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Ears of maize growing on stalks.

Corn agriculture helped to support native populations in the mountains. Image source. About the photograph

A thousand years ago, trade routes cut through the mountains, stretching northwest to the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes regions and south toward the Gulf of Mexico and the Georgia coast. Some cut west to Tennessee and then down to Alabama and Mississippi. Traders brought goods as diverse as sea shells, copper, and various kinds of stone. Skilled artisans sculpted these goods into dazzling ornaments: realistic copper fish and birds, stone pipes with bowls shaped like beavers; conch-shell ornaments whose etched designs varied from serpents to people with forked eyes. The symbols used by these artisans were part of a religious tradition called Hopewell that linked people from a wide geographic region.

In the mountains, as in the Piedmont, corn agriculture became more important during the Mississippian period. More productive agriculture could support larger, denser populations. It also provided opportunities for accumulating wealth that could be used to build alliances and loyalties or to inflict social debts. A few generations after corn agriculture intensified, social ranking and political centralization increased. The Mountain region was creating its own identity — an identity that archaeologists tie to the modern-day Cherokee.

Pisgah and Qualla are the names archaeologists have given to Mississippian cultures that were Cherokee ancestors. These names are based on collections of artifacts gathered at key sites, but they also refer to the cultures those artifacts represent and to the peoples who lived at those sites.

Pisgah peoples

The Pisgah folk lived between 1000 and 1450 CE. Two archaeological sites tell us a great deal about Pisgah culture. The first, called Warren Wilson, is located on the grounds of Warren Wilson College on the north bank of the Swannanoa River. The second, called Garden Creek, is located near Canton. Both sites were villages, but Garden Creek also had three earthen mounds. Earlier Woodland people had built the two smaller mounds. But it was the Pisgah people who constructed the largest mound, building a village around it that spread over five acres.

Village life

The Pisgah village at Warren Wilson

The Pisgah village at Warren Wilson.

Some Pisgah settlements were small, spread-out farmsteads, while others were large villages of clustered houses. Most Pisgah settlements sat in floodplains where soil was especially fertile. The exceptions were the short-term camps people made when hunting and gathering wild foods. Almost all Pisgah settlements were concentrated in the eastern and central parts of the Appalachian Summit region — the region of western North Carolina where the Appalachian mountains reach their greatest height.

Some of the bigger villages had platform mounds. People first built a wooden structure, maybe for ceremonies or burials. At some point, that building was destroyed or taken down. A flat-topped mound of earth was piled over top of the remains of the building, and a new wooden building was constructed on top. As buildings were destroyed and rebuilt, the mound grew larger and larger. Only a few larger villages had these mounds. Archaeologists think that villages with mounds were political and religious centers, with smaller villages spaced out around them.

Pisgah houses were rectangular, measuring about 20 feet on a side. To build them, people set side-by-side posts in holes and then wove branches between them. Wet clay, sometimes with grasses mixed in, was smeared over the branches, which dried to create a tight, secure dwelling. Some Pisgah houses had partitions for rooms, while others had large, open interiors. All had thick, inside support posts holding the roof, which probably was bark or thatch. And most dwellings had hearths lined with hardened clay collars sitting in middle of the building.

In ways, Pisgah life by 1300 resembled life in much of the Piedmont. Pisgah people had compact, stockaded villages. They had corn agriculture; probably half their food came from fields of maize, beans, squash, and marsh elder. The rest came from wild foods. Deer and bear provided meat, as well as skins for clothes and containers; the bones were shaped into tools. Smaller animals, along with fish and turtles from rivers and streams added variety. Each fall, people collected acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and butternuts. When the season was right, they added fleshy fruits and berries.

Social and political rank

Southern Toad

At Warren Wilson, one pit contained 14,000 toad bones! The toads may have been used in medicine or for a feast. Image source. About the photograph

But there are hints, particularly in burial customs, that Pisgah life was not egalitarian. For the most part, the Pisgah buried their dead in graves either inside or next to their homes. Many graves had offerings. But other burials around some houses did not. Archaeologists think the different practices suggest some households had family members who ranked above others. Some of the people could have been political leaders. Others may have been religious leaders — priests or shamans, for instance, may have been buried with the objects they used or wore. Twenty-four people were buried in the mound at Garden Creek, and about half of these graves had burial offerings, including strings of shell beads, gorgets, and ear pins. People buried in mounds and those whose graves hold these offerings may have held higher social rank than others.

The practice of building mounds also suggests that social and political life was changing. Early in their histories, the Pisgah and Pee Dee peoples each built rectangular public buildings called earth lodges because dirt was packed up around their sides. As these buildings collapsed and were rebuilt on top of the mounded dirt, mounds grew. Some archaeologists believe that the earliest earth lodges served as council houses for egalitarian societies. Representatives met in them to make decisions based on consensus. But in the mountains, the flat platforms elevated the homes of chiefs or priests. Chiefs inherited their power, and they were buried in the mounds.

Qualla peoples

Around 1400, people in North Carolina’s southern Appalachians (and most of the western third of the state) started making different kinds of pottery. Potters continued experimenting with shapes and decorations. Soon they were turning out bowls with forms no Pisgah potter had ever made. Because they rely on artifacts for their research, archaeologists use this change in pottery styles to define a shift from Pisgah to a new culture, which they call Qualla.

The Qualla people may have been more egalitarian than the Pisgah. They stopped using platform mounds for chiefs’ houses and instead placed large townhouses on mound summits. The townhouse, which could host several hundred people, was the focal point of the community, and it was in this building that community decisions were made.

The townhouse at Coweeta Creek.

The townhouse at Coweeta Creek.

The Coweeta Creek site in Macon County is a Qualla village with a townhouse mound site. In ways, the village was much like Pisgah villages. The Qualla styled their houses identically. They were rectangular, averaging about 20 feet on one side; they had vestibule entrances and interior supports surrounding a central, clay hearth. Qualla villages were laid out much like Pisgah villages, and Qualla people also combined farming with hunting and gathering. Houses clustered around a plaza and mound and were encircled by a stockade. Villages were located in fertile soils by a source of water, and villagers ate corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, and gourds along with deer, black bear, and other seasonal nuts and fruits.

The Qualla people often buried their dead in house floors, beneath or near the hearths. They put offerings in some graves, such as shell beads, ear and hair pins, engraved gorgets, and masks made from conch shells. A few people were buried near the townhouse entrances. Presumably, these were important members of the community.

The Qualla lifeway endured into the time of European contact.