Friday, March 22, 2019

Prehistoric Antecedents

When people first arrived in the Fort Belvoir area, perhaps 11,500 years ago, Northern Virginia was far different than it is today. The climate was considerably colder, and the great Arctic glaciers covered North America as far south as northern Pennsylvania. Because much of the earth’s water was locked in these glaciers, today’s Potomac River was a small tributary of the Susquehanna River. Streams like Dogue and Accotink Creeks, if they existed at all, were mere trickles. The region’s vegetation and animal life resembled more closely what we today associate with northern Canada or the Arctic tundra. Mastodon, mammoth, and other now-extinct species still roamed parts of eastern North America.

Archeologists know that the earliest Americans wandered throughout Virginia, including present-day Fairfax County. Their stone quarries and living sites have been excavated in the Shenandoah Valley and in the southern Piedmont. At Belvoir, at least one of their fluted projectile points has been found near Davison Army Airfield. Scholars think that these early people traveled in small bands, hunting and gathering the meager edible resources that were available in the colder environment.

During the next several thousand years, the climate moderated, the glaciers slowly receded, and sea levels rose. The Susquehanna River valley gradually flooded to form today’s Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River became the familiar broad stream we know today. The region’s vegetation and its animal life changed significantly. Oak and hickory forests appeared, as did “modern” animal species such as deer, bear, elk and bison.

This array of Indian projectile points, all found in Fairfax
County, represents over 8,000 years of prehistoric
occupation in the region

Around 4,000 B.C., as food became more plentiful, the people of the Potomac Valley could gather nuts, berries, and other seasonal resources to supplement the animals they hunted. Archeological evidence suggests that the area’s prehistoric population also rose during this period.

After approximately 2,750 B.C., the climate of the Northern Virginia area stabilized close to what it is today. Prehistoric peoples tended to gravitate toward the region’s rivers and streams and to adopt a less nomadic existence. They settled in larger base camps and made seasonal food-gathering trips into the interior. Food resources were more abundant and diverse. Fish entered the Potomac estuary to spawn in the spring: oysters and mussels were available in season; and meat could be obtained from a wide variety of small mammals, reptiles, and migratory waterfowl, as well as larger game, such as deer and bear.

To exploit these resources, prehistoric peoples developed tools designed for specialized tasks, including the bow and arrow. After approximately 1,000 B.C., they also mastered the art of making ceramics from local clays. Archeologists believe that the decorative variations on these native ceramics probably represent cultural variations within groups of Native Americans.

Most importantly, the Native Americans who greeted the first European visitors to this region engaged in agriculture. The maize, beans, and other products grown by these Indians would become the commodities that ensured the survival of Virginia’s early European settlements.

[ Native Americans and Europeans ]

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