At the end of the last Ice Age,
Iowa had a cool, wet climate and widespread coniferous forests.
Paleoindian peoples (11,000_8500 BC) lived in small, highly mobile
bands and hunted large game animals. Their tools included lance-shaped
spear points and specialized butchering tools. They often used high-quality
raw materials obtained from distant sources. Most known sites of
this period represent kill sites or butchering areas; little is
known of other site types. Paleoindian sites are rare, partly because
population density was probably low.
Early Paleoindian points (11,000_9,500
BC) have been found in 42 of the 99 Iowa counties. Later Paleoindian
points have a wider distribution. The best documented Paleoindian
site in Iowa is the Rummells-Maske site in Cedar County, a cache
of Clovis points recovered from a plowed field. Because Paleoindian
sites are so rare in Iowa, interpretations of settlement patterns,
subsistence systems, and other lifeways rely on comparisons to other
parts of the country.
By 8500 BC, climatic change and
large-mammal extinctions helped cause cultural changes marking the
shift to the Archaic lifeways.
The Archaic period in Iowa dates
between roughly 8500 and 800 BC and can be further divided into
the Early (8500_5500 BC), Middle (5500_3000 BC), and Late (3000_800
BC) Archaic. Environmental change occurred rapidly, with the expansion
of prairie and then deciduous forests. Archaic
peoples flourished throughout Iowa,
hunting bison, deer, elk, and smaller animals, and gathering many
types of plants. Their habitation sites included long and short
term base camps as well as resource procurement camps.
Excavations near Cherokee, Iowa,
revealed that Early Archaic bands were small and maintained a seasonal
round of resource exploitation. During the Middle Archaic, environmental
conditions became increasingly warm and arid, leading to settlement
near reliable water sources.
The Late Archaic in Iowa saw a return
to moister conditions, accompanied by overall population increase
and the exploitation of previously unoccupied areas. Similar hunting
and gathering patterns were spread over broad areas. Artifact styles
also were similar over broad regions and trading networks were widespread.
Greater environmental stability and diversity supported expanded
populations and allowed a more sedentary way of life.
Ground stone tools, made by pecking
and abrading igneous and metamorphic rocks, were added to the tool
kit. Tool types included grooved axes, nutting stones, manos, metates,
and others. These tools were used in pounding, grinding, crushing,
and chopping activities in plant processing.
A few Archaic burial sites have
been found. Large cemeteries indicate the attainment of greater
population densities and sedentary lifeways over time.
The Woodland period in Iowa can
be divided into the Early (800_200 BC), Middle (200 BC_AD 300),
and Late (AD 300_1200) Woodland. Early in this period, the climate
and landforms had stabilized to resemble those of today, and vegetation
patterns became much like the forest-prairie mix encountered by
nineteenth-century settlers. So although environmental changes drove
the transition from the Paleoindian to the Archaic period, cultural
changes were responsible for the transition from Archaic to Woodland.
The Woodland period
saw major technological, economic, and social developments. The
use of pottery, the bow and arrow, plant domestication and cultivation,
and burial mound construction all became widespread. Population
grew rapidly, and settlements spread across the landscape into most
In addition to intensive hunting
and gathering, communities were raising crops such as goosefoot,
marsh elder, squash, and tobacco by the Middle Woodland period.
Corn was introduced later and became a staple by the end of the
Bow and arrow technology was introduced
during the Late Woodland period, most likely from the northern plains.
Bow hunting is shown by small arrow points, which replaced large
Social interaction throughout the
Midwest involved the widespread exchange of various cherts, Gulf
Coast marine shell, Great Lakes copper, Appalachian mica, northern
Illinois pipestone, and galena from northeast Iowa.
Pottery production began with cord-marked
vessels, both thick walled, flat bottomed and thinner walled, bag-shaped
styles. By the Late Woodland, pots were more globular. Woodland
pottery decorations were made by cord impressions, fabrics, incised
lines, and punctates.
In the Middle Woodland, trade networks
expanded, art works were more elaborate,
and mortuary practices became more complex. The "Hopewell"
interaction network connected Iowa societies to those in many other
regions. Although widespread trade dropped off by the Late
Woodland, the interaction between groups continued.
