Oneota

by Rich Fishel 
© Copyright 1996 The University of Iowa. All rights reserved. 

The archaeological term "Oneota'' can be traced back to the early 1900s when Charles Keyes referred to ceramics found by Ellison Orr in northeastern Iowa along the Upper Iowa River, formerly called the Oneota River, as Oneota. Most archaeologists now use Oneota to refer to several post-Woodland groups living on the Prairie Peninsula that appeared about A.D. 1000 and continued there until the Historic period (ca. A.D. 1650). Traits determined to be Oneota are found throughout the Upper Midwest of the United States and extend into Canada. The most diagnostic trait of an Oneota population is probably the shell-tempered globular jar with a constricted orifice and a rounded bottom. Shoulder decoration often includes geometric patterns comprised of trailed lines, which are sometimes bordered by punctatesChevrons and variations of the chevron theme appear to have been a common ceramic decorative motif during some time periods. Other artifacts common to Oneota, not all of which are unique to the culture, include: bone tools, most noticeably the bison scapula hoe and deer mandible sickle; small, unnotched triangular arrow points; end scrapers; sandstone abraders; mauls; catlinite disc and elbow pipes; and village areas marked by an abundance of storage pits. Houses were quite variable in shape, and include ovals, squares, and long rectangles. 

No one knows for sure just where the Oneota people came from. Some researchers have suggested that the Oneota resulted from a migration of people from the largest Native American city north of Mexico, Cahokia, which is located near present day East St. Louis, Illinois. Others have suggested that Late Woodland groups already living in the Upper Mississippi Valley evolved into the Oneota. Only more research will answer this puzzling question. 

In Iowa, the Oneota culture complex has been broken down into four phases based upon the area of the state in which they are found: (1) the Orr phase in the northeast and possibly northwest Iowa, (2) the Correctionville phase in northwest Iowa, (3) the Moingona phase in central Iowa, and (4) the Burlington phase in southeast Iowa. Some of the larger Oneota sites in Iowa that have had recent excavations on them include the Blood Run site in Lyon County, the Dixon site in Woodbury County, the Christenson site in Polk County, and the Wever site in Lee County. 

The Oneota practiced a mixed economy, relying on agriculture, plant gathering, and hunting for their subsistence. While maize (corn) was heavily relied upon, squash, beans, and some plants now considered as weeds, such as amaranth (pigweed) and chenopodium (goosefoot), were also important dietary items. The two main sources of meat include bison and deer, with elk, many varieties of birds and fish, and sometimes even dogs, also being eaten. Evidence suggests that some villages were abandoned for seasonal bison hunts which may have taken place once or twice a year. 

The Oneota stored their perishable food items, as well as some personal items, in large bell-shaped pits dug into the ground. These storage pits were often lined with grass and covered with wooden logs and deer or bison hides. Dirt was then piled on top of the wood and skins to hide the location of each pit and to keep dogs and other scavenging animals from digging into them. These bell-shaped pits, when found by an archaeologist, can provide a wealth of information regarding the lifestyle of the Oneota. 

Whatever became of the Oneota? In Iowa, evidence suggests that the Oneota became the Historic tribes of the Otoe, Ioway, and Missouria Indians. As can be seen from this listing of tribes, the state of Iowa takes its name from an Indian tribe whose ancestors are Oneota Indians. These later sites are marked by the presence of such European trade items as glass beads and brass and silver jewelry. 

Suggested Readings

Green, William (editor)
1995 Oneota Archaeology: Past, Present, and Future. Office of the State Archaeologist, Report No. 20. The University of Iowa, Iowa City

The Wisconsin Archeologist, Vol. 75, No. 3-4. The Wisconsin Archaeological Society, Milwaukee.