The End of the Effigy Mound Culture: The Late Woodland to Oneota Transition in Southwestern Wisconsin

By Theler, James L.; Boszhardt, Robert F. | Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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The End of the Effigy Mound Culture: The Late Woodland to Oneota Transition in Southwestern Wisconsin

Theler, James L., Boszhardt, Robert F., Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, MCJA


Research in the Bad Axe River drainage of southwestern Wisconsin's Driftless Area has produced new data on settlement and subsistence patterns at the end of the Late Woodland "Effigy Mound culture." The inferred changes include a move to year-round occupation of small, interior valleys, corresponding to a regional population increase. Smaller valleys such as the Bad Axe are notable for their effigy-only mound groups that seem to characterize the end of the Effigy Mound culture. It is suggested that, with regional population increases, there were shifts in technology, particularly the adoption of the bow and arrow; an investment in maize horticulture; a transition from bands to tribes; and interaction with the Mississippian culture area to the south. Many small, interior valleys of southwestern Wisconsin, capable of supporting residential groups, were filled and defended. The flexible annual subsistence round of earlier centuries was broken, and within decades, incipient tribes would abandon the Driftless Area and nucleate at agricultural centers at Red Wing and Apple River as the Oneota.

The Problem

One of the most intriguing and hotly debated questions about the prehistoric record of southwestern Wisconsin concerns the transition from Late Woodland to Oneota. The predecessors of the Late Woodland effigy mound builders were at the band level of political integration and focused on hunting and gathering wild resources, following a seasonal round, with no documented interest in maize horticulture. The descendant Oneota, on the other hand, were a tribal-level people who lived in villages and used field systems to practice maize, bean, and squash agriculture. How and why prosperous hunters and gatherers were transformed into village agriculturists has long eluded researchers. In this article we propose a model for this transition in southwestern Wisconsin.

Environmental Setting

Southwestern Wisconsin is a heavily dissected hill country. This physiographically distinct region is assigned to the Western Upland geographic province (Martin 1965:42-43). Southwestern Wisconsin lies within the Driftless Area (Martin 1965:82-83), which is located largely in Wisconsin (Figure 1) with smaller areas extending into Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. The Driftless Area, as its name implies, lacks evidence of glaciation during the later portion of the Pleistocene (Mickelson et al. 1982:155-169) and covers an area of 35,000 kmz, about 75 percent of which is in southwestern Wisconsin (Roosa 1984:432). The topography of the Driftless Area is characterized by steep-sided valleys that dissect an upland plateau with dendritic patterns of small stream development. The Bad Axe drainage (described below) is a typical example of this type of development. The narrow upland ridges and escarpments of the larger valleys have up to 150 m of relief. The two prominent rivers crossing the region are the Mississippi, which forms the western boundary of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin River, which drains much of central and southwestern Wisconsin.

The pre-European vegetation of much of the region was a mosaic of prairie and oak savanna, with hardwood forests on fire-protected north and east slopes. Floodplains supported softwood forests and bountiful warm-season riparian food resources such as fish and mussels.

Prior to European arrival, western Wisconsin was one of the finest habitats for white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in America. White-tailed deer have their highest sustained population densities in woodland-edge habitats. This was especially true in southwestern Wisconsin's upland prairie-savanna and oak woodlands that experienced frequent burns (Curtis 1959:461-462). In the preEuro-American settlement period, deer density in southern Wisconsin was 20 to 50 per square mile (Dahlberg and Guettinger 1956:14-15, Figure 1). The mosaic of vegetation communities in interior valleys was optimal deer habitat, where ravine-dominated slopes provide predicable conduits for deer movement.

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The End of the Effigy Mound Culture: The Late Woodland to Oneota Transition in Southwestern Wisconsin


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