Before the adoption of agriculture and settled village life, Native American Hunter gatherers of the Upper Ohio Valley traveled from campsite to campsite with the seasons. Much of their time was focused on the food quest. The animals and plants that they hunted and harvested changed with the seasons, because many could only be found, or were best taken, at certain places or times of the year.

From excavators' discoveries of food remains at East Steubenville, we know that Native Americans visited the site in the spring, summer, and fall. The animal bones, mussel shell, and charred plants they left behind tell us how their lifeway shifted with the rhythm of the seasons...

During spring and summer encampments at the East Steubenville site, Native Americans harvested the bounty of the nearby Ohio River: freshwater mussels were collected in the shallows and catfish were also caught. (Click here to enlarge.)


The Panhandle Archaic people were the first Native Americans in northern West Virginia to rely on the Ohio River for much of their livelihood. Spring was known as the "starving time" to many Native American cultures because food was always scarce. At this time of year, Panhandle Archaic Americans at East Steubenville found relief taking fish from the Ohio, especially channel catfish.

Channel catfish were the most common catch for Panhandle Archaic fishermen at East Steubenville, making up two-thirds of all fishbone found at the site (photo courtesy Garold Sneegas).

Study of fish bones excavated at East Steubenville shows that catfish were first caught during spring floods (March to April). As floodwaters receded, fish might have become trapped in natural depressions or sloughs on the Ohio River bottomlands south of the East Steubenville site.

Native Americans also caught catfish in June, during spring spawning. Normally inhabiting deeper waters of the Ohio, male catfish could have been easy prey for humans as these fish guarded their nests in the gravel-bottomed shallows near the shoreline. Other fish species (redhorse, sucker, herring, and sauger) were taken in the warm seasons as well, perhaps by trapping in sloughs after high water, or by fishing in the river itself using spears or nets, or by hook-and-line.

River bottom photograph of freshwater mussels -- 4000 years ago, these shellfish were harvested from gravel bars of the Ohio River near the East Steubenville site (photo courtesy Douglas Smith).

In the warm season, Panhandle Archaic people harvested mussels or "freshwater clams" from the Ohio River to feed their families. Shell studies show that most mussels found at East Steubenville are shallow water varieties. Colonies of these mussels could be found on the river bottom, growing in clusters on gravel bars. In summer months, the river ran low, and one could simply wade into the shallows below the ridge to collect these shellfish by hand.

Shells of other mussel species found at the East Steubenville site typically inhabit deep waters of large rivers. Perhaps these varieties were harvested only in the driest summers, when the Ohio River was at its lowest ebb.

Freshwater mussels are bivalve mollusks; once collected, steaming or roasting would have caused their shells to open, making them easier to eat (species shown: elephantear [Elliptio crassidens]) (photo courtesy University of Tennessee Press).

Carried back to camp in skins or baskets, mussels were steamed or roasted before eating. Because they could be collected at the same river bottom locations year after year, these shellfish provided a secure food source for the Panhandle Archaic people.


As summer drew to a close and days shortened, Native Americans at East Steubenville anticipated harvests of wild fruits, seeds, and nuts. Carbonized plant remains found at the East Steubenville site show that nuts were an especially important fall food source for the Panhandle Archaic Americans. Groves of productive hickory trees probably grew in the valley bottoms below the site.

Groves of hickory and other nut-bearing trees were probably found in valley bottoms below the East Steubenville site. (Photo courtesy Ohio Department of Natural Resources) Shagbark hickory, so named for the appearance of its bark, produces a sweet-tasting nut.

Individual hickory nuts grow inside segmented hulls suspended from tree branches (Photo courtesy Forestry Images).

Then as now, nut hulls on hickory trees fell to the ground in October. Drying on the ground, each hull turned brown and split open, exposing the nut inside. Then, there was an urgency to collect this harvest before it was consumed by squirrels and deer.

In mid-fall, Native Americans from East Steubenville could harvest crops of hickory nuts in the bottomlands below the site.

Gathered hickory nuts were probably brought to camp, where they were crushed and boiled to separate nutmeat from shell, and to render a rich oil. Pound for pound, hickory nuts were the forest's most nutritious food available, and their fall harvest was an annual rite.



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