Northwestern Louisiana was occupied for thousands of years before the beginnings of Caddo culture. In the upland areas, along small streams and bordering the river valleys, projectile points and tools of early and late Paleo-Indian peoples have been found (Webb 1948b; Gagliano and Gregory 1965). In the western plains, the makers of the fluted Clovis and Folsom points hunted now extinct types of big game (mammoth, mastodon, sloth) between 10,000 and 8000 B.C. The later Plainview, Angostura, and Scottsbluff points have been found with the extinct large bison. Since all of these distinctive projectile point types have been found in the Louisiana uplands and mastodon bones, teeth, and tusks have been found in Red River Valley, big game hunting was possible in the state. However, no camp or kill sites of Paleo-Indian people have been found thus far.
The oldest camp sites in the Caddo area of northwestern Louisiana are those of the San Patrice culture, thought to date between 8000 and 6000 B.C. This culture, which some students look upon as late Paleo-Indian and others as early Archaic, was named for a stream in De Soto and Sabine parishes (Webb 1946). When a camp site of two bands of San Patrice people was excavated south of Shreveport (Webb, Shiner and Roberts 1971), only their typical points and a variety of small scraping, cutting, and drilling stone tools were found. The tools indicated that they still depended largely on hunting-probably deer bear, bison, and smaller animals-with a gradual increase in reliance on gathering wild plant foods. Stone points and tools of San Patrice people have been found over much of the terrace and upland parts of Louisiana.
A combination of hunting, fishing, and gathering of native foods by bands of people, whom we call Archaic (Meso-Indian), was characteristic throughout Louisiana from 6000 B.C. until almost the time of Christ. In favorable locations they congregated in larger groups, at least during certain times of the year, but did not form definite year-round settlements. Grinding stones and pitted nut stones show that Archaic people harvested seeds and nuts, such as hickory nuts, walnuts, pecans, acorns, and chinquapins (chestnuts). They also made ground stone celts (hatchets) or grooved axes for wood cutting and polished stone ornaments, especially beads. They hunted with darts which are heavier than arrows and were thrown with the atlatl, or throwing stick.
Toward the end of the long Archaic period, by 1500 B.C., the Poverty Point culture developed in northeastern, central, and southern Louisiana. Sites of this culture have not been found on Red River, but there are Poverty Point sites on the Ouachita River and the late Archaic people on Red River had a few items-soapstone vessels, hematite plummets or bolas weights, polished or effigy beads-which may have been traded from Poverty Point.
People who lived in small settlements and made pottery appeared in the area about the time of Christ. Their crude pottery was generally plain and resembled that of Fourche Maline people in eastern Oklahoma and southwestern Arkansas. In northwestern Louisiana, the culture is called Bellevue Focus, named for a small mound site on Bodcau Bayou near Bellevue, in Bossier Parish (Fulton and Webb 1953). The small conical Bellevue mound was found to cover flexed and partly cremated burials, and is thought to represent the beginning of the trait of building mounds as burial commemorations in this part of the state. There was no sign of cultivated plants, although the Marksville people of this time may have grown maize (corn) and squash. Probably, the Bellevue people lived largely as had the Archaic folk, by hunting, fishing, and gathering the abundant native foods. At another half dozen small sites along the Red River Valley margins and on the lateral lakes, small conical mounds show a culture like that of Bellevue. One of these in Caddo Parish also had polished stone and native copper beads with cremated burials. An occasional decorated pottery sherd found at these BeHevue sites resembles Marksville and Troyville pottery of the lower Mississippi Valley.
The Fredericks mound and village site, near Black Lake in Natchitoches Parish, seems to be an outpost or colony of central Louisiana Marksville and Troyville cultures, probably inhabited between A.D. 100 and 600. A few scattered sherds at other sites along Red River show a thin occupation or trade with Marksville, but Fredericks is the only large mound and village site of this intrusive culture in the area. The smaller Coral Snake mound on Sabine River, west of Natchitoches, has burial offerings of Marksville types.
