silouette of a buffaloThe Great Plains have an extremely rich archaeological record that provides us with information about the prehistoric and historic people who lived in the region. Across the eight states that make up Region 6 are thousands of archaeological sites, both Native American and Euro-American , covering a time span going back at least 12,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age.

Many of the sites have been excavated or recorded by archaeologists, but thousands more remain undocumented.  Archaeological sites can be found on the modern ground surface or buried deeply in the Great Plains soils. Although we know that certain areas such as high points on the landscape and the land bordering river valleys have very high numbers of sites, archaeological sites can turn up virtually anywhere.

Image of a bison skull excavated at the Fladeland Bison Kill Site near Stanley, North Dakota, 6/99 Bison skull excavated at Fladeland Bison Kill Site near Stanley, ND, 6/99
Fladeland Bison Kill Site.  Overview shot of the of the excavation with the crew from the National Park Service Midwest Archeological Center, Lincoln, Nebraska. Excavation site from the National Park Service, Midwest Archeological Center, Lincoln, NE (of the Fladeland Bison Kill Site)

For more Information, Contact:

Meg VanNess
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Lead Archaeologist
Mountain-Prairie Regional Office
134 Union Blvd, Suite 300
Lakewood, CO 80228

Partners for Fish & Wildlife

Information for Landowners & Contractors
About Partners for Fish & Wildlife Projects

Archaeological sites on federal and state lands are protected from disturbance by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and several other federal and state cultural resource laws that deal with how they should be treated if they are going to be affected by man-made changes in the landscape, construction projects, or other earth moving activities.

Archaeological sites on private property usually do not have the same protection as sites on government lands unless prehistoric or historic time-period human remains are involved. Because Partners for Fish and Wildlife projects involve a federal agency and federal cost sharing funds in partnership with a private landowner, the Service is required to maintain compliance with the federal and state cultural resource laws even though these projects are done on private property.

The Service has an archaeologist who is responsible for maintaining regulatory compliance and who works closely with the Partners for Fish and Wildlife project managers and private landowners to make sure the Service is in compliance with cultural resource laws. He assesses the impact that projects may have on the cultural resources and archaeological sites that may be in the project area. He determines if there are any archaeological materials in the project impact area and what steps need to be taken to keep in compliance.

By the time a construction contractor has moved in to a Partners for Fish and Wildlife project site, the archaeologist should have already approved the undertaking. If there are no artifacts or other cultural materials present on the ground surface, approval is given and excavation can take place within the impact area. Even if there are archaeological materials in the project area, this does not mean that the project need be stopped permanently or abandoned. It simply means that a process, called Section 106 compliance, consisting of the sequential steps of cultural resource identification, assessment of significance, and determination of eligibility is implemented. This process can take time, but to maintain compliance with federal and state laws, it is necessary.

If the contractor should uncover an archaeological site or other historic or prehistoric materials during the construction activities, he should stop immediately and notify the Partners for Fish and Wildlife project manager, who will then contact the Service archaeologist. The archaeologist’s responsibility in these situations is to respond as quickly as possible and determine what needs to be done.

The types of cultural resources that can show up below the ground surface range from small isolated stone artifacts to whole prehistoric villages. Bison kill sites with thousands of bones are also commonly found on the Great Plains. If human skeletal remains are uncovered, then a whole range of laws and regulations come into effect; from federal to state to county. The contractor should stop the project immediately and notify the landowner and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife project manager. Under many state laws, the local county sheriff or county medical examiner must be called immediately when human remains, regardless of how old they might be, are uncovered during construction activities.  In these situations, the archaeologist will also respond immediately with the appropriate actions.

The archaeologist is on-call to provide compliance with the federal cultural resource laws and regulations, to work in the field with the Partners for Fish & Wildlife project managers and landowners, and to provide information and assistance with any questions concerning cultural resource management or the archaeology of the Great Plains.

