Before Rhode Island: Early Peoples and Archaeology
Essay by Pınar Durgun, Visiting Assistant Professor, Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, Brown University
For thousands of years people lived on the land that is today Rhode Island. People were born here, they lived, and died here. They made their living by hunting or growing food, they built houses for themselves and their families, worshipped their deities, taught their children, followed their leaders into war and peace, and mourned for their dead. Until a few hundred years ago, they left us no documents to tell about themselves and their lives. Their history and literature was oral, not written down in books or letters. Yet there is a record of their lives in the objects they used and left behind such as tools, houses, weapons, and sacred objects, and even their trash. Just as we need interpreters to understand the meaning of written documents in another language, we rely on archaeologists to help us interpret the meaning of these objects left behind to understand past lives.
Most of our textual information about the early history of Rhode Island comes from diaries and letters written by early European travelers and settlers. The historical accounts and observations we learn from these texts tell us the stories from the European point of view. The Europeans in many cases did not understand the Indigenous languages, (except a few enthusiastic learners of the languages like Roger Williams), and therefore in some cases they misinterpreted the meanings of Native Peoples’ customs and expressions. But archaeology can help us better understand early Native American cultures by analyzing the objects they made and used. Archaeology in that sense is like “reading” tools, food remains, jewelry, and other ancient remains to understand how people lived, what they ate, what they produced, or traded. However, we should keep in mind that “reading” can also be biased. Archaeologists may have different interpretations of the archaeological remains than Native People today that have learned traditions through oral stories passed down from their ancestors. Many of today’s archaeologists consult with local Native Americans in order to have a more complete understanding of the past.
Early peoples of this region
Geological evidence shows that the glaciers that covered Rhode Island and the rest of North America started to melt around 13,000 years ago. Gravel and rock moved by the glaciers were left in piles which formed today’s offshore islands. It is possible that there were people living in the area that is now Rhode Island before the glaciers. However, these people’s settlements and material culture would now be buried under the coast or under water, which is why it is difficult for archaeologists to find them. Even in much later times, archaeological sites could be buried deep down by natural or human causes. For example, Providence’s train station sits on what was once the edge of a salt pond, which formed between 3,800 and 2,700 years ago. The pond was filled in during the 18th and 19th centuries as Providence was growing as a city. In 1983, archaeologists removed about six feet of urban fill covering the shore of the pond to get to the level of the original pond.
The changing climate and melting glaciers during this period lead to changes in vegetation and shifts in animal populations. Elk and caribou migrated across the region, moving with the seasons. Even though there are no known archaeological sites in Rhode Island from this period, archaeologists have found hunting tools. The earliest human-made object found in Rhode Island dates back to 10,000 years ago. It is a broken spear point made of stone that would be attached to a wooden spear. This point was found at the South Wind site near Wickford Cove in 1985. The point was surrounded by flakes of stone left by a person who had chipped the flakes off the stone point while making it. Since the maker left the point with the flakes, it is likely the person was not satisfied with the final product. These earliest Rhode Island peoples were hunters and gatherers. They hunted animals, fished, and collected clams and berries and other fruits. They did not have permanent settlements and followed grazing herds on which their diet depended.
Retreating glaciers at the end of the Ice Age changed the land and waters and the shape of the shoreline. Narragansett Bay was not yet formed when the first people moved into the region. Once the climate became warmer and stabilized, around 8000-3000 BC, people living in this area established settlements, or small villages. Still, they continued to move to the coast at warmer times in the summer and inland during the cold winters. Settling down made it easier for people to rely on specific food sources. People learned when and where to hunt or collect certain animals and plants. They knew when deer migrated and where they could hunt them. The earliest evidence we have for settlements in Rhode Island is the Joyner site in Jamestown, dating between 3700-3100 years ago. The houses at this site were destroyed by later agricultural activities, but the storage pits people dug under their houses survived. Bone and stone tools were found in these pits, including spear points for hunting, stone choppers to cut meat, stone bowls for cooking and storage, and mortars and pestles that were used to grind food. The food remains found in these pits suggested that people ate deer, shellfish, fish, birds, nuts, grapes, and berries.
Another site nearby had burials that dated to the same period of the earliest settlements. Some of the individuals were cremated before being buried, placed in their grave with tools, weapons, and shells. Some of the materials found at these sites tell us about how different communities exchanged their goods. This tells us that people living in this region did not live in isolation and communicated or traded with each other.
Between 3000 and 500 years ago, people started to change their ways of life with the invention of new technologies. Over 200 sites from this period have been identified in Rhode Island, many of which were located along the coast line of the bay in protected areas, and by rivers and lakes.  From these coastal sites we know that people used “fish weirs” built of stakes and twigs that allowed them to catch fish easier at low tide. One such stake was recovered from a Native American fish weir in the excavations of Boylston Street in Boston in 1913, 32 feet and 8 inches below the surface dated to 2000 to 3000 years ago.
