The Oneota Culture - Last Prehistoric Culture of the American Midwest

Before the Europeans Came, What Was Life Like in the American Midwest?

Bison Grazing at Antelope Island, Utah
The Oneota relied on a variety of products from bison, this one seen grazing at Antelope Island, Utah. Andrew Smith

The Oneota (or western Upper Mississippian) is the name archaeologists have given to the last prehistoric culture (1150-1700 AD) of the American upper midwest. The Oneota lived in villages and camps along tributary streams and rivers of the upper reaches of the Mississippi River. The archaeological remains of Oneota villages are located in the modern states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

What Did They Know of Cahokia's Complex Capital?

The origin of the Oneota people is somewhat of a controversy. Some scholars argue that the Oneota were descendants of the pre-Mississippian Woodland groups who were immigrants from other as-yet unknown locations, perhaps the Cahokia area. Another group of scholars argue the Oneota were local Late Woodland groups who changed their society as a result of contact with Middle Mississippian technologies and ideologies.

Although there are clear connections in Oneota symbolism to the Mississippian complex of Cahokia, the Oneota sociopolitical organization was widely divergent from that of the complex society at the capital in the American Bottom near St. Louis, Missouri. Oneota groups were mainly independent chiefly societies located on major rivers upstream and far away from Cahokia.

Oneota Characteristics

Over the nearly six hundred years of their (recognized) occupation of the Upper Mississippi region, Oneota people changed their style of living and subsistence patterns and as the Europeans moved into the region, they migrated far to the west.

But their cultural identity maintained a continuity, based on the presence of a number of artifact types and icononography.

The most commonly recognized artifact of Oneota culture is shell-tempered, globular-shaped ceramic vessels with purposefully smoothed, but not burnished, exteriors. Distinctive point types used by Oneota hunters are small unnotched triangular arrow points called either Fresno or Madison points.

Other stone tools connected with Oneota populations include pipestone carved into tablets, pipes and pendants; stone scrapers for buffalo hides, and fishhooks. Bone and shell hoes are indicative of Oneota agriculture, as are the ridged fields found in the early and eastern villages of Wisconsin. Architecture included oval wigwams, multi-family longhouses and cemeteries organized in sprawling villages on terraces near main rivers.

Some evidence of warfare and violence are seen in the archaeological record; and the evidence of movement west with a maintained connectedness to people back home in the east are indicated by trade goods, including pipestone and hides, and metasedimentary abrasive rocks called paralava (formerly mis-identified as volcanic pumice or scoria).

Chronology

  • cal AD 1700-present day. Historic and modern tribes thought to be descended from Oneota include Ioway, Oto, Ho-Chunk, Missouria, Ponca and others
  • Protohistoric Oneota (Classic) (cal AD 1600-1700). After direct and indirect contact with French trappers and traders, La Crosse was abandoned, and the people moved westward along the Iowa/Minnesota borders and west following bison herds
  • Middle Oneota (Developmental) (cal AD 1300-1600), Apple River and Red Wing abandoned, expanded outward. Oneota settlements opened at La Crosse, Minnesota, and the central Des Moines River valley (Moingona Phase)
  • Early Oneota (Emergent) cal AD 1150-1300. Apple River (northwest Illinois) and Red Wing (Minnesota) localities are started, decorative motifs derived from Mississippian Ramey Incised pots

Initial or Emergent Phase Oneota

The earliest villages recognized as Oneota arose about AD 1150, as diverse and scattered communities along the floodplains, terraces and bluffs of the rivers, communities that were occupied at least seasonally and perhaps year-round. They were horticulturalists rather than farmers, relying on digging-stick agriculture based on maize and squash, and supplemented by deer, elk, birds and large fish.

Foods gathered by early Oneota people include several plants that would be eventually domesticated as part of the Eastern North American Neolithic, such as maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana), chenopodium (Chenopodium berlandieri), little barley (Hordeum pussilum) and erect knotweed (Polygonum erectum).

