 2020
This timeline follows Native Peoples’ adaptations to a changing landscape following the retreat of the Wisconsin glaciation, based on regional archaeological and environmental data. The glaciation period began circa 75,000 BP (Before Present), with terminal moraines on islands by 21,000 BP. Offshore islands were ice free by circa 18,000 BP, and all of present-day New England was ice free by circa 14,000 BP. Regionally, coastal New England was a tundra environment, with sea level about 300 feet lower than present day.
PaleoIndian Period, ca. 12,500–10,000 BP
- Environment: Nantucket was part of a continuous post-glacial tundra across the continental shelf, evolving to a boreal forest of pine, alder, and spruce, with swamps, marshland, and an abundance of plant and animal life. Circa 11,000 BP, Younger Dryas (a period of rapid cooling) marked a return to cooler conditions, dramatic and unstable changes in vegetation, and hydrology.
- Settlement and Subsistence: Small groups of highly mobile bands, exploring the region, identified resource-rich catchment areas and lithic sources. Mastodon, mammoth megafauna, died out during this period; caribou, elk, deer, smaller mammals, and a wide range of plants were used.
- Technology: Specialized fluted or lanceolate projectile points, exotic lithic material types, assemblages include gravers, scrapers, and channel flakes. Distinct parallel-stemmed Plano (Eden) points mark the late PaleoIndian Period.
- Archaeology: No PaleoIndian sites have been identified on Nantucket, a few tools from this period reported in island collections, some likely washed ashore from submerged sites. Many sites dating to this period inundated by sea level rise.
Early Archaic Period, ca. 10,000–8,000 BP
- Environment: Boreal forest transitioning to a mixed deciduous/coniferous forest, dominated by pine. Nantucket’s forest composition begins to diverge from the mainland during this time. Sea level rise continues. After ca. 9,000 BP, warmer, drier conditions prevailed.
- Settlement and Subsistence: Gradual transition from specialized hunting strategies to generalized hunting and gathering. Familiar territories were established, opportunistic response to local conditions, regional population growth. Terrestrial, riverine, forest, and plant resources support lifeways; extensive knowledge of regional plants for medicine and food, including cattail, bulrush, nutsedge, etc.
- Technology: Bifurcate-base projectile points are distinct stone projectile points of the Early Archaic Period, and assemblages may also include ground stone tools, drills, anvil stones, choppers, and scrapers.
- Archaeology: No Early Archaic sites have been identified on Nantucket; a few tools reported from this period in island collections, some likely washed ashore from submerged sites. Many sites dating to this period inundated by sea level rise.
Middle Archaic Period, ca. 8,000–6,000 BP
- Environment: Pine-oak forests well established on Nantucket, with heathland vegetation developing. Continued sea-level rise results in inundation of the coastal plain and the gradual formation of Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds and the islands.
- Settlement and Subsistence: Continued regional population growth is evident. Well-defined and large settlement territories were structured around seasonally abundant resources, including anadromous fish and migratory waterfowl. Core settlement areas developed around resource-rich swamps, rivers, and ponds. There was small-scale cultivation of plants. Ritual cremation burial was practiced.
- Technology: Core, uniface, and flake lithic technology predominant; cobble quartz expedient tool production in play; Neville and Stark projectile point types are diagnostic tools of this period. Assemblages also include diversified ground stone tools such as gouges, adzes, semi-lunar knives, whetstones, drills, and anvil stones reflecting, in part, the significance of riverine navigation by dugout canoe.
- Archaeology: Many Nantucket collections that include larger, multi-component sites around ponds and streams contain artifacts that are stylistically consistent with dated Middle Archaic assemblages; however, no Middle Archaic habitation or burial sites have been identified.
Late and Transitional Archaic Period, ca. 6,000–2,800 BP
- Environment: Sea-level rise and coastal landforms gradually stabilized during this period, resulting in the establishment of tidal flats, saltmarshes, and estuarine zones that provided habitat for shellfish species and marsh grasses. Forest composition on Nantucket included pitch and white pine, birch, and oak as dominant species, with minor presence of a range of other hardwood species. Relatively modern distribution of plant and animal species developed.
- Settlement and Subsistence: This period is recognized as a time of expanding population growth resulting in Native communities hunting and gathering within well-defined territories, in reliable predictable resource catchment areas. The development of complex social systems as well as trade and exchange across extensive geographical regions is manifested in archaeological assemblages. Three primary cultural traditions are the Laurentian (earliest), Small Stemmed, and Susquehanna (late and transitional), each of which has distinctive stone tool classifications and cultural traits. Highly ritualized secondary cremation burial was part of the mortuary fluorescence of the Susquehanna Tradition, although cremation was practiced throughout the Late Archaic Period. On Nantucket, during the Transitional Archaic Period, shellfish harvesting was incorporated into the diet and seasonal or semi-permanent residences were established. Drift-whale harvesting may have begun as opportunistic events for Native occupants of Nantucket during this time.