The first widespread occupation of northwestern Louisiana by pottery making, farming people was that of Coles Creek culture. This culture developed along the lower Mississippi Valley, in Louisiana and Mississippi, including the lower Red River, starting about A.D. 700. Probably because their agriculture was more advanced, Coles Creek populations increased and spread widely, up the Mississippi Valley, throughout northern Louisiana, eventually into the Caddoan area of the other three states, and even to the Arkansas River in central Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.
Coles Creek hamlets and villages were on the riverbanks, on the lateral lakes, and on streams in the uplands. Many settlements were larger than in previous times and large ceremonial centers evolved, some of which featured mounds around a central plaza. There probably were temples atop the flat-topped mounds and burials within other mounds. The temples were either chiefs' or priests' lodges, or sacred temples, and ceremonies and festivals presumably were held in the plazas. Pottery was well made and hunting was with the bow and arrow which replaced the atlatl and dart in this area about A.D. 600.
At some time before A.D. 1000, and probably by A.D. 800, the traits associated with the beginnings of prehistoric Caddo culture replaced Coles Creek over the four-state area. The change may have started along Red River in northwestern Louisiana, although others have thought that a group of "culture bearers" entered the Caddoan area of eastern Texas overland from the more advanced culture centers of the Mexican Highlands.
Whether the ideas that are shown in the prehistoric settlements came overland or up the rivers, two conclusions seem certain: (1) early Caddoan culture existed for a time with late Coles Creek; and (2) Caddo beginnings added new customs and traits that seem to have originated in Middle America, especially in the Mexican Highlands and on the upper Mexican Gulf Coast.
The early Caddo unquestionably derived many things from Coles Creek. Their settlement patterns were similar, a culture change from Coles Creek to Caddo often occurring in the same village or even in building levels of the same mound. The Caddo continued bow and arrow hunting, with identical or slightly changed stone arrow points. Coles Creek and Caddo peoples practiced the same kind of intensive maize-beans-sunflower-squash-pumpkin agriculture or horticulture. They both made clay or stone effigy pipes and smoked tobacco ceremonially. The Caddo shared many of the Coles Creek pottery types, especially in the utility vessels, with minor changes taking place through time, as is to be expected. The Caddo retained strong religious and civil authority in the villages and the major ceremonial centers and were organized under a chieftain type of authority. There are similarities to Coles Creek, finally, in Caddoan ceremonial festivities, games, and customs of burying the dead in mounds alongside the plazas.
A Middle American origin can be assumed for a number of Caddoan ceramic ideas. The bottle and the carinated bowl-a bowl with a sharp angle separating the rim from the sides or the base-vessel shapes are likely Mexican introductions. The same is true of the low-oxygen firing of pottery and the burnishing or polishing of the exterior to produce glossy mahogany brown or black surfaces. Decoration of these surfaces was often by engraving after firing, combined with cut-out areas and insertion of red pigment into the designs, and the frequent use of curved line rather than straight line designs. The curved motifs included concentric circles, spirals, scrolls, interlocking scrolls, meanders, volutes, swastikas, and stylized serpent designs. A few curvilinear designs were present in the earlier Marksville and Coles Creek pottery, but they became more varied and frequent in Caddoan ceramics.
Another trait introduced from Middle America was that of placing burials of important people, such as chiefs, priests, and family members of the ruling class, in shaft graves, sunk into mounds or special cemetery areas. Some of the more important early Caddo tombs are quite large, as much as 15 to 20 feet in length and 8 to 16 feet in depth. Many had special sands or pigments on the pit floor, numerous offerings, and indications that retainers or servants were sacrificed to accompany the revered person in the afterlife. Shaft tombs in mounds and pyramids occurred in the Maya areas of Guatemala and Yucatan, and also in the Mexican Highlands, before and during the time of the early Caddos.
