Late prehistoric Native American migration in the Midwest – following the Bison

In response to a variety of factors including a changing climate, lack of traditional food availability, and relations with neighbors, several indigenous groups in North America migrated to the great plains in the late prehistoric period and changed their way of life to revolve around a new primary food source; bison. Indigenous people living in the central plains previously did not subsist primarily off of the bison or have a mobile lifestyle – archaeological evidence shows remnants of permanent dwellings and commonly found animal bones from small game in a food context, while bison bones were found much less frequently, and those that were appeared to be artifacts from tools, not necessarily food. (Ritterbush 2002). In contrast, two groups entered the plains area in the late prehistoric period; the Algonquians (also called the Illinois) and the Oneota. Both of these groups came from an area east of the plains where they primarily subsisted on different sources of food like agriculture and small game.

Figure 1: Many Native American stereotypes come from the common image of indigenous people from the great plains – teepees specifically are an iconic stereotype of the Native American, when in fact they are only typical of groups living mobile lifestyles in the Great Plains (“Lighting of the Teepees: Illuminating Indigenous Peoples’ Day” n.d.). 

The Algonquians left their previous lands near the great lakes due to climate change that made agriculture much more difficult, as well as a lower human population on the plains. They did not move with the goal of continuing their agricultural traditions, instead, they changed tactics and became pedestrian bison hunters (Morrissey 2015). This change had a massive effect on their social organization – whereas before there would be small hunting parties for small game, buffalo required large teams, entire villages devoted to following, trapping, and killing these animals. This caused a shift in Illinois group dynamics – groups became much larger and more mobile, permanent villages were uncommon (Morrissey 2015).

The Oneota had a similar trajectory – they came from sites near the Great Lakes to the Central Plains, possibly driven by intra-group fissions and the promise of endless bison herds (Ritterbush 2002). Once in the central plains they dominated the pre-existing groups, who lived in mostly small family groups, whereas the Oneonta had the large groups (300 or more members) that were necessary for bison hunting. They were attracted by the lack of population in the plains, and possibly driven by an overpopulation and lack of resources around the Great Lakes. Archaeological evidence of bison remains supports the idea that these groups migrated to exploit this food niche. An abundance of specific types of bones used for tools suggested long-distance trade with more western groups, and findings of those bones in more eastern areas signifies that the trade network may have continued further to the east (Ritterbush 2002). The new resource of bison and the larger social networks that the hunt for bison requires enabled growth of long-distance trade in the Midwest and more complex social groups. 

Figure 2: A map of the locations of Oneota settlements from further east, near the Great Lakes, and the sites they moved to further west in the Great Plains (Ritterbush 2002).

Both of these groups, the Illinois and the Oneota, followed the bison from the Great Lakes to the Central Plains. This movement and the social changes it required created larger, more interconnected and mobile social groups that dominated the region and facilitated long-distance trade. 

Further Reading:

The importance of bison, and their history in North America:

The history of bison in the United States and how the US government endangered them:


“Bison, Buffalo, Tatanka: Bovids of the Badlands (U.S. National Park Service).” n.d.

Bozell, John R. 1995. “CULTURE, ENVIRONMENT, and BISON POPULATIONS on the LATE PREHISTORIC and EARLY HISTORIC CENTRAL PLAINS.” Plains Anthropologist 40 (152): 145–63.

“Lighting of the Teepees: Illuminating Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” n.d. Mountain Time Arts. Accessed October 31, 2022.

Morrissey, Robert Michael. 2015. “Bison Algonquians: Cycles of Violence and Exploitation in the Mississippi Valley Borderlands.” Early American Studies 13 (2): 309–40.

Ritterbush, Lauren W. 2002. “DRAWN by the BISON: LATE PREHISTORIC NATIVE MIGRATION into the CENTRAL PLAINS.” Great Plains Quarterly 22 (4): 259–70.

The Bison: from 30 million to 325 (1884) to 500,000 (today. 2018. “The Bison: From 30 Million to 325 (1884) to 500,000 (Today) – Flat Creek Inn.” Flat Creek Inn. February 10, 2018.

