‘Archeology for Dummies’ author talks Native American history

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, May 1, 2024

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David Johnson became interested in Native American history while clearing off some land for a food plot several years ago. Johnson was Sunday afternoon’s speaker for the quarterly meeting of the Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society (CVHS). The meeting took place virtually via ZOOM. He talked about how he became interested in Alabama’s Native American history and how he has gotten to know a number of professional archaeologists who have learned much on the subject.

Johnson said that he’s not a college graduate and had been employed for 30 years by the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT). 

“I worked my way up from the bottom,” he said.

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He’s a native of Monroe County in southwest Alabama. His interest in the first Alabamians began while preparing some land he’d purchased to go hunting on. He was cleaning off the site with a tractor when he pulled up a big rock. He got off the tractor to move the big rock out of the way when he noticed that it was no ordinary piece of stone. It had deep depressions on both sides. 

“I knew I had found an Indian grinding rock,” he said. “I looked around and started finding broken pieces of pottery, flakes left by flint knappers and some projectile points. I knew I must have found an old campsite or the site of an Indian village.”

He used his contacts in state government to get in touch with someone at the Department of Archives and History. 

“I talked to a guy named Bill,” he said. “I asked him all kinds of questions about what I had found. He told me everything he could and got me in touch with some archaeologists. I was really excited about this. I know I must have been worrying the fool out of everybody asking all these questions, but I was really interested in it.”

Johnson looked for books about archaeology in Alabama. He couldn’t find anything designed for the layman, the kind of publication that’s for “dummies.”

He decided to write one himself. 

“Four years and 500 pages later, I had something,” he said.

He’s written several books on the subject, most notably The Handbook for Alabama’s Prehistoric Indians and Artifacts. He’s also published a similar book about Mississippi. These handbooks contain many full-scale photographs, geographic distribution charts and detailed descriptions of various artifacts such as prehistoric projectile points and tools.

Johnson’s books are written for the average guy. 

“Does anyone know what rectilinear means?” he asked making the point about communicating on the average guy’s level. “That’s what an archaeologist says when he means a straight line. My books are on the line of Archaeology for Dummies. I just want to get across to the average person.”

Johnson said that finding artifacts on private land is fine but that digging should be left up to the professionals. There’s still a largely unknown history about Alabama’s earliest inhabitants. There’s much to be learned underneath the ground. This is what the professional archaeologist does. Layers of earth tell about the people who lived there during a certain period. A careful inspection of each layer by a trained person can tell much about previous generations.

Deciphering a story from those who lived in a specific area is very complicated. “It’s like putting together a 5,000-piece puzzle when all you have to go by is the picture on the box,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to put together the edges, but the middle part of the puzzle is always more difficult.”

The middle part is the state’s prehistory. Having a written language is the key to having a clear understanding of history. Our understanding of European and Middle Eastern history goes back much further than our understanding of the history of the Americas. Oral history tends to get lost over time. It’s up to the archaeologists to identify different time periods based on the surviving artifacts of each period.

Johnson has done much reading on the prehistory of this part of the world. Some of the best evidence on the earliest peoples of the continental U.S. can be found near White Sands, New Mexico. There are fossilized human footprints there that go back 23,000 years. It’s commonly believed that the first inhabitants of the Americas came from Asia over a land bridge that then connected the continents near the Bering Strait. The earliest inhabitants were a hunter-gatherer culture that was always on the move hunting game such as the wooly mammoth.

Johnson explained how these early inhabitants would chip spearheads out of stone and fasten them to stout sticks. A group of men working together with these spears could bring down a mammoth. Just one such animal would feed a clan of people for days to come. The trademark of the hunter-gatherer people was the Clovis point, named for the New Mexico town where they were first discovered.

“The best Clovis points that have been found were in the Tennessee River valley,” Johnson said.

The hunter-gatherer period gave way to the Archaic Period in early American history. The climate warmed and the Ice Age was no more. Beasts such as the wooly mammoth were hunted to extinction. Hunting techniques changed with the times. Game could no longer be hunted with thrusting spears. Smaller spears had to be thrown at deer, bears, buffalo and other animals that lived here. A common artifact from this period that is found in the Southeastern U.S. is known as the atlatl. It’s an ingenious device that greatly improves the aim of someone throwing a spear.

