The first Virginians hunted elk, moose, deer, bear, bison (buffalo), wolves, perhaps even some mastodons and mammoths. Over the last 15,000 or so years, they developed or imported new tools, such as the atl-atl throwing stick and ultimately the bow-and-arrow, to accompany their earlier stone scrapers and points. They adapted to dramatic climate change, learned to domesticate plants (and dogs), and fired clay to make pottery. They made canoes, floated the Virginia rivers, and even paddled across the Chesapeake Bay to the Eastern Shore.
mud protecting edge of canoe as fire carves center
final canoe, from Henricus Historical Park
The cultural patterns of the first Virginians evolved substantially over time; technological change started long before the modern challenges of new computers and social media. The original small (perhaps just family-based) bands coalesced into organized groups capable of building large ceremonial burial mounds west of the Blue Ridge and in the upper Rivanna/Rappahannock river valleys. At the time of European arrival, one group of tribes centered along the York River was organized into what approximated a political state, with a paramount chief named Powhatan who exercised control over multiple tributary tribes.
The structure of Powhatan's organization was based on more than kinship ties, but it is a stretch to call Powhatan's government an "empire" comparable to the political units in Europe that sponsored voyages of discovery. Tribes paid taxes (tribute) to Powhatan; he was superior in authority over people not related to him. Powhatan had to consider the opinions of religious leaders and chiefs of subordinate tribes, but those tribes were ultimately controlled by one leader.
The Virginia Council of Indians advises:1
Up the Potomac River near the Fall Line, the Piscataway tayac based in modern-day Maryland governed multiple tribes, including the Dogues living between the mouth of the Occoquan River and modern-day Mount Vernon. George Washington built his grist mill on Dogue Creek.
At times, the Patowomecks living at the mouth of Potomac and Aquia creeks were more closely allied with that tayac across the Potomac River, rather than with Powhatan on the York River. In 1607 there was no "empire" controlled by either Powhatan or the tayac. Though both spoke Algonquian languages, there was no Algonquian "confederacy" in Eastern Virginia; Powhatan and the Piscataway tayac did not share authority. They were rivals, competing for power at the edge of their territories.
The individual leaders who controlled kinship-based towns and tribes also competed for prestige and power. Competition was between tribal leaders, and with the paramount leaders too. Resistance to Powhatan's control is indicated by the location of so many towns north of the Rappahannock River. That river was a dividing line between Native Americans long before King Charles I made it a boundary of the Fairfax Grant.
John Smith documented an imbalance of towns on the north vs. south banks of the Rappahannock River (marked with blue line), suggesting an attempt to use the river as a protective barrier against control by Powhatan
(NOTE: North is to the right, not towards the top of the map)
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606
Evidence is clear that "Indians" were living in Virginia at least 12,000 years ago (BPE or Before the Present Era, equivalent to 10,000 B.C.), and perhaps as much as 15-20,000 years ago. There must be far more archeological resources than we have discovered, but four centuries of plowing farmland, and more recently the dramatic urban/suburban development across Virginia, has disturbed almost all of the pre-colonial surface on the land.
The Chesapeake Bay is only several thousand years old, and for 18,000 years a rising ocean has been drowning the ocean shoreline of Virginia. Near the bay, artifacts of the first hunting/gathering camps of the Paleo-Indians and the initial sites of the Archaic Period may be buried under sediments deposited over the last 6,000 or so years. Further offshore, on what is now the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), even older sediments could bury evidence of the first hunting bands to set up camp in what is now Virginia.
The level of the Atlantic Ocean was lower at the end of the Ice Age, with fresh water locked up in the ice sheets of that era. The Virginia shoreline was far to the east, and much of the modern continental shelf was exposed above water.
One day, when underwater archeology is much easier, we may discover a great deal of information about the first Virginians - under the Chesapeake Bay, and as much as 30 miles offshore from Virginia Beach on the Outer Continental Shelf. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources is quite conscious of the potential for underwater archeology east of the Delmarva Peninsula:2
underwater research may one day reveal how the first Virginians lived
Source: National Park Service, Archeology Program
The Native Americans in the Archaic Period saw global warming occur, with major effects on the landscape, as the last Ice Age ended. The earliest Virginians would have seen the valley of the Susquehanna River drown, and watched the Chesapeake Bay form as water levels of the Atlantic Ocean rose. Those early immigrants to what we now call Virginia would have seen the spruce-fir forests retreat to the north, as Virginia's environment shifted towards an oak-hickory-pine forest.
The number of Native Americans in Virginia has grown from the original "first Virginian" who migrated into the state long ago. Today, there are 200 people/square mile in the entire state of Virginia. When Jamestown was founded, population density on the Coastal Plain was only 2 people/square mile, but that was up significantly from the population in the state at the start of the Archaic Period:3
By 900 AD, the Native Americans in the Woodland Period had adopted agriculture and were growing corn. In the Coastal Plain, villages moved to floodplains where soils were richer. On the Eastern Shore, however, fish and shellfish were readily available, and corn farming appears to have been less significant there.4
While 2 people/square mile may appear to be low-density today. In 2010, the US Census determined the state average was over 200 people/square mile, and even Highland County had over 5 people/square mile.
Still, population pressures or simply a desire for greater power were large enough to generate conflicts over territory. Some Europeans such as Jean Jacques Rousseau viewed the American Indians as noble savages, but the original residents of what is now Virginia were not all conscientious objectors. At times, large sections of the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley may have been used only for hunting and as a buffer zone between groups, with few permanent villages.
Perhaps the surplus of food after adoption of corn triggered disputes over control of the storehouses and distribution of the supply. Long before the English settled at Jamestown in 1607, different groups restricted access to land and water by their rivals.
The original Virginians did not live in peace and harmony where everyone just "got along" with everyone else, until the Europeans brought discord to America. European settlers arriving in the 1500's discovered that Native American towns were protected by wooden walls, which would have required back-breaking labor to construct when the only tools were made of stone, bone and shell.
Theodore DeBry's engravings of fortified village of Pomeiooc near the Roanoke Colony, 1587
Source: National Park Service, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
In 1607, John Smith discovered that the Algonquian-speaking tribes under Powhatan's control blocked access to the protein-rich estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay from Siouan-speaking tribes further inland. The Siouan-speaking Manahoac and Monacan tribes west of the Fall Line could not collect shellfish from Tidewater Virginia, controlled by Powhatan's Algonquian-speaking tribes.
Controlling food resources did not come without a fight. The Algonquian-speaking Patowomeck tribe built a log palisade to enclose their town at the mouth of Potomac Creek. The palisade may have been for protection from the Algonquian-speaking tribes under Powhatan (to the south) and the Piscataways (to the north), as much as from the Siouan-speaking Manahoacs (to the west).
Such fortifications were not unique to Tidewater. A similar barricade was also built by those who lived along Wolf Creek in Southwestern Virginia, in a village of about 100 people that was occupied for about 5 years around 1500 AD. Over 200 saplings 3-4" thick were placed in 15" deep holes, creating a 10' tall barrier surrounding a village with 11 houses. The saplings were spaced one foot apart, so vines and branches may have been woven between the posts to block entry:5