General Archaeology

There is little in the history of the hunter state of man that can be dignified with the name of monuments. Tribes, who rely on the bow and arrow for their means of subsistence; who cultivate the earth by loosening the soil with the scapula of a stag or bison; who are completely erratic in their habits and customs; and who put up, as a shelter from the elements, buildings of the slightest and most perishable materials, cannot be expected to have left very extensive or striking monumental traces of their past history. This will be found to be the case, in a peculiar manner, it is apprehended, with the antiquarian remains of the branch of the human race, who formerly inhabited the area of the United States. The most antique things in it, appear to be the people themselves. They are the greatest wonder that the continent has produced.

These tribes roved through vast forests, in which they can hardly be said to have had a fixed occupancy. They were cut up into many petty independencies, perpetually at war with each other, who did not remain stationary long enough to organize governments capable of commanding labor on public works. To waylay an enemy; to shake his scalp in the air; to follow the tracks of a deer or a bear; to brandish the war-club in the dance; these were esteemed greater achievements among them, than to erect a column, or inscribe a shaft. “We are only surprised that they should have left anything, in the line of antiquities, but the small and naked fields which they tilled.

Yet, it is found that some combined efforts for defense, and the deep-seated principles of a native religion, however erroneous, have scattered throughout the land evidences of such combinations and idolatrous worship, in a species of tumuli and military ditches and encampments, which attest the possession of considerable power. It is true, that these archaeological data appear to have been accurately suited to the apparent condition of the tribes, and not to have transcended it. Where an anomalous ruin, or work of art, occurs, which implies a greater degree of civilization, it is safer to consider it as intrusive, or as belonging to a different era, than to attempt to disturb or unsettle the general theory of the hunter period. Time, and the hand of decay and obscuration, are powerful aids to the mystery of antiquity in all lands; but they are especially to be guarded against, in examining the ruins of a barbarian people. Such a people do some things exquisitely well; they manufacture arms and implements with exact and beautiful adaptation to the arts of war and the chase; but the proficiency wholly fails, when we come to examine buildings, sculptures, and like works. A savage may do his part well, in the building of a mound of earth, which is the joint work of a whole village, and is to serve as its place of worship or sacrifice. He may labor as one of a hundred hands, in excavating a ditch, or erecting a parapet for sustaining rude picket work, to shield a community of women from the attacks of clubs or arrows. But it is in vain to look for the traces of an equal degree of labor in erecting his own dwelling. The hunter state required mounds and temples, but no permanent private residences.

The belief in a theory of a high degree of civilization in the area of fierce hunter tribes, such as extended north of the Rio Grande, reaching to the Great Lakes, in any age of which there is reliable knowledge, is indeed calculated to reflect but little credit on American archaeological philosophy. Admitting, what is probable, that there were, in the course of ages, elements of the peculiar civilization of Lybia, Phoenicia, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Ancient Britain, and Spain, from mariners or adventurers, either accidentally or designedly landed on the coasts, there is no probability that the number, at any one period prior to the discovery by Columbus, was considerable; and it is nearly certain, that such adventurers or castaways were nearly, if not quite, without females. In either view, they must have relied upon the native female for any period of continuance; and as she would reproduce resemblances of her own physical type, these elements of disturbance or intrusive knowledge would, in a few generations, entirely disappear, if the intrusive men were not violently dispatched, like the first English colony in Virginia, or the crew of the stranded vessel spoken of by Iroquois tradition. We should closely inspect our antiquities for these casual evidences of foreign art; and not too hastily attribute an advanced civilization to wandering tribes of hunters and warriors, who stood in no other relation to them than that of conquerors or murderers.

Even in Mexico, where one of these foreign elements was probably at the bottom of their civilization, as testified by Montezuma to Cortez, there was a predisposition on the part of the Spaniards to overrate the native arts and knowledge. Cortez was, in the outset, but a rebel to legal authority at Cuba, and, afterwards, both he and his followers were prone to magnify the type of civilization of the Aztecs in order to enhance the glory of the conquest. A loud stroke of the Indian drum was the sound of a “gong” in the ears of Bernal Dias; a folded skin with devices in the Indian manner, seen at Zempoala, was a “book.” This disposition to over-estimate is everywhere observable in the Spanish narratives of a semi-civilized people, who had really much to commend, and many arts that called for astonishment.

But when the eye, about one century later, (say A. D. 1600,) fell upon the small and erratic bands of foresters who were seated along the North Atlantic, from Florida to the St. Lawrence, there was very little to break the wild and cheerless view of barbarity which their manners and customs presented. They were exclusively hunters and fishermen. The little zea maize that they raised to eke out a precarious existence was a cultivation exclusively in the hands of the females. A coarse kind of pottery in common use was also a feminine art. 1 Their dwellings of mats and bark and poles were alike due to feminine industry. There was, in reality, no male civilization, unless it be found in the art of fabricating weapons and implements; in the mnemonic art of recording events in the pictographic characters of the Kekewin, and in the state of their numeration, as shown in their exchanges of wrought sea-shells, which had some of the properties of a coin.

In all that related to energy, courage, and expertness; to war and eloquence; to endurance as captives; and to the leading traits of a wild and unshackled independence, they were immeasurably superior to the Aztecs.

When the Anglo-Saxon race began, late in the seventeenth century, to cross the Alleghanies, and to explore the valley of the Mississippi, the forest was observed to have encroached upon, and buried, a class of ruins in the shape of tumuli, barrows, abandoned fields, and military earth-works. These relics, of the origin of which the tribes knew nothing, have continued to be the theme of philosophical speculation to the present day.

New discoveries are making every year, as fresh areas of that magnificent valley yield to the hand of agriculture, and the record of its antiquities is thus becoming fuller, and more complete.

It is, perhaps, premature to generalize on the present state of our archaeological materials, but something may be done to throw the facts into groups in which they can be more perfectly examined and studied; and little more will be attempted in the present paper.Citations:

  1. De Bry, 1590.[]


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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