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Art Lander’s Outdoors: State’s 225th anniversary recalls Kentucky’s early bountiful resources, native peoples

First of two-part series, in honor of Kentucky’s 225th anniversary of statehood, explores the flora and fauna of early Kentucky, Native American cultures, and human use of natural resources during pre-history. The research for this article is courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

Just as the giants of the Pleistocene Era (Ice Age) were dying out, a primitive stone age culture was emerging in what would become Kentucky.

The American mastodon (Mammut americanum), stag moose (Cervalces scotti), woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) and other “mega-fauna” were headed to extinction, as the glaciers north of the Ohio River were receding, and the climate was warming.

Archeologists, anthropologists, and historians can only guess how Kentucky’s prehistoric peoples lived in the stream valleys, mountain ridges and coves (rock overhangs), where evidence of their existence was found in stone artifacts, cliff hieroglyphics, and grave sites.

Kentucky’s past is divided into at least four periods by archeologists:

* The Paleo-Indian is the time of the earliest known human occupation. These hunters-gatherers migrated from Asia across the Bering land bridge some 12,000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age.

The Woodland Period, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1000 years was characterized by mound building, pottery making, agriculture, textile and twined fabric. Late in the period, the bow and arrow replaced the atlatls. (Photo Provided)

They hunted large mammals in the developing forests, and knapped long, beautiful spear points from flint.

* During the Archaic Period, 8000 to 1000 B.C., humans became established throughout the state, and the first settlements appeared in the Green River Valley. Early plant cultivation began about 7,000 years B.C., with squash and gourds. Near the end of the Archaic period, Native Americans were cultivating sunflowers, goosefoot, and knot weed.

Staple foods included white-tailed deer and hickory nuts, supplemented by small mammals, birds, seeds, fruits, and nuts. River mussels also became an important food in some regions.

* The Woodland Period, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1000 years was characterized by mound building, pottery making, agriculture, textile and twined fabric. Late in the period, the bow and arrow replaced the atlatls. Corn and tobacco were added to the crops cultivated. Early agricultural practices were likely based on slash and burn techniques of forest clearing, where small plots used for a few seasons then abandoned and other plots cleared.

* During the Mississippian Period or Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1750), Native Americans developed more complex farming techniques, using large plots of land and growing fewer crops in larger quantities. Maize agriculture is one of the fundamental cultural changes associated with the Mississippian era.

In some cases extensive forests were cleared along river terraces and floodplains and on flat, fertile plains. Large agricultural fields may have been maintained for extensive periods. Agriculture became a more important source of food than hunting.

Fire Transformed Landscape

The land early Colonial explorers encountered was not a virgin forest untouched by humans, but a “dynamic mosaic of life, still adapting to post-glacial changes and the effects of thousands of years of human disturbance.”

About 3000 B.C. Native Americans learned that fire promoted habitat diversity, so they in effect became Kentucky’s first wildlife managers. They used fire to clean weeds off crop fields, open up woodlands by burning away understory, and creating the “edge effect,” to the benefit of wildlife species that thrived in early successional habitat.

When glacial ice began to recede about 12000 B.C., the climate was cool and moist, and forests were boreal, dominated by spruce, fir, tamarack, and northern pine.

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

By the time European white explorers arrived, a temperate broadleaf deciduous forest had developed, composed of trees that lose their leaves every fall, such as oak, hickory, elm, maple, walnut, basswood, sweet gum and beech.

Dark and Bloody Ground

While Kentucky was never claimed by any one tribe, it was visited by many, namely the Shawnee, Delaware, Iroquois, and Cherokee. Violent wars between tribes gave rise to the description of Kentucky as a “Dark and Bloody Ground.”

Wars over the developing fur trade ran some tribes out of Kentucky, and disease wiped out many more indigenous people decades before Kentucky’s exploration period.

When Europeans and Africans came to the New World they brought with them many diseases that the Native American population had little resistance to, and had not been previously exposed to, including smallpox, typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, tuberculosis, mumps, yellow fever and whooping cough, which were chronic throughout Europe and Asia.

Native American Settlement

The last known major Native American settlement in what was to become Kentucky was Eskippakithiki, a one-acre palisaded village established around 1718. A Shawnee word meaning “place of blue licks,” Eskippakithiki was built in proximity to a salt lick near the present town of Oil Springs, Ky.

Inhabited by as many as 200 families, the village was located on a 3,500-acre plain drained by the Upper Howard and Lulbegrud creeks in southeastern Clark County, near the foothills of the mountains located to the east.

Most of what is known about the settlement is based on legend, and a 1736 French Canadian census. By 1754 the village had been abandoned.

Some historians believe Eskippakithiki’s location may be the source of the name Kentucky, based on an Iroquois phrase kenta (level) and aki (a locative), or “place of level land.”

Next week: Thomas Walker, and a party of explorers, come through Cumberland Gap, and spent three months traveling throughout the region. What he wrote in a journal about the plants and animals observed, and what the party encountered, whetted the appetite of a generation of land-hungry Colonial Americans who would follow.


Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune and KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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