- Technology: Each of the Late/Transitional Archaic Traditions has a range of associated stone tools, many of which have been classified as projectile point types (such as Otter Creek, Brewerton, Vosburg, Small Stemmed, Susquehanna Broad, Orient, Mansion Inn, Coburn, Hawes, etc.). Local cobbles of high-quality material types provided a local source for tool production. Specialized groundstone tool forms, including bannerstones and effigy pipes, were produced. Red ochre, steatite items, and broken or killed broad blades were associated with cremation burials. Bone was used to produce a range of implements, including spear points, awls, needles, and personal items. A Native copper industry developed along with production of steatite (soapstone) vessels, beads, pipes, and early forms of ceramic pottery. Groundstone tools are also produced, although less formal, expedient tools are common on some Late Archaic sites.
- Archaeology: Tools from all Late Archaic traditions have been identified in personal collections across Nantucket and in archaeological assemblages. Several sites have been radiocarbon-dated to the Transitional Archaic Period, and data confirm a forested setting for some community settlements by this time. The outwash plains region was used for hunting and gathering. No cremation burials have been identified to date, although artifacts consistent with this practice, including steatite and red ochre, have been reported in the high sandy plains region of the island.
Early and Woodland Periods, ca. 3,000–1,000 BP
- Environment: This was a time of general environmental stability, well-established salt marsh and tidal estuaries, ponds and wetlands, and drainage systems across the deeper glacial valleys that crosscut the outwash plains. A deciduous and mixed conifer hardwood forest with a diverse understory was present.
- Settlement and Subsistence: Regionally, a shift in adaptations to coastal settings and specifically shellfish and marine resources was apparent in the archaeological data. The addition of saltmarsh and estuarine resources complemented a diverse resource base, and certain indigenous plants such as goosefoot, sumpweed, sunflower, and knotweed were brought under cultivation. Marshland reeds and grasses were used for basketry, cordage, and matting. Traditional community settlement areas were well-established by this time, and traditional homes were articulated with the natural landscape, constructed with semi-permanent ridge poles, framed with smaller poles and covered in a range of fabrics depending on the season. The Native settlement areas would have been used seasonally or annually depending on local conditions, as well as sociocultural circumstances within the larger southern New England region at any given time.
- Technology: Ceramic pottery is an earmark of the Woodland Period in general, and the distinction between Early and Middle Woodland is related to changing stone tools as well as refinements in ceramic technology. Steatite was no longer used as clay replaced the production of containers and other steatite objects (including pipes). Early Woodland pottery was typically thick, grit-tempered, and undecorated or occasionally cord-marked, whereas Middle Woodland pottery was often shell-tempered, more refined, and embellished with various designs. New tool forms that were characteristic of the Early Woodland Period include Meadowwood, Lagoon, and Rossville types, although Transitional Archaic Period tools occur into the Early Woodland. Middle Woodland projectile point types include lanceolate styles such as Fox Creek and Greene, along with the distinctive Jack’s Reef style. Exotic cherts and jaspers from long-distance sources are often associated with Early and Middle Woodland Period sites regionally.
- Archaeology: On Nantucket, shell middens of great magnitude have been documented and excavated in coastal settings for at least the past 100 years. All recognized diagnostic tools produced during this time frame have been found in all settings across Nantucket, although Rossville points seem to be the most common. Archaeological sites radiocarbon-dated to this period contain diverse floral and faunal assemblages as well.
Late Woodland Period, ca. 1,000–450 BP
- Environment: Consistent with the Early to Middle Woodland Period.
- Settlement and Subsistence: Settlement territories remain well-defined and concentrated in the coastal zone. Population density peaks and complex social organization and territoriality continues to evolve. High relative proportion of marine foods in the diet, wide range of resources used including wild turkey, turtle, dog, racoon, muskrat, river otter, spiny dogfish, sturgeon, sea bass, striped bass, gray seal, dusky shark, tautog, Atlantic cod, blackfish lobsters, eels, Brant geese, quahog, oyster, scallop, softshell clam, hickory and walnuts, huckleberry, chenopodium, and other types of grasses. Cultivation of maize appears for the first time but did not influence settlement locations and was incorporated into community gardens. Nuts, grasses, and fruit-bearing plants were also elements of the diet, with a wide range of indigenous medicinal plants at hand.
- Technology: Triangular Levanna project points made from locally available cobbles are characteristic of Late Woodland Period sites, along with shell-tempered and decorated ceramics, specialized groundstone tools, bone and antler implements, use of marshland reeds and grasses for basketry, cordage, and matting, and hardwoods for dugout canoes and other wooden implements. Traditional household sites established by the Early Woodland Period were reused during seasonal or annual visits.
- Archaeology: Sites dating to this period are prolific across the island in coastal marsh and harbor settings, along interior ponds, and along the creeks that drain the outwash plains. Sites containing maize are relatively rare, and radio-carbon dated fragments fall at the end of the Late Woodland or Contact Period.
Mary Lynne Rainey is a Principal Senior Archaeologist at RGA, Inc. with over 30 years of experience in the field of cultural resource management (CRM). She holds a BA from West Chester University (PA), an MA from the University of Connecticut, and is on the Register of Professional Archaeologists. During her career, Ms. Rainey directed dozens of CRM projects on Nantucket and analyzed island assemblages from prehistoric Native American, Contact Period, and historic EuroAmerican archaeological sites. Her work has helped to inform important research topics in Nantucket history and prehistory, such as Native American architecture, diet, community structure, and technology. She was a colleague of the late Nantucket scholar, Dr. Elizabeth Alden Little (1926-2003), and developed the volume Nantucket and Other Native Places, The Legacy of Elizabeth Alden Little (published 2010) in her honor.