A long journey: Iowa’s first humans

Human settlement of what is now the state of Iowa did not begin with Lewis & Clark or the Dragoons discovery corps or the pioneers or even the Native American tribes. Archaeologists believe that people first arrived in  what is today Iowa approximately 12,000 years ago. These people were the ancestors of the American Indians of today, crossing a land bridge into North America and migrating south. Archaeological evidence of human habitation has been found in every county of the state, from the Paleoindians to the Woodland and Oneota cultures.

The first people of Iowa
Many thousands of years ago – perhaps 18,000 to 20,000 years – a migration began in Siberia that would change everything we know about our past.

Slowly and steadily, people walked across what is now the Bering Strait. How? During the last glacial period, sea levels were lowered several hundred meters because massive amounts of water were taken up as continental glaciers, lowering sea levels and exposing land between Alaska and Siberia. Anthropologists have named the exposed continental shelf that connected Russia to North America Beringia.

“From northeast Siberia, people just naturally spread,” Matt Hill, ISU associate professor of anthropology, said. “By 11 and a half thousand years ago, we had people in the mid-continent, south of Canada. All native Americans are derived from ancestral populations in Siberia. This is supported by archaeological evidence, and the genetic evidence leaves little doubt.”

It’s pretty mind-boggling, right?

“Just think about it,” Hill says. “There was a first person who took the first step into Iowa. Somebody took that first step. There was nobody here before them. It was a clean slate. They had to learn the geography, the distribution of plant and animal resources, and the waterways firsthand. They could not rely on anybody else. They could not ask grandma or grandpa. Over time, they acquired information that they could share. We don’t know exactly how, but they shared this information, and these people flourished. They flourished.”

Hill explains that the educational process – understanding the landforms and the distribution of resources – is called “landscape learning.” The earliest humans in the state didn’t stay in one place; they were constantly on the move. Hill describes them as “human foragers” – gathering plant foods, hunting animals, collecting eggshells, and perhaps fishing from the rivers.

Not much is known about the earliest Iowans. “The nomadic cultures didn’t leave much behind,” Steve Lensink (’68 physics), associate director for the Office of the State Archaeologist, says. “They were on the move, and they didn’t carry many heavy items with them. So those archaeological records are gone.”

Later in pre-history, when people began to rely on domesticated plants such as corn, the agricultural fields tethered them more to a single location. By the Middle and Late Woodland periods (about 200 BC to 1250 AD), groups of people were beginning to stay in one place. Archaeologists have found records of trade networks, agriculture, earth lodges, burial mounds, and raised-bed gardens.

Although many people assume that early humans lived mainly along rivers, survey work shows habitation occurred throughout the state, according to Lensink. “There are sites all over Iowa,” he says. “Anywhere you happen to be, you’re probably only half a mile at most to an archaeological site.”

There’s no consensus among experts how many Native Americans lived in the state of Iowa prior to European settlement, but the population at any given time likely was no more than 6,000.

“We have 23 federally recognized Native American tribes that were historically resident in Iowa,” Jerome Thompson (’74 anthropology), former curator of the State Historical Society of Iowa, says. “One misperception is that native people all went away, and they didn’t. They’re still here. They’re still practicing their culture.”


Matt Hill holds an unfinished weapon point from the rare Clovis cache found in Carlisle, Iowa.

The Clovis cache
When the Army Corps of Engineers began building a levee in 1968 around the southeast side of Carlisle, a town in central Iowa, it was thought that a late prehistoric village of about a 1,000 years old was present in the area. So some archaeologists from Iowa State were working the site, including Jeff Hruska (’74 fi sheries & wildlife biology), who now works for Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

What they found was shocking: a cache of artifacts that was ELEVEN THOUSAND years old. Matt Hill, associate professor of anthropology, explains the significance: “There is no older evidence of humans in Iowa than this Clovis cache,” he says. “This is one of a kind.  This is really unique. It’s unbelievable.”

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleoindian culture named after distinct stone tools found at sites near Clovis, N.M., in the early 1930s. Clovis people appeared just after the retreat of the last glaciers in what is now the United States, and they are considered to be the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas.

In Iowa, Hill says, “The archaeological record they left behind is incredibly difficult to locate. These sites are really, really rare. Those sites have to be preserved for 11,000 years and then we have to find them. These are needles in a haystack. We’re very fortunate to have found this site.”

