The 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
|Fladeland Bison Kill Site. Overview shot of the of the
excavation with the crew from the National Park Service Midwest Archeological Center,
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mountain-Prairie Regional Office
134 Union Blvd, Suite 300
Lakewood, CO 80228
|Partners for Fish & Wildlife
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
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
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
archaeologists 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
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.
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:
to the Present Day
|Partners for Fish & Wildlife
|12,000 to 8,000 Years Before Present
|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.
|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.
|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
|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.
Wood, W.Raymond, editor.
1998. Archaeology of the Great Plains. University of Kansas Press,
Frison, George C. 1991. Prehistoric
Hunters of the High Plains. Academic Press, New York.
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.
Anthropological Society, http://www.ou.edu/cas/archsur/plainsanth/
and anthropological scholarly society on the Great Plains. Publishers of the leading Great
Plains archaeological/anthropological journal, Plains Anthropologist.
Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology, http://www.anthropology.si.edu/
This site has much
information on Great Plains-North American Paleoindian archaeology and Great Plains Native
Historical Society - Colorado Office of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, http://www.coloradohistory-oahp.org/
State of Colorado web page
covering the prehistory, history, and cultural resources of Colorado.
This site has information
on the archaeology and history of Montana. It is the oldest historical society in the
West, founded in 1865.
Historical Society, http://www.nebraskahistory.org
Official state web page
covering all aspects of Nebraska prehistory and history.
Knife River Indian
Villages National Historic Site, North Dakota, http://www.nps.gov/knri
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, http://history.sd.gov/
Official state web site
with much information about South Dakota prehistory and many links to other informative
sites about South Dakota archaeology.
South Dakota - Department of Anthropology, http://www.usd.edu/arts-and-sciences/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.
Wyoming - Department of Anthropology and the George C. Frison Institute of Archaeology and
Numerous web pages and
links to information on the archaeology of the High Plains exist and can be found via various search engines.