People Of The Ancient Great Plains

A.The Great Plains, perhaps more than any other area of North America, has come to provide popular imagery of

Native American peoples—clichés and erroneous stereotypes.

B.While it is true that during a large part of the last two centuries there were equestrian, bison-hunting, teepee-dwelling

Indians on the Great Plains, this is a relatively recent phenomena—prior to that the cultural scene was quite different!

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C.Great Plains Ecology:

1.Present-day ecology is characterized by considerable diversity:

a.Drier toward the west (as one approaches the Rocky Mountains) with predominantly short grasses

b.Going east the grasses get taller and are more diverse

c.Local climatic diversity plus topographical variety leads to ecological diversity as well:




(4)Detached mountains (i.e., the Black Hills)

(5)River Valleys (with accompanying trees, marshes, fish, alluvial soils, etc.)

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2.Ancient Great Plains ecological sequence shows that conditions were radically different in ancient times:

a.14,000 B.P. (ca. 12,000 B.C.):

(1)DesMoines Lobe (an extension of the Laurentide Ice Sheet) covers portions of the

Northeastern Great Plains

(2)Coniferous, boreal forest in the north

(3)Periglacial deciduous forest toward the south

b.12,000 B.P. (ca. 10,000 B.C.):

(1)Laurentide Ice Sheet begins recession toward the north

(2)Boreal forest moves north and is replaced by deciduous forest

c.10-8000 B.P. (ca. 8-6000 B.C.):

(1)Grasslands replace deciduous forest

3.Pleistocene Fauna of the Great Plains:

a.Mammoth (first “big game” main mammal hunted)

b.Extinct camel (cameloids)

c.Extinct horse

d.Extinct, long-horned bison (Bison antiquus—later replaces the mammoth as the primary “big game” quarry)

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D.The basic cultural chronology of the Great Plains involves the following periods:

1.Paleoindian (ca. 10,000-4000 B.C.)

2.Plains Archaic (ca. 4000-250 B.C.)

3.Plains Woodland (ca. 250 B.C.-A.D. 950 )

4.Plains Village (ca. A.D. 950-1850)

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E.The Paleoindian period in the Great Plains:

1.Initial Paleoindian colonization of the Great Plains:

(1)Early populations entered the area of the Great Plains at least by 12,000 B.P. (ca. 10,000 B.C.)

(Note—I suspect we will eventually find much earlier dates!)

(2)Main Paleoindian cultures to be discussed include:

(a)Clovis Culture

(b)Folsom Culture

(c)Plano Culture

2.Clovis Culture:

a.12,000-10,000 B.P. (ca. 10,000-8000 B.C.)

b.Most noted for originators of fluted points that became most developed later in the Folsom points

c.Noted as mammoth big-game hunters

(1)Note: hunted mammoth in the west

(2)Hunted mastodon in the east

d.With the disappearance of the mammoth, so goes the Clovis People.

e.Did the purely carnivorous Clovis People extinguish the mammoth?

(1)This idea is called the Martin Hypothesis

(2)One might also ask if they were “purely carnivorous” (Why have we been suggesting for so long

that they were?)

f.The Paul S. Martin Hypothesis:

(1)Pleistocene Big-Game hunters came south through the “Ice-Free Corridor”

(2)They found Pleistocene megafauna (like the mammoth) that had heretofore had no experience

with human hunters

(3)Thus, their lack of fear of humans allowed the Clovis hunters to hunt them with abandon

(4)Clovis people expanded in ever-larger radii from their original point of entry, killing as they went

(5)Thus, Martin holds the Clovis People with the responsibility of causing the extinction of

the Pleistocene megafauna, in particular the mammoth.

g.Problems with the Martin Hypothesis?:

(1)Could the animals have possibly been so dumb?

(2)There are alternate explanations!

h.Pleistocene extinctions—alternate explanations:

(1)Ecological understanding of mammoth should be considered.

(2)Mammoths may have been able to eat spruce (to convert spruce to food).

(3)With climate changes following the Pleistocene:

(a)The boreal forest (of which spruce is a major constituent) moved north and disappears

on the Great Plains.

