The Paleoindian Period is considered the earliest confirmed period of human occupation in the Ozarks. Distinctive artifacts include fluted and unfluted lance-like points and a diverse toolkit of drills, gravers, burins, knives, and scrapers, most of which continue with little change into subsequent cultural periods. Most Paleoindian finds reported for Arkansas have been isolated surface discoveries. No sites dating to this period have been excavated, but Paleoindian artifacts have been found in bluff shelters and open sites, especially along river terraces and older upland surfaces.
The Dalton Period is, in comparison with the Paleoindian Period, well known throughout the region. The distinctive Dalton point is the primary artifact of this archeological culture, but other tool types are known. Dalton sites have been found in a wide variety of settings from terraces along major rivers to uplands.
The Archaic period is defined by increasing diversity in tool types and a change in subsistence practices. A wide diversity in stone tools, both chipped and ground is a hallmark of the Archaic period. The mode of hafting of bifaces includes both stemmed and notched points. Grooved axes and celts appear for the first time. There are increasing quantities of tools associated with plant processing, such as grinding stones and pitted cobbles. Bluff shelters have been found to contain preserved organics in the form of twined fiber bags and sandals. Significantly, the first domesticates: squash and gourd appear near the end of the Archaic stage in anticipation of the increasing role of food production. Population increase may be inferred from the larger number of sites with Archaic materials, and from the evidence of larger individual site size and duration of occupation. In contrast with its surrounding areas, there is little evidence of interaction among archeological cultures of the Archaic Ozark.
The Woodland Period is defined by the presence of the first pottery, but otherwise is largely a continuation of trends already seen during the Archaic. Woodland people in the Ozarks do not appear to have participated in the construction and use of elaborate burial mounds with accompanying burial ceremonialism, nor is there much evidence of long-distance trade or exchange. Settlement does not appear to have changed much from earlier Archaic times.
The Mississippian Period had limited impact on the Ozarks region. Both east and west, Mississippian people built large fortified villages, temple mounds and cemeteries, and an elaborate material culture with distinctive shell-tempered and decorated pottery and small arrow points. Evidence of Mississippian culture in the Ozarks may represent seasonal visits for the acquisition of specific resources, including chert for chipped stone tools. It is entirely possible that, in the Ozarks, the basic cultural pattern remained essentially "Woodland" while in the large river basin areas to the west and east, the Mississippian culture took hold.
The Historic or Contact period marks the transition from a strictly archeological record to one augmented by ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and historic records. The archeology of this period is very poorly known in the Ozarks. Until the advent of Euroamerican culture was felt here, there would be little to distinguish a protohistoric site from an earlier one. Typically, observations made by the first visitors are used to establish a baseline and to project back in time the locations and characteristics of native societies. At contact, which officially begins with the Spanish entrada in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and struggles on with the early French and American records of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Osage appear to have been the major social entity of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. Later, and well into the Historic period, the Cherokee, Delaware, and Shawnee make their presence known as pressure for relocation mounts. In terms of material culture, items associated with this period include metal objects, glass trade beads, and other items of Euroamerican manufacture.