116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
While sauntering across a gravely draw, an odd object caught our eyes.
It was a carefully crafted stone tool, but we had no idea what it was. As we ran our hands over it's smooth sides and sharp edge, it was impossible to not wonder. Who made it? When was it crafted and why did someone lose or abandon it?
A visit to the Iowa Archeologist's office helped answer a few questions. It was a scraping tool made of chert, a common Iowa rock, dating back to the Archaic Period around 4,500 years ago.
Why it was abandoned remained a mystery, but the area where we'd found it had been a village occupied for hundreds of years.
The discovery inspired us to learn more about America's history before Columbus made landfall. Our quest took us to archaeological sites in Iowa and beyond and inspired reading about prehistory.
During this bitter winter, we purchased one of 'The Great Courses” called 'Ancient Civilizations of North America” and have enjoyed a lecture every evening taught by archaeologist Edwin Barnhart.
We learned what we were taught in 1950s era history class missed the mark. Classes told us North America before Columbus was sparsely populated by bands of stone age people living primitive lifestyles.
That was partly true. European diseases and invasions in the 128 years between Columbus and the pilgrims devastated Native culture in the east. The pilgrims stepped ashore in a place where European diseases had recently killed thousands of people.
We think of coronavirus as a vicious plague. It is, but so far has killed less than 1 percent of Americans. Imagine a plague that quickly kills nearly everyone, leaving only scattered survivors. That happened along the east coast.
To add to Native trauma before the pilgrims, Hernando de Soto tore through the American southeast spreading disease, burning towns, taking slaves and stealing food.
Modern Iowans often consider our history to have started about 200 years ago as settlers crossed the Mississippi River and steamrollered change that transformed Iowa from wilderness to modern society. Most have only a hazy idea of what our state was like before it became Iowa.
After huffing and puffing our way up a steep trail at Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa, we rested beside a long earthen mound with a majestic view of the Mississippi River beyond and below us. An aura of wonder overcame us. We could sense the presence of the people who once lived here.
Many labored without machinery or even metal shovels to create massive mounds long before Columbus. Thousands of baskets of dirt were dug, moved and deposited to make the mound where we sat. Later, we learned thousands, perhaps millions, of mounds were built by Native people throughout the Mississippi Valley and beyond.
The effort wasn't random. Building them required meticulous planning, leadership and the cooperation of hundreds of people. Hardly the primitive savages we learned about, the mound builders were sophisticated, educated, populous and ambitious.
The Effigies at the National Monument were built between 1,300 and 700 years ago. That seems like a long time ago, but it's barely yesterday in Iowa's human history.
About a decade ago, mammoth bones were discovered and excavated in Mahaska County. These wild elephants - along with giant sloths, camels, saber tooth tigers and other giant mammals - lived in Iowa for thousands of years. No doubt some trod where future Cedar Rapids and Iowa City residents now live.
As the great Wisconsin glacier melted from its peak about 19.000 years ago, people walked across what is today the bed of the Bering Sea. So much water was then frozen in glacial ice that sea level was hundreds of feet lower than today, enabling migration from Siberia to North America.
It's not certain when people entered today's Alaska, but it happened 12,000 or 13,000 years ago and perhaps sooner. That's a dozen times earlier than Effigy Mound people and about 60 times longer ago than Iowa has been a state.
Ancient Iowans hunted mammoths. Successful and prolific, humans spread across the continent. These Clovis people crafted large stone spear points in a distinctive style. Thousands of years before bows and arrows were invented, these spears enabled people to convert mammoths to chops and steaks.
Either the early hunters were too successful or a changing climate had an impact, but mammoths and most other large mammals went extinct after the Clovis people arrived. Their culture, and the mammoths, are gone forever. Their legacy is the animal bones and stone teeth still being found in modern Iowa.
As time moved forward, Iowans adapted. With the climate warmed and mammoths gone, Folsom people hunted ancient bison, a species larger than modern ones. The Folsom Culture faded and people entered the Archaic period. Hunters and gatherers, they increasingly ate seeds, berries and mussels.
The Archaic period lasted from 10,000 to 3,000 years ago. During that time, someone dropped or lost the stone tool we found. Think time. Archaic people lived in Iowa for about 7,000 years, or around 35 times longer than it has been a state.
The Archaic period yielded to a new widespread culture called the Woodland period that spread over a vast area of the central and eastern United States. People built large cities, complete with sports stadiums, woodhenges, roads and suburbs.
Woodland people are best known for the thousands, perhaps millions, of mounds they built, including many in Iowa. The energy and sophistication of the people who made them filled us with a sense of awe as we quietly and respectfully walked to Effigy, Toolsboro and Malchow Mounds.
One of our most remarkable archaeological sites within a day's drive of the Corridor is Cahokia Mounds in East St. Louis, Ill. Before Columbus landed, Cahokia was a city of around 20,000 people and may have been more populated than London of the time. Cahokians were farmers who also hunted and ate fish and mussels from the nearby Mississippi River. Trade routes radiated out from a town that included mounds, homes, temples, a sports stadium and a woodhenge.
They were contemporaries of the cliff dwellers of the southwest, although there is no evidence of trade or mixing between the two groups.
Pre-Columbian civilization was amazingly advanced until about 500 years ago. Columbus was quickly followed by Spanish treasure and adventure seekers. Hernando de Soto ravaged Native cities from Florida to the lower Mississippi Valley, killing and enslaving people, spreading disease and stealing goods and food. They and the large migration of Europeans who followed destroyed cultures.
Life would never be the same for Native Americans. Victors write the history, so what we learned in grade school was a European perspective of the colonization of North American.
We asked John Doershuk, director and state archaeologist at the Office of the State Archaeologist, why it's important to learn prehistory.
'Knowledge counteracts attempts to rewrite history by politicians and others intent on controlling the past,” he said.
Archaeologists are piecing together information about the people of ancient America. There's much yet to be learned. New discoveries help, but unfortunately many sites were destroyed by farming, logging and building modern roads and cities.
National Park Service Cultural Resource Manage and Lakota Tribe member Albert Lebeau told us that perhaps 80 percent of mounds have been destroyed.