(b)Thus, the disappearance of an extensive range could have devastated mammoth


(4)Problems with this alternative explanation?

(a)Why didn’t the mammoths just continue north and stay with the spruce forest?

(b)The northern boreal forest is also quite extensive and should have provided enough

food for the mammoth herds

(c)Also, Pleistocene megafauna became extinct in the Old World as well.

i)Were they also as stupid as their American cousins?

ii)Were they also hunted to death?

iii)They also experienced similar changes in vegetation and landscape in the

Old World.

i.Whatever happened, the Clovis migratory bands shifted and became replaced by peoples making even

better lance points—the Folsom.

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3.Folsom Culture:

a.Dated roughly 10,000 B.P. (ca. 8000 B.C.)

b.Folsom Point (lance head): most noted artifact:

(1)Produced using pressure flaking

(2)Points produced were bifacially grooved (probably to increase efficiency of hafting on a spear)

c.Recreate in your mind an environment characterized by:

(1)Lush, mixed savanna

(2)Numerous ponds, marshes, and connecting streams

d.The primary food of the Folsom Peoples was Bison antiquus (that replaces the mammoth)

e.Folsom people employed deception to hunt animals in kill sites—often near cliffs and places near water

(1)Cliff kill sites: where animals could be driven over the edge to die (or at least become

injured enough that they were incapable of defending themselves)

(2)Water kill sites: where animals could be mired, killed, and butchered

f.One example of a kill site is found at the Lindenmier Site (New Mexico) (ca. 8800 B.C.)

(1)Site has two parts:

(a)Kill site itself is composed of heaps of extinct bison bones


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4.Plano Culture:

a.Dates: 8000-6000 B.P. (ca. 6000-4000 B.C.)

b.This culture basically represents a continuation of Paleoindian hunting traditions and becomes

ultimately a transition into the Plains Archaic lifeway.

c.With the extinction of first the mammoth, then Bison antiquus, the Plano hunting focus became the

modern American bison—Bison bison.

d.Plano peoples may have lived in circular dwellings:

(1)Circular rings of stones may indicate teepee-type structures

(2)Post mold rings may indicate earth lodges

e.With the extinction of Bison antiquus we come to the end of the Paleoindian period and lead

into the succeeding Plains Archaic and ultimately later settled village life on the Great Plains

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F.The Plains Archaic period:

1.Dates: ca. 4000-250 B.C.

2.The term “Archaic” implies a shift from Pleistocene climate and forms of subsistence focus toward one

utilizing species more characteristic of the Holocene.

3.”Archaic,” as a new, post-Pleistocene phenomena, then, is a more appropriate point of “genealogical origin”

for modern and historic groups.

4.Where Pleistocene subsistence was basically a narrow spectrum approach, archaic populations began

exploiting a broad-spectrum of locally available resources.

5.Kill sites, characteristic of the Paleoindian period, disappear.

6.Mixed, local economies come to predominate.

7.Localized “Archaics” form the bases for subsequent cultural differentiation and ultimate florescenses.

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G.The Plains Woodland period:

1.To better understand the Plains Woodland, we have to draw upon information relevant to another North American

area—that of the Eastern Woodlands and generalized Woodland Culture.

2.Woodland Culture (general characteristics):

a.They were characterized by a mixed economy:


(a)Maize appears (e.g. at Hopewell Village in Kansas City area ca. A.D. 0-500)


(2)Hunting and gathering:

(a)Woodland-type animals (i.e.,, deer, squirrels, etc.)

b.Villages may be present but appear to have been abandoned for parts of the year.

c.Plains Woodland people were mound builders:

(1)Mounds conical and linear in shape

(2)Mounds’ primary function was:


(b)Not as temple bases as will be the case especially with the Mississippian culture

of the Southeast (later).

d.Woodland artifact material reflects a wide variety of media:






(6)Imitation bear teeth.

e.Woodland artifacts:



(b)Zone decorated

(2)Clay platform pipes

(3)Catlinite pipes

(4)Tubular pipes

(5)Incised tablets

(6)Stone tools:

(a)Corner-notched projectile points

(b)3/4-grooved ground-stone axes

(c)Milling stones

(6)Plains Woodland artifacts were not as well developed as those from the Eastern Woodlands,

but clearly are part of that tradition.

