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Archeological Resources of the Central Plains Tradition in the Loess Hills Region of Iowa, Multiple Property Submission (MPS)


[Photo] Archeological Resources of the Central Plains Tradition in the Loess Hills Region of Iowa, MPS
Image from nomination
Ccourtesy of Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

Changing Dynamics in American Indian Culture: The archeology of the Loess Hills Region of Iowa reveals rich material culture and an impressive number of earthlodge sites left by the American Indians who occupied the area from roughly A.D. 1250-1400.  The period was crucial to the human history of the North American mid-continent because people began switching from hunting and gathering to a more sedentary lifestyle. New forms of food production and storage supported larger numbers of people but also tethered them to particular locations for longer periods of time. In general, people moved away from alluvial valleys to easier-to-defend sites in fortified villages or palisades and bluffs. Perhaps nowhere in the Midwest and Plains regions are more dense concentrations of earthlodge dwellings than the Loess Hills region. The Archeological Resources of the Central Plains Tradition in the Loess Hills Region of Iowa, Multiple Property Submission (MPS), listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 11, 2010, explores the archeological record and property types of the era. For more detail on one site, please go to the West Oak Forest Earthlodge Site.

The Central Plains Tradition: The Central Plains Tradition comprises a number of broadly similar archeological manifestations of Native American earthlodge-dwelling hunters and farmers living in what are today Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa during the 10th through 14th centuries A.D.  The sites are typically semi-subterranean residential earthlodge structures with extended entryways. Archeologists generally agree that three phases of the central Plains tradition can be classified. The Nebraska phase is geographically located along the Missouri River and the lower reaches of the Platte River in Nebraska and also part of western Iowa. The Smoky Hill phase is in north central Kansas as well as south central Nebraska, and the Upper Republican phase is primarily in central and western Nebraska and Kansas and eastern Colorado.


Archeological Resources of the Central Plains Tradition in the Loess Hills Region of Iowa, MPS
Image from nomination
Ccourtesy of Iowa State Historic Preservation Office


Earthlodges: Earthlodge sites are the most common property type within the Archeological Resources of the Central Plains Tradition in the Loess Hill Region of Iowa MPS. One location alone holds between 500 and 1,000 remains of earthlodges. Most earthlodges were found in creek valleys, constructed on ridge tops, valley walls, or terraces. The largest Nebraska earthlodges may have housed about 40 people, which suggests they were occupied by extended families.
Earthlodges were houses constructed of four central support posts surrounded by shorter, closely spaced, outer wall posts. The floor plan of a Nebraska phase earthlodge was usually square in outline, with rounded corners.  The central support posts were usually substantial oak or elm timbers that were charred at the base or set into postholes. Charring the posts may have helped prevent rot. These vertical members supported large cross beams, smaller rafters interwoven with twigs to form walls, and a roof plastered with wattle and daub. Access to the lodge interior was gained through an extended entryway, often south-facing. Large storage pits were located within and outside of the earthlodges. A relatively dispersed pattern of unfortified Nebraska phase farmsteads survive archeologically as earthlodge remnants.  Archeologists have developed various formulas to estimate the number of earthlodge inhabitants based on ethnohistorical and archeological data.


[Photo]Archeological Resources of the Central Plains Tradition in the Loess Hills Region of Iowa, MPS
Image from nomination
Ccourtesy of Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

How Nebraska Phase Peoples Lived: To date, 275 sites have been identified, including 226 earthlodge sites (25 of which contain more than one identified lodge), 18 mortuary facilities, and 44 artifact scatters. Thirteen of the earthlodge sites are also mortuary facilities.  Because several earthlodge sites contain more than one verified earthlodge, the total number of identified phase lodges from all 226 of the earthlodge sites is 298. Through the uncovering of these sites, and a careful study of the material culture left behind, ethnohistorical and ethnographic data, a sketch can be drawn as to how American Indians lived from A.D. 1250-1400.
Nebraska phase peoples and their neighbors utilized or grew a similar suite of domesticated and wild native plants (sunflower, elderberry, bulrush, tobacco, and little barley) and tropical cultigens (corn, beans, and squash) and depended on a variety of wild animal resources, but practiced different types of agriculture and emphasized different kinds of wild resources. Those in Iowa may have practiced an extensive form of swidden (slash and burn) horticulture, where fields are cleared of timber and brush, burned before planting, and then allowed to lay fallow for long periods of time before reuse.  Not too far away in northwest Iowa, Middle Missouri Tradition people practiced intensive field agriculture.  The scale of agricultural production for the Nebraska phase did not involve an extensive land clearance for crops, but it did require an investment in land, such that the level of agriculture allowed for stability. They probably did not move their agricultural areas on a frequent basis, but maintained farm plots for the duration of the occupancy of the lodge, or about seven to ten years.


Archeological Resources of the Central Plains Tradition in the Loess Hills Region of Iowa, MPS
Image from nomination
Ccourtesy of Iowa State Historic Preservation Office


Farming practices had different labor and technological needs, and led to different kinds of people-land-technology relations. Nebraska phase peoples used earth, mud and wood to construct their homes and villages, and seemed to have placed emphasis on smaller mammals and fish, while other groups focused on bison and birds, presumably for both substance and manufacturing. These people used the bow-and-arrow and utilized a variety of stone and feathers to manufacture arrows, undoubtedly used for hunting and warfare. Around 1400 A.D., the people of the Central Plains Tradition in the Loess Hills Region of Iowa moved on, either displaced by newcomers through warfare or competition for resources, or influenced by environmental factors such as drought or soil depletion.
--Above extracted from the National Register MPS Form prepared by Cynthia L. Peterson, Melody K. Pope, Michael J. Perry, John G. Hedden, James L. Theler/archeologists, and Mary J. Adair/paleoethnobotanist, Office of the State Archeologist, University of Iowa

Iowa State Historic Preservation Office

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