Note: The following information is from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and used with permission.
The people of the Eastern forest started to produce in large quantities chipped stone axes around 4,000 B.C. The axes were made from tough resilient stone, such as basalt and quartzite. With large axes, the Middle Archaic people could more easily cut wood to build houses and make fires. The resulting forest clearings altered the environment in a radical way. Clearings encouraged the growth of plants and trees that were beneficial to the people, such as berry bushes and fruit and nut trees. Deer, bear, turkey, and other animals came to the clearing to browse on the tender leaves of low-lying shrubs and to eat berries and nuts. The people had made changes to the environment, which brought them direct benefits.
In farming, beans arrived from the southwestern lands about A.D.1000 to join corn and squash as the three major crops. Tobacco came by way of Mexico. Animals, especially deer and turkey, were heavily hunted, as well as turtles and sometimes bear and elk. A wide array of natural plants, nuts, and berries were gathered.
Since the preservation of artifacts from the Late Woodland period is outstanding and the cultures are rich and dynamic, archaeologists have been able to collect much information about group variation across Virginia. Although many of the pieces are missing, we know certain things about a few of the more prominent groups.
Local cultures developed in the mountains and valleys of western Virginia. Southwestern Virginia is said to be a crossroads of Native American culture. Mississippian people entered the region along the Tennessee River system. Ohio Valley groups came in by way of the New River, and Piedmont cultures advanced up the Roanoke River.
The people of southwestern Virginia formed tribal cultures very similar to the groups in the southern Piedmont of Virginia. They made a wide array of pottery tempered with sand, limestone, or shell, and impressed with cord and net. Their homes, about 15 to 20 feet in diameter, were constructed of multiple poles anchored deep into the ground. The tops of the poles were bent over and tied to form a dome-shaped house. The houses were covered with either thatch or bark and clustered around a plaza in the center of a walled village. Daily life was based on intensive gardening, supplemented with gathering wild plants and hunting animals.
The Coastal Plain offered a unique environment of saltwater and freshwater rivers, bays, and marshes. People adapted to it by relying on fishing, particularly for the shad and sturgeon that spawn upriver. From the shallow salty waters, they gathered oysters. Tests on great heaps of discarded shells, called shell middens, show they gathered oysters in the late spring. Oysters provided food while the people waited for the wild and cultivated plants to grow, and were dried, stored, and used later in the year.
By A.D.1300, the Coastal Plain tribes had grown to form sedentary villages supported by small, short-term hunting and gathering camps. Relying more and more on horticulture, the people favored the floodplain and low-lying necklands of rich sandy soil for village sites. Coastal Plain people built their villages creating many long, oval houses either spaced close together and surrounded by a palisade, or dispersed, separated by fields for gardening. Through most of the Late Woodland period, the numerous villages of the coastal groups formed independent tribal societies, but by the 16th century, chiefdoms developed.
By this time, the people were learning to nurture native plant species, including sunflowers, gourds, sumpweed/marsh elder, maygrass, lambsquarter/goosefoot, and amaranth. These were plants that appeared in the clearings created by humans with the axe invented in the Middle Archaic period. People in the Eastern United States also started to raise varieties of squash that were brought from what is now Mexico where squash was first developed.
The Powhatan depended on the rivers and the Bay to provide a means of traveling to other villages. They fished the waters for food and used the streams and creeks for drinking water. They did much of their fishing from canoes. The canoe was the main source of transportation for the Powhatan. It was the largest item the men built. The biggest canoes were four feet deep and fifty feet long, and each could hold up to forty men. The average canoe was smaller, holding ten to thirty people, including their goods. When traveling, a warrior might have carried a deerskin mantle, traditional weaponry, mats for temporary shelter, and a ceramic pot for cooking. Most canoes were made from cypress trees. The size of the canoe depended on the size of the tree. Once the tree was selected, it was "cut" down by alternating between burning and chipping away at the charred area above ground level. The log would then be hollowed out. To help "cut" the hard wood, a fire would be set on the log. The burned areas would be chipped out with a shell or stone scraper. Someone had to stay close to the fire so that it did not burn out of control and destroy the entire log. The finished canoe was long with a flat or V-shaped bottom.
The subsistence of the Powhatan and surrounding groups was based on horticulture supplemented by hunting and gathering. It is estimated that over 50% of the food consumed was maize. Other crops were beans, squash, pumpkins, gourds, sunflowers and tobacco. Deer hunting was done mainly in the winter in upland regions. Deer were scarce in the heavily populated rivers and estuarine regions. But shellfish and other marine resources were an important part of the diet.