Woodland: Potters and Moundbuilders
The increasing population of prehistoric Indians in this area is believed by some to have spurred the development of food gathering techniques and a complex social system inferred as the Woodland period.
From 450 to 150 B.C., archaeologists see a carryover of some of the Late Archaic traditions with the addition by some groups of pottery and earthen mounds.
Thick-walled pottery tempered with heavy grit appears during the Early Woodland period. This pottery suggests a change from the Archaic style of nomadic hunting to a more sedentary subsistence.
One phenomenon generally associated with Early Woodland is the construction of earthen mounds. A typical early Woodland mound would contain a shallow burial pit, extended burials, red ocher spread over the grave site and possibly some crude pottery and turnkey-tailed projectile points.
Archaeologists believe the transition from Late Archaic to Middle Woodland occurred quite rapidly in northeast Iowa.
In the Midwest, a major change in food procurement marks the beginning of the Middle Woodland. Prehistoric Indians of the Middle Woodland gathered among many selective food sources in large quantities as well as horticulture or gardening.
The Middle Woodland culture of northeast Iowa were influenced by the Hopewell culture of the Ohio and Illinois river valleys. Two characteristics that indicate a Hopewell influences in Middle Woodland Indians of northeast Iowa are the burial rituals and the presence of exotic materials acquired through the extensive Hopewell trading networks.
Along with burials are found ornamental copper in the form of breastplates, beads and rolled copper that was worn as jewelry. Obsidian from the Yellowstone area is found as ceremonial points in the burials, as well as shells from the Gulf Coast and mica from the Appalachian region. The source of the copper is believed to be the Keewanaw Peninsula of Upper Michigan. All of these indicate extensive trade network across North America. The presence of cultural diffusion is also possible but not well documented.
From looking at the conical mounds of the Middle Woodland period, archaeologists have theorized that a social class system was developing among the prehistoric Indians. The presence of copper and other ceremonial items may indicate the status of a particular person buried in the mounds.
In most cases, burials of this period are found in shallow pits at the ground surface or on raised areas called alters. As many as twelve burials have been found in a single mound. Some burials are found in an extended position, while many are found as bundle burials. A bundle burial is believed to indicate that the deceased were not buried immediately, but placed on scaffolds in a tree, and were later collected into a bundle and buried during mound construction.
Another burial practice was cremation. The skeletal remains were charred in fire pits and later, the remaining bones were placed on platforms of earth and rock within the mound.
Why build earthen mounds? The tools of the Woodland culture for digging dirt, mostly clam shells and scapula blades of bison, were better for scraping up dirt than to dig deep pits in the grounds. It is also believed that the large earthen mounds played a dual role of being sacred sites, easily found and visited by descendants.
Why do some mounds contain several burials? Perhaps this indicates disease or possible large groups dying at one time. Although this may have happened, archaeologists believe that there are practical reasons for this. If someone died in the winter, prehistoric Indians did not have the tools to dig through frozen ground. If one individual died during the gathering season, it may not have been practical to stop food gathering to build a mound at that particular moment.
The Late Woodland period, during which the Effigy Mound Culture occurs, begins around 350 A.D. and continues in northeast Iowa until 1300 A.D. The Effigy Mound Culture began around 600 A.D. and continued to the end of the Late Woodland era. Although this culture continued to build conical, linear and compound mounds, they are best characterized by the construction of animal-shaped effigy mounds.
The most common effigy mound shapes in northeast Iowa include the bear and bird mounds. The largest remaining bear effigy in Iowa lies in the Effigy Mounds National Monument's North Unit. It is 137 feet long and 3 1/2 feet high. The "Little Bear" mound is visited in the ranger-guided walks at Effigy Mounds National Monument. It is 80 feet long and 2 1/2 feet high. In the South Unit of Effigy Mounds, a group of ten bears, three birds and two linear mounds can be viewed. This represents one of the largest collection of effigy mounds left in the Midwest.