About 3000 years ago, people in southern New England began making clay pottery. The vessels quickly replaced stone bowls firstly because clay deposits were more plentiful than soapstone, secondly because they were lightweight and made it easier to carry and store food. Dating to about 1000 years ago, archaeologists found evidence for the beginnings of agriculture. During this time, people in southern New England started planting and growing food crops like beans and squash around their settlements. With agriculture came more permanent settlements, a surplus of food, and more stability in food supply which then led to population increase.
Even though corn was one of the main food staples of the Americas, archaeologists found very few sites in Rhode Island that had evidence for corn cultivation and consumption. Several charred corn seeds were found at Phenix Avenue site in Cranston and Salt Pond site in Narragansett. The Cove Lands site in downtown Providence had a large food preparation and storage complex, but none of the agriculturally produced domestic crops (beans, corn, squash) were found at this site. When archaeologists excavated a site near Greenwich Cove they found a great variety of fish, shells, reptiles, bird and land animal remains that were being consumed. This shows us that changes in diet through agriculture were not adopted by all the communities in the region at the same time.
At Block Island, for instance, intensive use of a wide variety of flora (plants) and fauna (animals) was taking place on a year-round basis as early as 3000 years ago, some 1000 years earlier than on the mainland coast. At Harbor Pond Site on the island, archaeologists found artifacts including stone arrow or spear points, scraping implements, and fishing weights used in the hunting of land or perhaps marine mammals, processing and consumption of shellfish, and fishing. Food sources for people living on islands or by shores might have been more diverse, which enabled them to have a rich diet without being forced to practice agriculture. Excavations at sites on the Pettaquamscutt River (AD 850) and Narragansett Bay (AD 250 ) for example, had evidence for carbonized wild rice and sunflower seeds, suggesting that non-domesticated plants and seeds were being processed, even when corn wasn’t. At the end of this period, when Europeans wrote about New England around AD 1500, they talked about corn and beans being part of the Native Peoples’ diets, which shows us that agricultural production slowly became an essential part of Native Peoples’ lives.
As you have learned, we can tell a lot about how people in the past lived through archaeological methods. When Europeans started coming to this area around AD 1500, they wrote their observations down, leaving us some archival information about early Native Americans, especially the Wampanoag, Niantic, and Narragansett communities living in this area. Descendants of these early Narragansett, Niantic, and Wampanoag communities still live in Rhode Island today and have traditional and oral knowledge to add to the stories of their ancestors. More about the Indigenous Peoples of Rhode Island through modern times will be available in an upcoming chapter of EnCompass.
Archaeology: the study of the people of the past through analysis of their material culture, or the objects they left behind and changes they made in the landscape.
Indigenous: for the purposes of this chapter, Native Americans, Native Peoples, or Indigenous People are used interchangeably to refer to the people who have lived in the area of what is now known as Rhode Island for thousands of years. They are the ancestors of the Narragansett, Niantic, and Wampanoag peoples, sometimes referred to in some sources as “Indians.”
Culture: the ways of life for a group of people including food preparation and type, clothing, shelter, and belief systems.
Urban Fill: a layer of dirt, rocks, gravel, and sometimes ground up bits of old construction used to make a solid base layer before erecting a new building.
Fish Weir: something such as fencing, netting, or posts that are placed across a river to direct the path of fish to a certain area for trapping.
Agriculture: the planting and growing of crops for food and other products as opposed to gathering plant foods in the wild.
How do we know about how early Native Americans lived long ago? Discuss at least three ways.
How did the beginnings of agriculture change how people lived on the land that is now known as Rhode Island?
What other changes in how people lived occurred during this time?
Are there Native Americans living in Rhode Island today? What are the names of the Native American groups in Rhode Island?
[ + ]
|1.||↑||Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, 2002.|
|2.||↑||Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, 2002: 55.|
|3.||↑||Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, 2002: 3.|
|4.||↑||Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, 2002: 8.|
|5.||↑||Figure 5: Soapstone bowl from Ochee Springs quarry. 19th century American Collector RI Perspective, Museum of Primitive Art Peace Dale RI.1995.|
|6.||↑||Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, 2002: 10.|
|7.||↑||Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, 2002: 13.|
|8.||↑||Figure 4: Fish weir stake. Antiquities of the New England Indians by C.C. Willoughby, 1935: 8. Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.|
|9.||↑||Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, 2002: 17-19.|
|10.||↑||Archaeology at Block Island’s Harbor Pond Site by Joseph N. Waller, Jr. Senior Archaeologist PAL http://www.preservation.ri.gov/pdfs_zips_downloads/archaeology_pdfs/fieldnotes2.pdf|
|11.||↑||Native People of Southern New England (1500-1600) by Kathleen J. Bragdon, 1996: 64-66.|