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Kansas Archeology

Archeology is the scientific study of cultures and people of the past. By examining the things those people left behind, archeologists attempt to determine what happened in the past. They do this by finding sites of past human activity, systematically excavating them, and carefully studying the recovered materials.

Kansas' Past

In the remote past, Kansas was covered by seas, and much of its present landscape derives from the rock formations that developed at that time. The area eventually evolved into a plains or prairie region, with forests confined mainly to stream courses. People first came to Kansas some 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, during the last of the Ice Age. Although the state was not glaciated at that time, the climate was cooler and less seasonal than today. Huge animals such as mammoth and mastodon roamed the area until a gradual warming trend brought an end to the Ice Age, and mass extinctions occurred around 10,000 years ago.

Paleoindian Period
11,000 to 7,000 BCE

The earliest inhabitants of Kansas were descended from Asian immigrants who entered North America by crossing into Alaska. No one knows the exact date of their arrival in Kansas, but it is certain that they were here some 11,000 years ago. These early groups are known as Paleoindians. Nomadic hunter-gathers, they hunted big game animals and supplemented their diet with berries, seeds, roots, small animals, clams, and other such foods. Paleoindians used spears tipped with large chipped stone projectile points. Points of this kind have been found in all parts of Kansas, indicating that Paleoindians were no strangers to the area.

Archaic Period
7,000 BCE to CE 1

During the early part of the Archaic, Kansas experienced a continuation of the warming trend that ended the Ice Age. The warming peaked around 7,000 years ago and greatly decreased the availability of big game animals. Indians adapted by shifting to the hunting of small game and increasing their use of plant foods. People became less nomadic, focusing more on local resources. Settlements became more permanent, and populations increased. Grinding slabs, used to grind seeds into meal, became a common feature of the Archaic household. As early as 5,5000 years ago, people began to experiment with the making of ceramic objects. Chipped stone tools came to be made in a variety of specialized shapes and sizes. The use of atlatls, or spear throwers, became common.

Early Ceramic Period
CE 1-1000

The Early Ceramic period was marked by great changes in social systems, subsistence practices, and technology. One of the most notable changes involved the widespread making of pottery vessels. Chipped stone tools continued to be made in a variety of shapes and sizes, but projectile points became smaller as the bow and arrow began to replace the atlatl. Food came mainly from hunting and gathering. Toward the latter part of the Woodland period, agriculture began with the cultivation of local plants and the introduction of tropical cultigens such as corn. Other notable changes included an emphasis on ceremonial burial and the building of burial mounds, especially in the eastern and northern parts of the state. Many of the changes that occurred in Kansas were derived from the dynamic "Hopewell" cultures of the Eastern Woodlands. Hopewellian immigration into Kansas also apparently occurred, especially along the Missouri River.

Middle Ceramic Period
CE 1000-1500

During this period most of the state's inhabitants shifted to a dual economy, based on bison hunting and the cultivation of corn, squash, and beans, supplemented by small-scale hunting and gathering of wild foods. Use of the bow and arrow became widespread, although the atlatl still saw limited use. Ceramic technology advanced, with changes in the clay and vessel form resulting in better pottery. Rectangular earthlodges became common in the northern part of Kansas. In the south houses were covered with thatched grass, often plastered with clay. Villages developed; settlements became larger and more permanent. Toward the end of this period, trade with the Puebloan communities of the Southwest increased dramatically.

Late Ceramic/Contact
CE 1500-1800

The Late Ceramic period refers to the period of time shortly before and after the arrival of Europeans in the New World. Sites of this period occasionally yield a few European-derived artifacts, and often contain evidence of trade with the Southwest. Many of the Indigenous American sites in Kansas can be identified with historically known tribes such as the Pawnee, Kansa, Wichita, and Apache. Most of those groups lived by a combination of bison hunting and agriculture, although some groups were much more nomadic than others and less involved in agriculture. The Apache lived by the hunt when they were first encountered, ranging throughout western Kansas in quest of bison. One of the most notable Protohistoric sites in western Kansas is El Quartelejo. The site contains the ruins of a small one-story stone and adobe building, apparently built by Puebloan refugees from New Mexico, marking the most northeasterly extent of Southwestern Puebloan culture. Another significant group of sites are the Wichita grass lodge villages of central Kansas, where fragments of chain mail armor from early Spanish explorers are occasionally found.

Post-European Contact/Historic Period
CE 1541 to the Modern Day

In Kansas, contact between Indigenous communities and European communities began in 1541 with the arrival of Coronado and his band of Spanish explorers. The French were next, some 200 years later, entering the state from the east and forming an alliance with the Kansa, or Kaw, Indians. The fur trade grew greatly during this period. Americans began arriving in the early 1800s, but settlement did not proceed in force until Kansas was made a territory in 1854. During the preceding 30 years Kansas was officially regarded as "Indian Territory." Various eastern Indian tribes-the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and others-immigrated to reservations established as a result of the Indian removal policy. Nearly all of those tribes later moved to Oklahoma. Kansas became a state in 1861; Euro-American settlement increased drastically after the Civil War. This period saw the construction of military forts in various parts of Kansas. During the 1870s the cattle business boomed, and the "cowboy era" arrived as railroads were built into the state.

Entry: Kansas Archeology

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2014

Date Modified: February 2023

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.