(7)Plains Woodland peoples were probably instrumental as trading partners that facilitated the

importation of western “exotics” into eastern Hopewell sites (to be discussed elsewhere

under that topic).

h.Plains Woodland communities:

(1)Range in size:

(a)Kansas City Hopewellian of 3-4 hectares (7.41-9.88 acres)

(b)Small communities of one or two houses

(2)Probably others were found on rivers:

(a)Missouri River

(b)Republican River

(c)Arkansas River

(d)Red River

(e)Parts of the Mississippi and Minnesota tributaries

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H.The Plains Village period:

1.While the stereotype of the Plains Indian is that they were basically nomadic hunters of roaming herds of buffalo,

even during relatively recent times many of them had strong traditions of settled village life supported by agriculture.

2.While perhaps having some its origins during the earlier Plains Woodland period, village life becomes the

dominant form during the Plains Village period.

a.Thus, village life may be tied with Woodland cultures from the east.

b.Thus also, we should note that village life was associated with the Mississippian cultures:

(1)That made inroads into the Plains in the Caddo area of Oklahoma

(2)That is often associated with Oneota Culture—a western woodlands group found in the:

(a)Upper Mississippi and in


3.Dates: ca. A.D. 900-1850.

4.Plains villages were located:

a.On permanent streams in the Prairies

(1)Dakotas south through Texas

(2)West as far as the prairie base of the Rocky Mountains

5.Plains Village period: General characteristics:


(1)Villages could be large

(2)Settlements permanent

(3)Often stockaded sometimes with moats

b.Architecture involved:

(1)Large, substantial, permanent earth-covered lodges

(2)Homes often had underground storage pits

c.Subsistence involved maize agriculture

d.Artifact inventory was varied

6.Plains Village historical groups:

a.Siouan speakers:



(3)Oneota (to be discussed in more detail later)


(b)Iowa, etc

b.Caddoan speakers:



(a)Note Morning Star Ceremony and

(b)Implied relationships to Mesoamerica

(3)Wichita (had thatch-covered, not earth covered, lodges)

7.A question to consider: Why would settled agriculture have been difficult away from the river valleys on the prairies?

(1)Difficulties of using hoes in prairie horticulture (using bison scapula)?

(2)Climatic changes associated with the Thirteenthth century (i.e., during the “Little Ice Age”)?

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I.Terms related to discussion of PEOPLES OF THE ANCIENT GREAT PLAINS:

1.Big game hunters on the Great Plains:

2.The Great Plains: ecological factors?

3.Great Plains: historical ecology?

4.Great Plains: Pleistocene fauna?

5.Bison antiquus: significance?

6.Clovis people:

7.Llano complex:

8.Clovis specialized on what animals?

9.Paul S. Martin Hypothesis: summarized? criticisms of?

10.Folsom people:

11.Folsom points: characteristics:

12.Lindenmeier Site:

13.A “kill site”: meaning? provides what types of information?

14.Plano people:

15.Plano peoples and architecture?

16.”Paleoindian”: meaning? refers to whom?

17.Plains Archaic

18.”Wide spectrum”: meaning?

19.Archaic: term has widespread geographic applications in North America: general implications of term?

20.Plains Woodland peoples (ca. 250 BC-AD 950): general characteristics?

21.Plains Village peoples (ca. AD 950-1850): general characteristics?

22.Plains Woodland “Moundbuilders”:

23.Plains Woodland and Eastern Woodland cultures: compare and contrast

24.What kinds of factors can account for a “Woodland” on the Great Plains?

25.Plains Village Indians: Plains agriculturalists—really? how so?

26.Plains and spread of agriculture: ecological and physical constraints? what ones?

27.Plains Village historical groups—list some

28.Questions—Why would settled agriculture have been difficult away from the river valleys on the prairies?

29.Climatic changes associated with the thirteenth century (?)



Katherine Bolman, BS, MFA, MEd, MSW, EdD.