In its last regular meeting of 2017, the Bulloch County Historical Society heard about the area’s Native American prehistory, and saw a collection of artifacts dating back thousands of years.
Joseph C. Sumner Jr., a Mercer University-educated attorney from Wrightsville, also invests in timber land where preparations for planting pines turn up some of the artifacts. His collection includes some pottery fragments and other items, but hundreds of stone projectile points.
Two central marks he hit Monday with the Historical Society audience are that many of the points found in Georgia are not arrowheads, and most are much older than many people think.
“A lot of people, when I ask them who do they think made the arrowheads and pottery and so forth, their top two answers are always the Creek Indians and the Cherokees, and they couldn’t be more wrong,” Sumner said.
The Creek tribes and Cherokee are native peoples of the historic period, he noted, meaning the time of remembered and recorded history, overlapping the arrival of Europeans.
“But the people responsible for artifacts like this are early prehistoric Georgians, by somewhere over 10,000 years,” he said, indicating some of the older items. “Georgia has a really rich history in that regard.”
Some of the oldest stone points found in Georgia or anywhere in the Americas are the long, fluted spear points known as Clovis points. These he called the “Holy Grail of artifacts” and noted that he has found only the base of one and never a whole one.
For a long time, a commonly accepted scientific theory held that people who made and used Clovis points were the first to arrive in the New World. Theoretically, they crossed the Bering Strait from Asia to Alaska on a “land bridge,” or ice bridge including frozen tundra, that existed during the last ice age around 15,000 years ago.
“I don’t believe that anymore,” Sumner said. “That is what is in all the history books. That is what has been taught for years, and the reason for that is because it is a very convenient theory.”
One observation that has eroded faith in the “Clovis-first theory” is that relatively few Clovis points have been found in Alaska and other areas near the Pacific, but more in the eastern United States. Meanwhile, where sites with Clovis points have been carbon-dated, some of the oldest are in the Southeast, he said.
But he cast no doubt on evidence that the Clovis users were from the earliest named period of human habitation of America, the Paleolithic Period, which Sumner gave a central date of 13,000 years ago.
“These had to be some of the toughest individuals that have ever walked the earth,” Sumner said. “They hunted what is called megafauna. …
“You may not have realized it, but here in Statesboro and where I’m from, Wrightsville, there were saber-toothed cats, there were mastodons – which is an ancient relative of the elephant, massive animals – giant sloths, bison, camels,” he said.
By the next period, the Archaic, roughly 10,000 to 1,000 B.C., the climate had warmed and the megafauna were extinct. Sumner held up a tray of smaller projectile points, including a beveled type he called “a classic Georgia point,” from his collection.
“Another misconception a lot of people have is they also think they’re all arrowheads. They say, ‘You have a nice collection of arrowheads,” Sumner said. “Which I always say, ‘Thanks, I appreciate that.’ But they’re not arrowheads.”
Points of this kind were probably from atlatl darts, he said. An atlatl is a stick fitted to the butt of a lightweight spear, or “dart,” so that the atlatl can be held back past the thrower’s shoulder, providing leverage for hurling the dart.
The bow and arrow arrived in this part of the Americas much later.
Sumner traced the human habitation of North America forward through the Woodland Period, roughly 1000 B.C. to 900 A.D., which besides the bow and arrow, brought further development of agriculture and horticulture.
He likes to note that corn was not developed “by Monsanto” but “through the horticulture skills of the American Indian.” Native people used selective breeding to create their staple grain from what was originally a wild grass from South America.
During this period, the people in what is now Georgia lived in settlements along cleared riverbanks, building wattle-and-daub houses that were nothing like teepees, he noted.
Village life and increased leisure time allowed further innovations, leading to the Mississippian culture of roughly 600-1600 A.D. These were the mound builders. Among their best known constructions are the temple mounds at the Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, but he noted also the Shinholser mounds near Milledgeville and the Fish Trap Cut site in Laurens County.
The Mississippians were the native peoples encountered in 1540 by the earliest known Europeans to travel through Georgia, the Spanish expedition commanded by Hernando de Soto.
De Soto came in search of gold, and his force of around 600 men included perhaps 300 lancers, plus archers and units with early firearms and vicious, trained war dogs, Sumner said.
Besides great brutality, the Spaniards exposed the Mississippians to European diseases to which they had no immunity.
“After De Soto, you have, some theorists say, 95 percent mortality due to disease,” Sumner said. “They compare it to a nuclear holocaust, and it would have been one of the saddest things that you can imagine in this rich society that is attested.”
The Creek tribes, he said, were a remnant of the Mississippians and produced few of the artifacts.
Most months of the year, the Bulloch County Historical Society meets for lunch in the social hall at Pittman Park United Methodist Church. However, the society does not meet in December and November, so the next meeting is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Jan. 22.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.