Uncovering Missouri's Ancient History

Missouri's ancient inhabitantsPeople lived in Missouri for thousands of years before Europeans first arrived. Missouri is and was a great place to live! Three regions converge in Missouri providing a rich and diverse environment: the Great Plains, the Ozark Mountains, and the Eastern Woodlands. Large rivers such as the Missouri, Osage, Meramec, and Mississippi provided ancient people with abundant resources, as well as a means of transportation.

What is archaeology? Archaeology is the science of finding and analyzing the things (artifacts) left from past cultures. Like detectives finding clues to solve a mystery, scientists called archaeologists uncover artifacts and then make guesses about the ancient people who left them.

What do the clues tell us? Archaeologists have studied hundreds of thousands of clues from thousands of ancient archaeological sites across Missouri. Analysis of the clues has led the scientists to note several lifestyle changes that occurred over time:

These lifestyle trends occurred over time as the ancient people found better ways of getting and using the things they needed to survive. The MAC Quest Program calls these "better ways" innovations.

What is innovation? Over time ancient people found better and better ways of doing things. In the MAC Quest Program, these "better ways of doing things" are called innovations. Innovations are highlighted by special Innovation Boxes at the end of each of the Featured Archaeological Sites.

Here's an example of what an Innovation Box looks like. Ancient people learned to promote greater plant and animal diversity through the periodic burning of land.

If you're a little confused about the concept of innovation, an example of innovation is provided in a brief story about your 4th grade class.

Click here to read a classroom story about innovations.

How do archaeologists keep track of time? Scientists have divided Native American or American Indian history into numerous periods and phases. The materials in the MAC Quest Program are presented using the following simplified time periods. As you broaden your studies beyond the MAC Quest Program, you will come across many different period labels and dates. Don't be confused by these various dates and labels. Missouri is a large state. Not all lifestyle changes happened in the same way, at the same time across the State. The MAC Quest Program periods and dates most accurately reflect the changes that occured in the St. Louis region. As additional archaeological sites from across the State are added, any adjustments in period names and dates will be noted within the information available for those sites.

Paleoindian 9,500 - 8,500 BC
Dalton 8,500 - 7,900 BC
Early Archaic 7,900 - 6,000 BC
Middle Archaic 6,000 - 3,000 BC
Late Archaic 3,000 - 600 BC
Early Woodland 600 BC - AD 150
Middle Woodland AD 150 - 300
Late Woodland AD 300 - 800
Emergent Mississippian AD 800 - 1,000
Mississippian AD 1,000-1,400
Historic Post European Contact

How can archaeologists tell the age of an artifact? Anything that was once living can be dated using a chemical process called carbon dating. Archaeologists can use carbon dating to find out the approximate age of an archaeological site through carbon dating artifacts such as wood, seeds, and bone.

How can you tell the age of a stone artifact? Stone was never living and carbon dating only works for artifacts that were once living. The types and styles of stone tools changed over time. However, the types and styles used during any specific period of time were very similar throughout our area. Through finding stone artifacts alongside artifacts that can be carbon dated, archaeologists have been able to determine the types and styles of stone tools used during the various time periods.

Stone Tools

Points - Sharp pointed stone tools were often fitted into slots at the end of a wooden shaft and held in place with glue and string. Archaeologists call these sharp pointed stone tools "points."” Points were used as knives, spears, and eventually arrows.

Click here to see how weapon technology changed over time.

Flint or chert was the most common type of stone used to make points in Missouri. The style of points changed over time. Thus, stone points help archaeologists estimate the date of a site. The photo below shows how points were attached to wooden shafts.



Click here to see how stone point styles changed over time. To return to this page use the back button at the top of your screen. DO NOT use the return listed as << back to The Archaeology of Missouri


Stone Woodworking Tools—The ancient people of Missouri made and used stone tools used for making things out of wood. Axes were often made from a very hard type of stone called granite. These were probably used to chop down trees through burning and chopping the trunk. The shape of these axes changed over time. Archaeologists can use the shape of axes to help estimate the date of a site. Below is a photo of a granite axe.



This photo shows how a granite axe was attached to a wooden axe handle.


Click here to see how stone axe styles changed over time.


