The Hoosier's Story - Prehistoric Life – 350 million to 1,000 B.C.

Evidence of prehistoric plant and animal life in Southern Indiana dates back some 350 million years. During what geologists call the Devonian Period, the hunk of earth crust that today supports the Hoosier National Forest formed the floor beneath a vast, shallow, equatorial sea that teamed with plant and animal life.

Through the ages, as those aquatic creatures died and fell to the sea floor, their remains compressed, fossilized, and cemented into the bedrock that underlies the region today. More than six hundred fossil species and two hundred and fifty coral species from the Devonian have been identified at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, which lies some forty miles east of the Hoosier.

Life forms identified at this Ohio River site directly across from Louisville, one of the world’s largest Devonian fossil bed exposures, include sponges, brachiopods, mollusks, echinoderms, and fish. Two-thirds were described at the Falls for the first time.

Because the land that today comprises the Hoosier National region spent the last quarter-million years free from ice cover, post-glacial lifeforms there had a leg up on the rest of the state when the Wisconsin ice sheets started melting 13,600 years ago. Pollen preserved beneath ancient waterbodies suggests a landscape of spruce and pine forests intermixed with grasslands.

Those Arctic conditions supported a variety of animals, including mastodon, mammoth, musk ox, ground sloth, caribou, peccary, saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, and giant beaver, some of which are ancestors of today’s more common animals. Bones from such prehistoric creatures have been discovered in caves and crevices near the Hoosier in Monroe and Crawford Counties.

Human presence in the Hoosier dates to that post-glacial time, which archeologists call the Paleoindian Period (12,000 to 6,000 B.C), when hunter / gatherers roamed the thawing North American landscape in pursuit of these Ice Age behemoths.

Projectile points and tools—made from nearby Wyandotte chert, a.k.a. Indiana Hornstone, and used to hunt and clean game—have been excavated at the Magnet (Alton) archeological site on the Hoosier. Situated on a terrace overlooking the Ohio River in Perry County, Magnet was used by Paleoindians as a base camp for hunts in the surrounding hill country.

Archaeologists found a broken point from the Paleoindian Clovis culture that was left behind by looters at the Hoosier’s Potts Creek Rockshelter, a Crawford County site that is listed the National Register of Historic Places. Most Southern Indiana rockshelters were looted in the early 20th century.

By the Early Archaic Period, from 8,000 to 6,000 B.C., the glaciers had melted, and the planet was warming. Hardwood forests and prairies had supplanted the northern evergreens, with a corresponding shift in wildlife. Whitetail deer, black bear, elk, and smaller animals replaced the Ice Age creatures as the dominant animal lifeforms.

A 1961 excavation at the Hoosier’s Rockhouse Hollow Shelter in Perry County by Indiana’s first State Archaeologist Glenn A. Black produced evidence of Early Archaic use. “While no bones of Ice Age animals or other remains were found to indicate the age of the early deposits, the results of the excavations prove that the rockshelter was open for occupation and accumulating sediments during this time,” according to Looking at Prehistory: Indiana’s Hoosier National Forest Region, 12,000 B.C. to 1650, a 2006 Forest Service publication.

A 1969 excavation at Mano Point on the Ohio River in Perry County produced scrapers, drill fragments, and projectile points from the Early through Late Archaic Periods that led Forest Service officials to believe a village stood there. The shoreline site is named for a mano stone—used crack and grind nuts and grains—that was discovered there during construction of a boat ramp and parking lot.

Rockhouse Hollow is one of two shelters known as the Rockhouse Cliffs Rockshelters that, like Potts Creek, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to their archaeological significance.

Other evidence of Early Archaic presence in the Hoosier National Forest—houses or human burials, for example—have not been found. But burial sites from the period have been identified in Southern Indiana. Projectile points made with Early Archaic hafting styles have been uncovered throughout the region and suggest highly mobile hunters. 

The Rockhouse excavation also showed that prehistoric humans returned to the site for thousands of years. Artifacts discovered there include projectile points from the Middle Archaic Period (6,000-4,000 B.C.), when the climate experienced its greatest warming. Mortars and other Middle Archaic tools were recovered in 1999 at the Celina Rockshelter, one several national forest shelters that were studied in 2000 by Ball State Researchers and proposed as the Branchville Rockshelter Archaeological District.

Pins, pendants, awls, and other tools, many decorated and made from bone, suggest widespread use of the Hoosier during the Late Archaic Period (4,000-1,000 B.C.), as well. Perhaps due to overhunting of deer, these prehistoric people moved farther up the Ohio tributaries and streams, still using rockshelters as  base camps, from which they pursued deer and other game, along with wide varieties of nuts.

Archaeologists have discovered fiber and sinew cordage from the Late Archaic in nearby Wyandotte Cave, Indian Cave, and possibly at Rockhouse. Located on the Hoosier, Indian Cave is among a limited number of Midwest sites where squash from the Late Archaic Period has been discovered.

Photographs: Top, Hemlock Cliffs, Hoosier National Forest; Center, Falls of the Ohio State Park, 350-million-year-old fossils; Bottom, Buzzard Roost, Ohio River, Hoosier National Forest


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