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Pottery Reveals America's First Social Media

Scientists have recently studied pottery produced by people living across southern Appalachia between 800 and 1650 AD. The unique symbols were stamped onto the pottery when the clay was still wet using carved wooden paddles. These designs, along with the varying characteristics of the specific kinds of clay used to produce the pottery, were used to reconstruct social networks among these communities.

Pottery As a Way of Communicating

Long before Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and even MySpace, early Mississippian Mound cultures in America's southern Appalachian Mountains shared artistic trends and technologies across regional networks that functioned in similar ways as modern social media, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

"Just as we have our own networks of 'friends' and 'followers' on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, societies that existed in North America between 1,200 and 350 years ago had their own information sharing networks," said Jacob Lulewicz, lecturer of archaeology in the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences.

Examples of the kinds of pottery of ancient southern Appalachia. ( Jacob Lulewicz / Washington University in St. Louis) "Our study found a way to reconstruct these indigenous communication networks," he said. "Our analysis shows how these networks laid the groundwork for Native American political systems that began developing as far back as 600 AD."

The study utilizes sophisticated social network analysis to map social and political connections that helped unite friends and families in dozens of Native American villages well before the arrival of European explorers.

The findings are based on a messaging archive that is preserved not in bytes, but in bits of pottery sherds unearthed over many years in archaeology digs at dozens of Mississippian culture sites scattered across southern Appalachia.