Conical-shaped Woodland burial mounds were built throughout the
Midwest. Most Early and Late Woodland mounds were small or medium
in size and relatively simply constructed. Middle Woodland mounds
were typically large, with complex construction. Elaborate, exotic
artifacts interred with some individual burials suggest a special
or higher status. Effigy mounds, in the shape of birds, bears, lizards,
and occasionally humans, were constructed in northeast Iowa and
adjacent states from AD 650 to 1000. The Late Woodland people who
built these mounds lived in dispersed groups, merging seasonally
with related family units into larger social groups. The effigy
mounds were possibly used as indicators of territorial control by
loosely related families.
The Late Prehistoric period (ca.
AD 1000_1650) is divided into several cultures including the Great
Oasis, Mill Creek, Glenwood, and Oneota. Improved corn varieties,
food surpluses, new storage methods, improvements in pottery technology,
earthlodge houses, and greater complexity in social and political
organization were common to most of these peoples. The use of bison
increased for meat, hides for clothing and dwelling coverings, and
bones for tool manufacture. Groups practiced a mixed economy of
hunting and gathering and intensive horticulture. Crops included
corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco, and a variety of native
The earliest Late Prehistoric group
was the Great Oasis, whose sites are found across northwest and
north-central Iowa. Villages were located on low terraces above
the floodplains of rivers and streams and on lake shores. Larger
villages may have been occupied throughout the late fall, winter,
and early spring with smaller villages occupied during the summer
for horticultural activities. Pottery was primarily of three typeshigh,
wedge, and S-shaped rimsand the decorations were applied by
carefully incised lines in a variety of designs.
The Mill Creek people occupied
villages in northwest Iowa and are a part of the
Middle Missouri Tradition. Their sites appear as deep midden deposits
on terraces above the Big and Little Sioux Rivers and their tributaries.
Compact, well-planned villages were often fortified with palisades
and encircling ditches and contained several earthlodges with large
internal storage pits. Mill Creek peoples had long-distance trade
connections with peoples of the Mississippi River valley, including
the large urban center at Cahokia near East St. Louis. It has been
speculated that the Mill Creek peoples moved up the Missouri River
and may have been part of the root culture that later developed
into the Mandan tribe.
The "Glenwood culture"
represents the expansion of Central Plains Tradition peoples into
southwestern Iowa. Their dispersed earthlodges are found along ridge
summits, terraces, and side valleys along the Missouri River and
its tributaries. Pottery vessels are globular forms with smoothed-over
cord-marked bodies and decorations about the rim or collar. Glenwood
people may have eventually moved north and west, combining with
other groups that may be ancestral to the Arikara and Pawnee peoples.
Oneota people lived in most of
Iowa between about AD 1200 and 1700. Oneota sites have been found
throughout the Upper Midwest. Villages were large, semipermanent
or permanent. Early houses
were small, square to oval, single-family dwellings. In later times,
large longhouses for many families were built. Large pit features
were used for storage of food and other items. Pottery differs from
that of other Late Prehistoric peoples as it was shell tempered,
which allowed the manufacturers to create thinner, stronger walled
vessels. Archaeological, ethnohistorical, and linguistic evidence
strongly suggest that the Oneota in Iowa continued into the Historic
period and can be identified as ancestral to the Iowa and Oto-Missouria
The prehistoric period in Iowa
ended at the time of contact between Native Americans and Euroamericans
during the late 1600s and early 1700s. Archaeological study has
revealed much about Iowans of the historic period.
Indian groups whose historic habitations
have been documented by archaeology include the Iowa, Meskwaki,
and Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) peoples. Native crafts such as flintknapping
and pottery making declined as European manufactured goods became
more common. Villages and whole tribes moved often because of increased
warfare, territorial pressure, and trading opportunities. Tribes
maintained their cultures, languages, and identities despite huge
changes in almost every aspect of life.
Archaeological study of trading
posts, frontier forts, early farmsteads and factories, and townsites
shows how non-Indians settled into the landscape. Material from
such sites adds an important dimension to the written record of