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Cactus Hill

Historic Sites, Monuments, Landmarks, and Public Art (State Historical Landmark)


Cactus Hill is an archaeological site in southeastern Virginia, United States located on sand dunes above the Nottoway River about 45 miles south of Richmond. The site receives its name from the prickly pear cacti that can be found growing abundantly on-site in the sandy soil. Cactus Hill is one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Americas.

Current picture of the environment.
Map of location in Nottoway County VA. Just off of the river.
Clovis Point, commonly found during excavation.


Cactus Hill is one of the oldest and most well-dated archaeological sites in the Americas, with the earliest human occupations dating to between 18,000 and 20,000 years ago. It also contains one of the most complete stratified prehistoric archaeological sequences yet discovered in Virginia.

The Cactus Hill site is on a stable, loamy sand hill consisting of mostly wind-deposited sand and silt derived from the adjacent Nottoway River floodplain, which is to the north and west. The current river channel runs north to south; however, that appears to be a function of geological processes that took place approximately 12,900–11,500 years ago, during what scientists call the Younger-Dryas cold reversal, or the last major cold period of the Wisconsin glaciation. During the site's earliest human occupations—dating to between 18,000 and 20,000 years ago—the river channel appears to have flowed from west to east immediately adjacent to the older parts of the site, which is currently located approximately 1,000 feet east of the modern river channel. Those early human occupation levels are covered by about three feet of loamy sand.

Although a sandy soil might be thought of as being relatively unstable for the preservation of strata, or layers of materials that archaeologists can date to different periods, the Cactus Hill site has nevertheless produced eleven types of evidence that support such early dating. These include:

Many of the above lines of evidence could have alternative explanations, but the simplest explanation for each taken in isolation and all taken together is that they support Cactus Hill's pre-Clovis occupation, dating 18,000–20,000 years ago. It is statistically unlikely that all or most of the lines of evidence have been misinterpreted by multiple archaeologists and other scientists who have evaluated the data.

  • (1) temporally diagnostic artifacts (like points and pottery) consistently in appropriate stratigraphic relationships;
  • (2) stone tool types stratigraphically consistent between cultural levels;
  • (3) stone raw materials stratigraphically consistent between cultural levels;
  • (4) isolated stone hearths confined within cultural levels;
  • (5) cross-mended artifacts within cultural levels (i.e., pieces of the same broken artifact that can be fitted back together);
  • (6) radiocarbon dates consistent with the artifacts and stratigraphy;
  • (7) corroborating soil dates (optically stimulated luminescence or OSL date) also consistent with the artifacts and stratigraphy;
  • (8) soil chemistry (phosphorus) content consistent with stratigraphically separated, human occupation levels;
  • (9) phytolith (grass "fossil") distributions consistent with discrete, stratigraphic human occupations;
  • (10) soil strata consistent with minimal vertical and horizontal disturbance; and
  • (11) replication of (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), and (10) in more than one part of the site.


Johnson, M. F. Cactus Hill Archaeological Site. (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

railroad bed road
sussex, va 23830
Phone Number
  • Agriculture and Rural History
  • Cultural History
  • Ethnic History and Immigration
  • Native American History
  • Natural History Museums
  • Western/National Expansion
This location was created on 2015-11-17 by Samantha Mitchell .   It was last updated on 2015-11-18 by Samantha Mitchell .

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