Other Mexican traits were the concepts of the long-nosed god and the feathered serpent. These symbols are seen in the Caddo area in sheet copper masks, on carved stone pipes, and on carved conch shells. In Middle America, the long-nosed god symbol relates to the worship of the rain god, Chaac, and the feathered serpent is the symbol of Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan in Maya).
Frog and human effigy stone pipes and polished and engraved pottery vessel made about A.D. 1050. Artifacts from the Gahagan site, Red River Parish, Louisiana. Courtesy of Louisiana State Exhibit Museum. Photographs from Pictures of Records, Inc.
Signs of elaborate ceremonialism have been found in large Caddoan mound groups or centers in each of the four states: Davis, Sanders, and Sam Kaufman sites in Texas; Spiro and Harlan in Oklahoma; Crenshaw, Mineral Springs, Ozan, and East mounds in Arkansas. Along Red River in northwestern Louisiana, the well-known early Caddo centers are Gahagan and Mounds Plantation.
The Gahagan site is on the west side of Red River, almost equidistant between Natchitoches and Shreveport. Formerly it was situated on an old channel but much of the channel and site have been destroyed by river caving. A village area, a conical burial mound, and a small flattopped mound surrounded a large plaza at Gahagan. Another small mound is about a quarter mile distant. The burial mound was excavated by Clarence B. Moore in 1912, and by Webb and Dodd (1939). Moore described a central shaft, 11 feet in depth and 13 by 8 feet in dimensions, with five burials and more than 200 offerings. Webb and Dodd found two additional pits along the slopes, both starting at the mound surface and terminating near the base. They were 19 by 15 and 12 by 11 feet in dimensions, and contained six and three burials, respectively. Between 250 and 400 offerings were preserved in each pit.
The burial offerings at Gahagan included ornate pottery, beautifully flaked stone knives (called Gahagan blades), batches of choice flint arrow points, long-stemmed or figurine pipes of clay and stone, copper-plated ear ornaments, sheet copper plaques, copper hand effigies, long-nosed god copper masks, polished greenstone celts (some spade-shaped), bone hairpins, and shell beads or ornaments. All of these are unusual for this area and show that the early Caddos had widespread trade channels for these esoteric objects and materials. The sources are as distant as the Gulf Coast, the Kiamichi Mountains of Oklahoma, the central Texas plateau, Tennessee or Kentucky, and, possibly, the Great Lakes area.
The second Caddo site where high ceremonialism existed is at Mounds Plantation, on an old Red River channel just north of Shreveport. An oval plaza, more than 600 yards in length and 200 yards in width (about 25 acres), is surrounded by seven mounds of varying sizes, with two smaller mounds at some distance. It was first described by Clarence B. Moore (1912), then studied by surface collections and limited excavations by Relph R. McKinney, Rebert Plants, and Clarence H. Webb, with assistance of friends (Webb and McKinney 1975). At least four culture periods were indicated by pottery sherds. Excavations proved that Coles Creek people established and laid out the site, probably constructing at least four of the mounds around the plaza. A flat mound on the northwest corner; started by these people, was built higher by the early Caddos in what seems to have been a period of rapid culture change. The mound may have been the location of an arbor or lodge where food was prepared and served during festivals or ceremonies held in the adjoining plaza.
Early Caddo objects from Gahagan site include copper hand effigy, long-nosed god mask, round copper-plated stone ear ornaments, square copper-plated cedar ear ornament, and square copper ear ornament. Courtesy of Louisiana State Exhibit Museum. Photographs from Pictures of Record, Inc.
At the southeast end of the plaza, the Coles Creek people prepared a large burial pit, measuring 16 by 14 feet, in which they placed 10 adult or adolescent burials in two parallel rows. Offerings found by the investigators were limited to flint arrow points, bone pins, smoothing stones, traces of copper-plated ear ornaments, and ankle rattles of tortoise shells filled with pebbles. A small mound had been built over this pit, and into this mound later Coles Creek burials has been placed.
