St. Catherines Island was separated from the mainland just after cal 3000 b.c. , and aboriginal foragers arrived shortly thereafter. The first St. Catherines islanders established a subsistence pattern that persisted for millennia, harvesting a broad range of vertebrate and invertebrate marine resources from the nearby estuarine and marine waters. They also hunted deer and collected a range of terrestrial food sources including hickory nuts, acorns, berries, and edible roots and tubers. Prior to cal a.d. 800, aboriginal foragers on St. Catherines Island were organized into egalitarian, tribal-level societies, likely living in economically self-sufficient, virtually sedentary, and politically autonomous villages. Status was earned by individual deeds throughout a person’s lifetime.
Sometime before cal a.d. 1300, the aboriginal social system on St. Catherines Island underwent a major change, ascribing positions of social status and wealth at birth. The subsistence pattern underwent virtually no change. Currently available data suggest that heritable social inequality developed on St. Catherines Island before they began corn agriculture.
During the late prehistoric Irene period (post-cal a.d. 1300-1580), St. Catherines islanders began the intensive cultivation of maize and other domesticates. Although intensive corn farming began only about a century before the arrival of the European colonists, Guale labor and the agricultural products it produced translated directly into the tribute payments that fueled both domestic subsistence and political power among the coastal chiefdoms.
The American Museum of Natural History returned to St. Catherines Island this May, with a crew of sixteen for three weeks of archaeological fieldwork. We concentrated efforts on continued excavations and a large-scale remote sensing survey at Meeting House Field, an important Indian village occupied 500 – 800 years ago.