Zedeño, Maria Nieves, Jesse A. M. Ballenger, and John R. Murray. 2014. “Landscape Engineering and Organizational Complexity among Late Prehistoric Bison Hunters of the Northwestern Plains.” Current Anthropology 55 (1): 23–58.

Applying Lidar Technology in Archaeology of Pre-Hispanic Latin America

Lidar is a remote sensing technology that allows archaeologists to gain a better understanding of the geographical features in an area without surveying on the ground. It is utilized by pulsing lasers from a plane or drone down to the earth, and registering the time they take to return (US Department of Commerce, NOAA 2019). This data, combined with information from GPS, can generate an extremely accurate and precise topographic model of the area. It is especially useful because it is able to see through the treeline to the forest floor, which is vital in dense forested areas that would otherwise be difficult to ground survey or analyze through satellite imagery (Renfrew and Bahn 2018).

One region where the technology has been applied with great success is South and Central America. These regions have sections of extremely dense forest, as well as very little information recorded about pre-Hispanic societies, forcing archaeologists and historians to take different approaches to information gathering. While some societies, like the Inca and Maya, are the subject of a decent amount of recorded knowledge, in most other less established societies there is very little documentation. Lidar has proved to be extremely useful in discovering more about societal organization, agriculture, and infrastructure in lesser-studied parts of South and Central America. 


Figure 1. Map of lidar-analyzed site with outlines known and possible features picked up by lidar. Map created by Rivera-Collazo et al., 2021. 

Researchers have celebrated the role of lidar in the examination of thus far under-studied areas in Latin America. One group used lidar imaging to examine areas of Puerto Rico for ancient indigenous architecture. While there is limited lidar data for the Caribbean, open-access datasets revealed large-scale architectural planning, including plazas, paths, and possible agricultural areas. The authors discuss the helpfulness of lidar for this area in particular, which is densely forested and therefore difficult to access by ground survey or satellite imagery (Rivera-Collazo, Rodríguez-Delgado, and Rodríguez-Miranda 2021). This research reinforces the need for more lidar coverage in forested areas of the world, as it provides archaeological information that is not readily available in other forms. Another researcher discussed the use of lidar in the Bolivian Amazon, a region where researchers previously had known very little about pre-Hispanic societies. It was used to penetrate the treeline and two pre-hispanic low-density urban sites were discovered (Prümers et al. 2022). This type of society is harder for researchers to investigate because of a lack of written documents and permanent infrastructure, but the use of lidar can enhance search efforts. 

Figure 2. Topographical map created by lidar of the site Cotoca, a large settlement found in the Bolivian Amazon. Map created by Prümers et al. 2022. 

Many researchers in South and Central America support the use of lidar to discover more about Latin American pre-hispanic societies. The frequency of dense forests in these regions combined with the lack of comprehensive records of Indigenous societies and activities pre-colonialism makes it an excellent candidate for the use of lidar technology for initial archaeological survey. Lidar still requires corroboration, however, so it is not a replacement of fieldwork, but it can be used to narrow down sites for ground survey and excavation.

Works Cited

Prümers, Heiko, Carla Jaimes Betancourt, José Iriarte, Mark Robinson, and Martin Schaich. 2022. “Lidar Reveals Pre-Hispanic Low-Density Urbanism in the Bolivian Amazon.” Nature 606 (7913): 325–28.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials : Theories, Methods, Practice with 303 Illustrations. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Rivera-Collazo, Isabel, Eric Rodríguez-Delgado, and Marisol Rodríguez-Miranda. 2021. “Lidar Inspection for Indigenous Architecture at Caguana Ceremonial Complex, Borikén.” Latin American Antiquity 33 (1): 205–11.

US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 2019. “What Is LIDAR?” 2019.

Further Reading: 

Lost cities of the Amazon discovered from the air;

Lidar reveals oldest and biggest Maya structure yet found;