Archaeology of the Great Plains

Archaeologists working on the Great Plains have divided that great time span between now and the end of the Last Ice Age (the Pleistocene) into time periods that are recognized by the differences and similarities of the stone tools, different types of pottery, and even animal bone found when the archaeological sites are excavated. The time periods are called:

12,000 to 8,000 Years Before Present (BP)
8,000 to 2,000 BP
Late Prehistoric
2,000 to 200 BP
1750-1800 A.D.
to the Present Day
<12,000 Years -Years Before Present- Present>
Partners for Fish & Wildlife
PFW Paleoindian PFW
12,000 to 8,000 Years Before Present (BP)
The Paleoindian people of the Great Plains were highly mobile hunters of animals, many species of which are now extinct. Ice Age species like the Wooly Mammoth, a very large type of bison called bison antiquus, species of camels, and modern species that survive until the present, such as pronghorn antelope, elk, deer and many others, were hunted by throwing spears or atl atls tipped with beautifully made stone projectile points. The projectile points have been divided into different types including Clovis, Folsom, Agate Basin, Hell Gap, Cody, and Scottsbluff to name a few.
PFW Archaic PFW
8,000 to 2,000 BP
By the time of the Archaic period, some 6000-8000 years ago, the Great Plains had warmed up and dried out and the great Ice Age was over. Many changes occurred across the Great Plains, and the Native Americans adapted to new conditions that called for new types of technology to continue their hunting and gathering way of life. New types of projectile points appeared, woven plant fiber for clothing and baskets were made, and new stone tools made of ground and polished stone were developed to process new types of plant and animal foods.
PFW Late Prehistoric PFW
2,000 to 200 BP
Through the centuries, environmental conditions further changed and human populations grew.  At the time of the Late Prehistoric, some 2000 years ago, archaeologists have found that the people had replaced their throwing spears with bows and arrows, had begun making fired-clay pottery, and had even begun to grow domesticated crops such as corn, squash, and beans. In the eastern part of the Great Plains, people had begun living in larger villages of earth lodges and did not move about the landscape as they once did. They began staying many years in one place to farm their crops season after season. They made trips out from the earth lodge villages to hunt deer and bison in the summer and fall months and returned to harvest their crops and settle in for the winter. As the Missouri River villages grew in size and increased in number, so did the number of hunter-gathering peoples who lived further west on the Plains. Many people migrated to the Plains to hunt bison. Some of the largest known bison kill sites are from the Late Prehistoric period. Bison continued to be the most important source of food on the Great Plains until the 1880's when there were almost no bison left at all.
PFW Historic PFW
1750-1800 A.D. to the Present Day
In the Historic period, Native Americans and Euro-Americans came together on the Great Plains, often in conflict, sometimes in cooperation. From the time of Lewis and Clark and the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase until the end of the Frontier, radical and massive changes took place across the Plains for all people involved. Homesteading, mining, logging, and cattle ranching all have and continue to leave their mark on the people and places of the Great Plains. Even the ranches, homesteads, CCC camps, and other sites of the Great Depression and the World War II eras are studied by archaeologists and historians to understand how and why the people lived on the Great Plains.

Recommended Reading

Wood, W.Raymond, editor. 1998. Archaeology of the Great Plains. University of Kansas Press, Lawrence.

Frison, George C. 1991. Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains. Academic Press, New York.

Web Pages about Great Plains Archaeology

The web sites that follow have a great amount of good information on the archaeology and history of the Great Plains as well as, links to educational features and information on visiting archaeological sites that are open to the public.

Plains Anthropological Society,

Pre-eminent archaeological and anthropological scholarly society on the Great Plains. Publishers of the leading Great Plains archaeological/anthropological journal, Plains Anthropologist.

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology,

This site has much information on Great Plains-North American Paleoindian archaeology and Great Plains Native Americans.

Colorado Historical Society - Colorado Office of Archaeology & Historic Preservation,

State of Colorado web page covering the prehistory, history, and cultural resources of Colorado.

Montana Historical Society,

This site has information on the archaeology and history of Montana. It is the oldest historical society in the West, founded in 1865.

Nebraska State Historical Society,

Official state web page covering all aspects of Nebraska prehistory and history.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, North Dakota,

National Park Service web page of the historic and prehistoric Hidatsa/Mandan earthlodge village that was the home of Sakakawea. Information on the annual Northern Plains Indian Culture Fest held during the fourth weekend in July.

South Dakota State Historical Society,

Official state web site with much information about South Dakota prehistory and many links to other informative sites about South Dakota archaeology.

University of South Dakota - Department of Anthropology,

Informative web page on the environment and prehistory of the Great Plains covering the time span from 10,000 B.C. to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

University of Wyoming - Department of Anthropology and the George C. Frison Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology,

Numerous web pages and links to information on the archaeology of the High Plains exist and can be found via various search engines.