The Archaic Era artifacts found in the Southeast tend to have been made from local rock. 

“The Archaic Period lasted from 11,000 to 3,000 years ago,” Johnson said. “The environment had changed, and people didn’t have to be on the move all the time. They started making tools and the population increased. People started to compete for food sources. Some skeletons from this period have been found with projectile points in them.”

Agriculture became increasingly important as the Archaic Period gave way to the Woodland Period. Land bordering streams were cleared away in many locations to make way for the three sisters – corn, squash and beans. This created conflict between different tribes. Some Native peoples believed that woodland areas near streams were good places to hunt and should not be disturbed. The name Alabama, for example, is thought by some historians to be a Choctaw word meaning “thicket clearers,” a condescending reference to the Creeks and their preference to clear away bottomland to grow crops.

Another change from the Woodland Period to the Mississippian Period involved the way houses were built. They went from circular wooden structures to square ones. They looked similar to the log cabin in which Abe Lincoln was born.

“Archaeologists are still finding post holes from where these structures once stood,” Johnson said. “They have found fire holes where the food was prepared. They can tell the kinds of food they are eating. Villages would grow up, and lots of trading was taking place.”

Those who were good at making pottery had a higher standard of living. They would stamp the bowls they made with their brand.

“You can tell where it was made from the design,” Johnson said. “Some of these designs are found a good ways away from where it was made.”

For many hundreds of years, hunting was done by throwing spears. The discovery of the bow and arrow provided a better way to hunt. It also changed the appearance of the projectile point. Arrowheads were made much smaller than the previous spearheads. “

The bow and arrow changed the way they hunted,” Johnson said. “Animals could be killed from greater distances away. They also changed the way people were buried. Prominent people were buried with items of jewelry and other prized items.”

“I haven’t found any artifacts from the Mississippian Period on my land,” Johnson said. “What I have found goes back to earlier periods.”

The Mississippian Period was in decline when the first Europeans arrived in what’s now the United States. It’s not known why this happened. Johnson said it may have happened because the populations around the mound-building towns grew too fast for the food supply to support. 

“They just didn’t produce enough to feed large numbers of people,” he said. “Their society collapsed and the population scattered. They were experiencing a protohistoric period when DeSoto arrived in Alabama in 1540.”

The DeSoto Expedition through what’s now Alabama was devastating to the Native American population. They were savagely treated, something that led up to striking back at what’s known as the Battle of Manila. It took place in the fall of 1540 at a site near the Alabama River that’s still unknown. It would be the largest battle fought on American soil until the Civil War Battle of Shiloh some 332 years later. It was a one-sided fight. The Spaniards had superior weapons and fighting techniques. As many as 5,000 Native Americans died that day. Though DeSoto’s men lost 82 men, it did cripple the expedition into the New World.

Some modern historians believe the battle took place near Selma, others believe it was near the historic capital of Cahawba. Johnson believes it was near Demopolis. Some artifacts of Spanish origin have been found at these sites. Johnson said he has spoken to someone of Choctaw descent who told him they look at this battle as their “Bunker Hill moment.”

Bunker Hill was a Revolutionary War battle where the Colonial army may have lost the battle, but they made the point that “we aren’t gonna take it anymore.”

“I think the battle took place near Demopolis,” Johnson said. “The Spaniards describe the area as a place with high, craggy bluffs,” he said. “It still looks like that at the Demopolis site.”

With landowner permission, Johnson has searched the area with others with an interest in the battle. Using metal detectors they have found metallic items that have been dated to 16th Century Spain. They’ve even found some Spanish horseshoes and crossbow bolts from that period. Johnson also had an interest in Wilson’s Raid across Alabama in April 1865, which culminated in battles in West Point and Columbus. Fort Tyler’s commander, Robert Tyler, was the final general on either side to be killed in hostile action in the Civil War.

Johnson’s books about the Alabama and Mississippi native peoples can be purchased online at handbookseries.org.