A Brief Cultural History of Iowa

Series in Ancient Technologies

Animal Effigy Pipe


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 available niches. 

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 period. 

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 spear points. 

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 LateWoodland, 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. 

Late Prehistoric 

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 species. 

Great Oasis 

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 types—high, wedge, and S-shaped rims—and the decorations were applied by carefully incised lines in a variety of designs. 

Mill Creek 

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. 

(Nebraska Phase)

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 peoples. 


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 Iowa history.