Exploring and explaining the “Shatter Zone”

Posted By Bill Payer on Jan 16, 2024 | 0 comments

That was the mission of our first program of 2024. Our guide was Dr. Eric Poplin, VP and Senior Archeologist for Brockington and Associates.

Sixteenth-century European colonization forced Native groups along the Georgia coast and South Carolina Lowcountry to utilize new socio-political strategies to cope with instability brought on by accelerated change. These events ushered in what is called a “Shatter Zone,” an area where surviving indigenous groups were forced to adapt and redevelop cultural systems. Native groups caught in this zone faced changing political economies marred by enslavement and new realities decimating traditional practices. Communities impacted include the Shawnee, Yamasee, Westo, Ashley, the Etiwan and other groups living near Charleston Harbor and the Catawba.

Keep in mind these groups had existed, in many forms for centuries. It didn’t take long for the shatter zone to take effect.

Impacts included claiming land the indigenous people had both fought over and shared for centuries. The English and the French were out to make a buck. Which, of course, included the slave trade. A trade many of the native groups participated in. The Spanish, who were literally making fortunes in Central and South America, thought their mission in North America was to convert the locals to Christianity. The Pope told them to!

Just to complicate things, the English and French had few qualms about providing firearms. And let’s not forget the devastation of European diseases the Native Americans had no immunity from. The indigenous population in the southeast decreased from an estimated 500,000 in 1540 to 90,000 in 1730. An 82% loss. A shatter zone indeed.

UPDATE: We’ve (finally!) uploaded the video of Eric Popkin’s January 16 presentation to YouTube:


This is probably the definitive work on the southeastern US shatter zone.

“During the two centuries following European contact, the world of late prehistoric Mississippian chiefdoms collapsed and Native communities there fragmented, migrated, coalesced, and reorganized into new and often quite different societies. The editors of this volume, Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall, argue that such a period and region of instability and regrouping constituted a “shatter zone.

In this anthology, archaeologists, ethnohistorians, and anthropologists analyze the shatter zone created in the colonial South by examining the interactions of American Indians and European colonists.

The forces that destabilized the region included especially the frenzied commercial traffic in Indian slaves conducted by both Europeans and Indians, which decimated several southern Native communities; the inherently fluid political and social organization of precontact Mississippian chiefdoms; and the widespread epidemics that spread across the South. Using examples from a range of Indian communities—Muskogee, Catawba, Iroquois, Alabama, Coushatta, Shawnee, Choctaw, Westo, and Natchez—the contributors assess the shatter zone region as a whole, and the varied ways in which Native peoples wrestled with an increasingly unstable world and worked to reestablish order.”


And CLICK HERE for a bio of Eric Poplin.

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