Another type of stone woodworking tool is called the adz. While axes where used for chopping trees and large branches, adzes may have been used for finer or more detailed woodworking. Below is a photo of a flint adze.



Below is a photo of an adze fitted into a wooden handle.



Other Stone Tools:

Flint hide scrapers were attached to a wooden or bone handle and used to scrape hair and fat from animal skins (shown below).

Flint drills may have been attached to a wooden or bone handle and used to make holes in leather (drill shown below). Like stone points, drills are often used to help estimate the date of a site.


How were flint tools made? Although you can't see through it, flint (chert) is a type of stone that is similar in many ways to glass. When flint breaks it shatters into sharp pieces called flakes or chips. Ancient people learned to shape flint into tools and weapons through breaking off unwanted flakes. They did this by striking the flint with a hammer-like tool, usually made from deer or elk antler.

Tool makers skillfully drove off thin flakes of flint, shaping the tool into its desired shape.


How can you tell the age of pottery? Like stone points, pottery can't be carbon dated. However, through carbon dating artifacts such as wood, plant seeds, and bone found alongside pottery, archaeologists have learned how pottery changed over time. They often look at the way the surface of pottery was decorated. They also look at the materials (temper) that were mixed in with the clay.

Pottery first appeared in Missouri during the Late Archaic Period (3,000–600 BC). Its use was widespread by the Middle Woodland Period (AD 150–300). The following shows a simplified sequence of changes to pottery decoration over time.

Middle Woodland Pottery AD 150300. Notice the indents & slashes near rim.

Late Woodland Pottery AD 300800. Notice the woven grass imprint.

Emergent Mississippian Pottery AD 8001,000. Notice the woven grass imprint smoothed near rim.

Mississippian Pottery AD 1,0001,400. Decoration may have been religious in nature.

How was pottery made? Clay was dug from along river and creek banks. The clay was then rolled into long, thin strands and coiled into the desired shape. Air pockets were removed by gently slapping the surface with a wooden paddle. Often the paddle was wrapped with cords made from twisted plant fibers. The surface was then decorated, and the finished piece was then baked in a fire or earthen oven.


Clues left if the soil: uncovering ancient homes. As archaeologists excavate a site they carefully remove soil one layer at a time. They record any artifacts found at each layer. They also look for color changes or stains in the soil. The posts of ancient homes leave dark circles in the soil. Storage, fire and cooking pits also appear as dark areas and often contain a variety of artifacts. Below is a drawing of the soil stains of an ancient home uncovered by archaeologists at Faust Park .

The long "worm-like" objects with dark dots inside are the four walls of the home. Each of the dark dots inside the "worm-like" objects is a stain left by a wooden post. The large circles near the left wall are pits. The fire was located just below the red semi-circles.


Test your skills as an archaeologist!

Hint: Remember to use the information (points, pottery, soil stains, archaeological periods/dates) provided in this document to answer the questions.

Site #1: You just excavated one half of the pit shown below. Look over the list of artifacts uncovered. Can you determine the approximate age of the site? Can you tell anything about the people who lived at the site?



List of artifacts:

1 hammer made from a section of deer antler

43 flint flakes or chips

3 pieces of flint that had been shaped, but not completed

0 pieces of pottery

1 finished flint point measuring 11 cm in length (shown above)


Site #2: You've just excavated a one square meter block of soil down to the depth of 30 cm below the surface. Look over the drawing of the square meter and the artifacts listed below. Can you determine the approximate age of the site? Can you tell anything about the people who lived at the site?



List of artifacts:

3- burned deer bone fragments at the surface of the large dark stained oval on the left (pit)

13- burned knotweed seeds at the surface of the large dark stained oval on the left (pit)

46 - burned wood fragments from the surface of the large dark stained oval on the left (pit)

1- clay pot

4- identical small flint points found at the small dark stained oval on the right of the smaller dark brown circles (1 shown below)


Check with your teacher to see if you've answered these questions correctly.

One last thing...NEVER DIG FOR ARTIFACTS!!! Digging destroys the clues that professional archaeologists use to learn about an ancient site.




You are now ready to learn more about the anient inhabitants of Missouri through reading about actual achaeological sites (excavations). Check out the Featured Archaeological Sites section of the MAC Program Home Page.

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