The 37 items making up the cache include 25 unfinished weapon points and 12 hand-held scraping tools for defleshing animal hides. The points are made of Burlington chert, a rock that occurs in southeast Iowa.

Blood Run: A National Historic Landmark
In Iowa’s northwest corner, just across the Big Sioux River from South Dakota, lies the remains of a large Native American village and ceremonial site called Blood Run.

In the early 1960s, when Steve Lensink (’68 physics) was in high school, he joined an older friend in the first excavation of this culturally significant site.

“Blood Run was my first chance to do actual digging,” he says. “We found human remains, pipestone pipes, trade beads, and other historic items.”

“Some of these archaeological features had never been found in Iowa,” Doug Jones (’89 anthropology) says.

The Blood Run site is thought to have been populated for 8,500 years, during which earth lodges were built by the Oneota culture and occupied by their descendant tribes. It was  major trading site from about 1500 to 1700. The location adjacent to the river, plus abundant game, fertile soil, and access to pipestone made this land attractive to Iowa’s early people.

“Geographically it’s kind of a magical place,” Jerome Thompson (’74 anthropology), former curator of the State Historical Society of Iowa, says. “Blood Run is the largest site of its kind ever found in Iowa.”

A master plan is in the works by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Thompson says, to further preserve the site. The state of South Dakota has already created the Good Earth State Park southeast of Sioux Falls.


Doug Jones stands near a Woodland Indian burial site in Yellow Banks Park.

Iowa’s cultural treasures
Doug Jones has a tough job.

Jones (’89 anthropology) is an archaeologist in Iowa’s State Historic Preservation Office in Des Moines. His job is to help preserve Iowa’s archaeological record and to educate current Iowans about their past.

Unfortunately, he says, 99 percent of Iowa has been plowed or mined or logged. “There’s not that many places left in Iowa that have not been touched,” he says. “When you find those places, sometimes those places have been left alone for a reason.”Take this site at Yellow Banks Park in Polk County: Woodland Indian cultures constructed mounds in which to bury their dead, along with pottery or personal items, nearly 2,000 years ago. Projectile points and tools from the Archaic period have also been discovered in the park.

But finding the remains of ancient people isn’t easy, he says. “Archaeology sites are tough to deal with, because most of the archaeology site is underground – you can’t see it. A lot of times you don’t know what’s there. Archaeology is a destructive science; the only way you learn about things is by removing artifacts and digging up the context they’re in.”

Education, he says, is the key to preserving these unique artifacts from the past.

“The hardest thing to get people to understand is that there are important things that were left behind that we’re kind of messing up because of what we’re doing today,” he said, “whether it be mining or farming or industrial sites or even just building a house.”

Agriculture: Changing the land
While clear evidence exists that Iowa’s Indian tribes were involved in farming activities, big changes were afoot when Euroamericans began to settle the state in the mid-1800s.

“You can make a good argument that Iowa is the state that’s been most transformed by European settlement,” Jeff Bremer, ISU assistant professor of history, says. “Ninety-nine percent of the prairies are now gone.”

You’ll get no disagreement from Mike Blair (MS ’78 Earth science), a high school earth science teacher in Des Moines who recently gave an Iowa geology lecture in Ames. “Ninety percent of Iowa was covered in prairies just 150 years ago,” he says. “Now there are virtually none.”

Hannah Carroll, an Iowa State PhD candidate majoring in ecology/evolutionary biology and environmental science, is a paleoecologist – someone who studies the ecology of the past. Her work takes her back as far as 11,700 years, but in Iowa she looks primarily at how the environment has changed since Europeans arrived.

“In 1843, before much European settlement, I see reports raving about how beautiful Iowa is; there’s this gorgeous, clear water, all the game you can find, beautiful prairies, beautiful forests,” she says.

“But within 60 to 70 years we have a very different picture. They’re reporting on all the land that’s been drained, and they’re very proud of that endeavor because it opened up so much land to agriculture. Massive public works projects … have drained the land. And now they say it’s beautifully productive and much healthier for the residents because they don’t have stagnant, standing water. But of course you have accordant losses in ecosystem services and diversity and water quality.”

When the first of the European settlers came to Iowa, the best land in the mid-1800s was in southern Iowa, according to Neal Iverson (’83 geology), ISU professor of geological and atmospheric sciences. “But then once the drainage cooperatives started on the Des Moines Lobe footprint, once farmers banded together, this whole part of the landscape was changed forever. That’s something that everybody should know. This part of Iowa, hydrologically and ecologically, isn’t anything close to what it was prior to settlement. And that’s largely due to the drainage of the landscape and due, of course, to the advent of row cropping on an industrial scale.”