Subsequently, the Alto Caddos also used this mound for burials, digging four large shaft tombs and three smaller pits. All but one of these features contained offerings of superior quality. The most spectacular of the graves was a large crater-shaped pit adjoining the Coles Creek pit. It was 19 by 17 feet in dimensions, and was cut through the mound to a depth of 4 feet below its base. In it were the skeletons of 21 persons, from elderly adults to unborn infants. An adult male, 6 feet tall, was provided with numerous personal effects which included a sheathed knife on his left forearm and a well-preserved 5112 foot bow of bois d'arc wood placed by his left side. He is thought to have been the paramount person whose death occasioned the immense tomb, the ceremonial offerings, and the presumed sacrifice of tribal members to accompany him in the afterlife. Part of the tomb was covered with a framework of cedar logs, thus accounting for the unusual preservation of many cane and wooden objects.
Preserved offerings included an ornate pottery bowl, decorated with a thumb-finger cross and eye symbols, flint knives of Gahagan type, 53 arrow points, a long-stemmed pipe, copper-plated ear ornaments, puma teeth, and objects of wood which included knife handles, a comb, a baton, several small bows, and wooden frames. Also present were leather, plaited cording or twine, and about 200 fragments of split cane woven mats, some of them with diamond or bird head designs. A half pint of seeds beside the important male were identified later as purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a plant sometimes used for food by aboriginal people. Also beside the male were four objects typical of Poverty Point or late Archaic manufacture: two long polished stone beads, a polished hematite plummet, and half of a perforated slate gorget. These ancient objects from a time 2,000 years before the Caddo burial occurred, must have been found and kept as venerated talismans by the Caddo leaders.
Finely chipped arrow points and ceremonial polished greenstone celts from Gahagan site. Courtesy of Louisiana State Exhibit Museum. Photographs from Pictures of Record, Inc. Stone knives from Mounds Plantation site.
Radiocarbon dates from logs in the Caddo tomb at Mounds Plantation indicated a time between A.D. 1000 and 1100. In 1983 a prehistoric cypress dugout canoe, 30 feet in length, was found beneath the bank of Red River only three miles north of Mounds; its radiocarbon dating is of the same century.
Gahagan and Mounds Plantation have their counterparts as early Caddoan ceremonial and trade centers at a dozen similar large sites in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. The best known is the Spiro mound center on the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma, where enormous amounts of well-made and exotic objects from the entire midportion of the United States were gathered or made as offerings. Close contact between these large ceremonial centers is shown by the similarity of objects, materials, or artistic concepts across the entire Caddo area. Contacts with other cultural centers in the Mississippi Valley and into the Southeast also are seen.
Contrasting with these important centers, with their reflection of Middle American ceremonialism, organized religio-civil leadership class, and expensive cruel burial ceremonies, there were many small villages and hamlets of early Caddo people. Their habitations, tools, and some customs are known by explorations of sites at Smithport Landing (Webb 1963), Allen, Wilkinson, Swanson's Landing, and Harrison's Bayou along the western valley escarpment (Ford 1936; Webb and McKinney 1975; Gregory and Webb 1965), Colbert and Greer sites on upland streams in Bienville Parish, and the recent study of a hamlet at Hanna on the Red River below Gahagan (Thomas, Campbell and Ahler 1977).
Many other small settlements of this time are known but have not been studied, 30 to 40 altogether between Natchitoches and the Arkansas state line (Thomas, Campbell and Ahler 1977; Webb 1975). They are found in the Red River Valley, on lateral lakes and streams, and in the uplands. Apparently, these were simple farming, gathering, hunting, and fishing folk who did not share in the exotic materials of the complex regional centers. They probably did participate in ceremonies, festivities, and renewals of faith by visits to the centers and may have provided food, local materials, and occasional manpower in exchange for leadership and protection. For the next 500 years there is no evidence of the Caddo being threatened by outsiders.