They also collected various nuts--hickory, walnut, acorns--and conducted localized hunting of elk and deer and communal longer-distance hunting of bison. There likely was a lot of variation in these early villages, especially with respect to how important maize was in their diets. Some of the largest villages have accretional burial mounds. At least some of the villages had a tribal level of social and political organization.

Development and Classic Period Oneota

Middle Oneota communities apparently intensified their farming efforts, moving into broader valleys and including the preparation of ridged fields, and the use of shell and bison scapula hoes. Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) were added to the diet about 1300 AD: now Oneota people had the entire three sisters agricultural complex. Their communities shifted as well, to include larger houses, with multiple families sharing the same long house.

Long houses at the Tremaine site in Wisconsin, for example, were 6-8.5 meters (20-27 feet) wide and varied in length between 26-65 m (85-213 ft). Mound building ceased entirely and mortuary patterns shifted to the use of cemeteries or burials beneath the floors of the longhouses.

By the late period, many Oneota people migrated westward. These dispersed Oneota communities displaced the locals in Nebraska, Kansas and adjacent areas of Iowa and Missouri, and thrived on communal bison hunting supplemented with gardening. Bison hunting, assisted by dogs, allowed Oneota to obtain adequate meat, marrow and fat for food, and hides and bones for tools and exchange.

Oneota Archaeological Sites

  • Illinois: Gentlemen Farm, Material Service Quarry, Reeves, Zimmerman, Keeshin Farm, Dixon, Lima Lake, Hoxie Farm
  • Nebraska: Leary site, Glen Elder
  • Iowa: Wever, Flynn, Correctionville, Cherokee, Iowa Great Lakes, Bastian, Milford, Gillett Grove, Blood Run
  • Kansas: Lovewell Reservoir, White Rock, Montana Creek
  • Wisconsin: OT, Tremaine, La Crosse, Pammel Creek, Trempealeau Bay, Carcajou Point, Pipe, Mero
  • Minnesota: Red Wing, Blue Earth

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Mississippian Culture, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Several good locations on the web for Oneota information include Lance Foster's Ioway Cultural Institute, the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist, and the Mississippi Valley Archaeological Center.

Betts CM. 2006. Pots and Pox: The Identification of Protohistoric Epidemics in the Upper Mississippi Valley. American Antiquity 71(2):233-259.

Boszhardt RF. 2008. Shell-tempered pottery from the upper Mississippi river valley. Southeastern Archaeology 27(2):193-201.

Emerson TE, Hedman KM, and Simon ML. 2005. Marginal Horticulturalists or Maize Agriculturalists? Archaeobotanical, Paleopathological, and Isotopic Evidence Relating to Langford Tradition Maize Consumption. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 30(1):67-118.

Estes MB, Ritterbush LW, and Nicolaysen K. 2010. Clinker, Pumice, Scoria, or Paralava? Vesicular Artifacts of the Lower Missouri Basin. Plains Anthropologist 55(213):67-81.

Fishel RL, Wisseman SU, Hughes RE, and Emerson TE. 2010. Sourcing Red Pipestone Artifacts from Oneota Villages in the Little Sioux Valley of Northwest Iowa. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 35(2):167-198.

Logan B. 2010. A Matter of Time: The Temporal Relationship of Oneota and Central Plains Traditions. Plains Anthropologist 55(216):277-292.

O'Gorman JA. 2010. Exploring the Longhouse and Community in Tribal Society. American Antiquity 75(3):571-597.

Padilla MJ, and Ritterbush LW. 2005. White Rock Oneota Chipped Stone Tools.

Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 30(2):259-297.

Ritterbush LW, and Logan B. 2009. A Late Prehistoric Bison Processing Camp in the Central Plains: Montana Creek East (14JW46). Plains Anthropologist 54(211):217-236.

Theler JL, and Boszhardt RF. 2006. Collapse of crucial resources and culture change: a model for the Woodland to Oneota transformation in the Upper Midwest. American Antiquity 71:433-472.

Tubbs RM, and O'Gorman JA. 2005. Assessing Oneota Diet And Health: A Community And Lifeway Perspective. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 30(1):119-163.