“Iowa is unique in its intensity of its agriculture,” Carroll says. “We have several counties in Iowa where 80 to 90 percent of the total land area of the whole county is tile-drained.”

Jane Pedrick Dawson (’83 geology, MS ’86), ISU senior lecturer in geological and atmospheric sciences, understands why Iowa’s farmland was so sought after by Iowa’s early settlers, right up to today’s farmers.

“The most recent glacier retreated around 14,000 years ago, so the landscape is very young. The soil that developed on that landscape is, by geological standards, fresh and brand new, with fresh, ground-up minerals providing nutrients to help make the soil fertile along with lots of organic matter,” she explains. “In parts of Iowa, the landscape is still too new to drain [on its own], so to farm it we had to tile and drain it.”

Farmers today can thank Iowa’s glaciers for their bountiful harvests, according to Iverson. “The whole economy of Iowa really wouldn’t be anything like it is today without the repeated glaciation of Iowa.”

Effigy Mounds National Monument
No big, splashy national parks exist in Iowa. In fact, there are only one national historic site (President Herbert Hoover’s birthplace) and two national historic trails (Lewis & Clark and Mormon Pioneer). But there’s one very special national monument in northeast Iowa: Effigy Mounds.

“When you go up to Effigy Mounds, it’s like walking back in time,” Doug Jones (’89 anthropology), an archaeologist in Iowa’s State Historic Preservation Office, says. The Effigy Moundbuilders were a culture during the Late Woodland period, according to the National Park Service. The construction of mounds was a regional cultural phenomenon. Mounds of earth in the shapes of birds, bear, deer, bison, lynx, turtle, panther, or water spirit were the most common. Like earlier groups, the Effigy Moundbuilders also continued to build conical mounds for burial purposes.

The Effigy Moundbuilders also built linear or long rectangular mounds that were used for ceremonial purposes that remain a mystery. Some archeologists believe they were built to mark celestial events or seasonal observances. Others speculate they were constructed as territorial markers or as boundaries between groups.

The animal-shaped mounds remain the symbol of the Effigy Mounds culture. The national monument is located near Harpers Ferry, Iowa, on the Mississippi River.


Alumnus Steve Lensink works in the Office of the State Achaeologist in Iowa City.

Preserving the past
Steve Lensink (’68 physics), associate director of the Office of the State Archaeologist at the University of Iowa, grew up in Sheldon, Iowa. As a teenager, he followed a friend involved in the Iowa Archaeology Society to dig, seemingly, for buried treasurer at what is now known as the Blood Run site in northwest Iowa.

After that career-shaping summer activity, he says, it was hard to go back to being a lifeguard.

Following his graduation from Iowa State, Lensink describes his graduate school education as “colorful, punctuated by bouts of alternative civilian service” during the Vietnam War years. He joined the staff of the state archaeology office while he was working on his doctoral dissertation and then became the director of the Highway Archaeology Program. Over the past 32 years Lensink has served as the assistant director, associate director, and occasional interim director of the Office of Archaeology located in Iowa City.

“I never wanted to be director for long,” he says with a smile. “I always want to be able to say that the buck doesn’t stop here.”

Lensink and his team conduct research, excavate historic sites, preserve artifacts, and ensure that human remains are properly buried and that Native American sacred sites are maintained. The office also provides educational resources for the public and manages data on all recorded archaeological sites in Iowa.

Traveling Iowa’s best archaeological sites
Iowa’s most significant pre-European settlement sites in Iowa can be visited, along with several museums, to tell the story of Iowa’s earliest people:

  • Blood Run National Historic Landmark in northwest Iowa
  • Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark, Wappelo (southeast Iowa), one of the best preserved Middle Woodland burial sites, plus native prairies
  • Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa, part of the National Park Service
  • Yellow Banks Park, Polk County in central Iowa
  • Ft. Atkinson, Winneshiek County in northeast Iowa
  • State Historical Museum of Iowa, Des Moines
  • Museum of Natural History, Iowa City
  • Putnam Museum, Davenport



This article was originally published in VISIONS magazine. To receive the full issue delivered to your mailbox four times per year, become a member of the ISU Alumni Association.


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