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The Oneota Culture

Prehistoric Farmers of the American Midwest

By

Oneota Birdman

Oneota Birdman

Kris Hirst
Throughout the area known as the Prairie Peninsula in the North American Midwest, including Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and into Manitoba, Missouri, and Nebraska, are found artifacts from several groups of people archaeologists call Oneota (oh-nee-OH-tah). Archaeological sites with Oneota artifacts are mostly villages, situated alongside major rivers, and include Grant and Wever Terrace sites in Iowa, the Blood Run site in Iowa and South Dakota, several La Crosse area sites in Wisconsin, and sites in the Red Wing area of Minnesota. Radiocarbon dates for the villages range between about 1000 and 1650 AD.

Named by archaeologists for an Algonquin term for the Upper Iowa River, the Oneota tilled the fertile fields of the Midwest. The people planted gardens of corn, beans, and squash in rows of small hills or ridges. They included some plants we consider weeds today--knotweed and lamb's quarters, for example. Oneota people also hunted buffalo, elk, deer, and a wide variety of small mammals and fish. Madison arrow points are often found on Oneota sites.

Oneota houses varied in shape and size, from a square or oval plan of 15 feet (5 meters) across where an individual family might live, to long rectangular floor plans of 15 x 50 ft (5 x 15 m) and longer, for use by several families or the community at large. Cemeteries were right next to the villages.

Artifacts of the Oneota

The Oneota mined copper, which they beat into decorative objects. They mined or traded for catlinite, also called red pipestone, in southwestern Minnesota, and carved elegant pipes in animal effigies and platform shapes, some almost art deco in appearance. They wove baskets and clothing from plant fibers.

They were wonderful potters. The few complete pots that archaeologists have found are satisfyingly round or oval jars and bowls, with pale glints of crushed clam shell in their thin walls. The surface designs are geometric and often include stylized representations of hawk's wings and serpents, combining elements of supernatural, water, earth, underworld, and sky concepts.

Fortifications at some of the larger village sites, as well as skeletal evidence of violence and physical trauma on buried individuals, tells us that the Oneota spent some amount of time in warfare, perhaps in defending their gardens or settling boundary disputes.

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