In other areas of southern Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota and northern Illinois, effigy mounds in the shape of lynx, panther, bison, water birds, eagles, lizards and turtle mounds can be found. In Wisconsin, a "man mound" exists, which may actually be a fork-tailed bird.
Burials in effigy mounds are less common than previous mound types. Some anthropologists view the effigies not as burial sites, but as ceremonial places. As the population of the Woodland Indians increased, a sense of harmony and balance needed to be maintained with the food resources of the area. They go on to speculate that mound building may have been part of a ritual, using the animal spirit to ensure a consistent and regular food supply.
Other theories revolve around the effigies representation of clans of people living in this area, symbolizing a particular totem of a specific group of Woodland Indians. More recent theories have attempted to show the connection between mounds and astronomical phenomena, such as calendars or timepieces.
Typical artifacts of the Late Woodland period include triangular points. The small projectile points indicate the bow and arrow had been introduced and widely accepted (400 A.D.). A type of pottery called Madison-ware wall fabric impressed is associated with Late Woodland Indians.
During the warmer seasons, the Woodland Indians continued to use campsites near the rivers and marshes, where they gathered clams, mussels, catfish, wild rice, potatoes and acorns for food. Small bark-covered huts served as temporary shelters during this time.
As the rivers froze and food resources dwindled during the winter, the Woodland Indians of this area moved up into numerous valleys and used rockshelters for protection from harsh weather. The sediments in the base of rockshelters often contain the charcoal, bones of animals, and pottery left by these prehistoric Indians. Petroglyphs, or rock art, are associated with prehistoric Indians "using" these rockshelters. Images of animals on rockshelter walls may have been symbolic of the relationship of the early people with their environment. One archaeologist indicated that some petroglyphs may have been the sites of "vision quests" or spiritual renewal.
Around 1300 A.D., effigy moundbuilding in northeast Iowa ended. Although it is not believed that the Woodland culture vanished or left the area, many of their food gathering and moundbuilding practices changed. The most commonly accepted explanation deals with the influx of a new tradition from the Mississippian culture known as the Oneota.
Oneota: Farmers and Village Dwellers
Around the same time that moundbuilding ended in the area (1250 A.D.), evidence of a new culture became evident in the archaeological record along the Mississippi River valley. Oneota refers to the Indian name for the Upper Iowa River in northeast Iowa. Major occupation sites have been discovered near LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and along the Mississippi River south to the present monument. Many archaeologists believe the Oneota are of Mississippian origin, possibly from the Cahokia site near the present-day city of St. Louis.
Oneota pottery contains clay tempered with crushed mussel shells. The surface is found to contain incising, and the pots usually have handles which make them distinguishable from Woodland type pottery.
The Oneota were farmers who raised corn, beans and squash in the rich terrace soils along the river. They lived in permanent village sites where they built longhouses out of wood. The decomposed remains of a longhouse discovered in an archaeological dig site near LaCrosse measured 110 feet long. In the floor of the buildings were located storage chambers for food. Some of these storage chambers were later used as refuse pits which contained valuable archaeological information about the Oneota people.
The Oneota also used pipestone from southwest Minnesota to make pipes and tablets. The tablets were used to record images of the Oneota spirit world. The New Albin tablet is on display at the visitor center at Effigy Mounds National Monument. Around 1600 A.D., the archaeological record indicates that the Oneota left this region. Increasing pressure from European settlement in the east caused a migration of eastern tribes to the midwest. Competition for hunting and space are believed to be the major causes for the Oneota migration that occurred just before exploration of the region.
The early settlers of the plains in present-day Iowa found a group of big-game hunters who hunted bison and called themselves the Iowa Indians. The Iowa Indians are believed to be the descendants of the Oneota.
The rich forests, prairies and riverbottoms were used by prehistoric Indians for over 10 thousand years. Today we know relatively little about these people. We can appreciated the relationship these cultures had with their environment. We can walk in their pathways and sense the harmony of this interesting place.