Who Used Bluff Shelters and When?

This seems like a straight forward question but the answer, as with so many things in archeology, is complicated.

What most people are expecting as an answer to this question is a tribal name, but this can be difficult. We can possibly put a name to some of the more recent occupants of the region, but further back into the past this becomes difficult. There are at least 9000 years of history in the Ozark bluff shelters with no written account before 1541. The trauma of European contact along with the expected cultural changes that happen to societies over time, make projecting known tribal affiliations into the more distant past problematic. So, while we can’t give you tribal names for most of the past 9000 years, archeologists can tell you what life was like for people using the bluff shelters at different points in the past.

Projecting into Prehistory

There are no written records about who lived in North America before European explorers arrived in the 1500s. Hernando De Soto visited Arkansas in 1541 and surviving accounts of his expedition record their encounters with Native American groups in the state. He did not however enter the heart of the Ozarks.

The Soto expedition provides historians and archeologists with our first glimpse of what the Native American world looked like in Arkansas, but the expedition itself dramatically changed Native American life and culture. This was so much the case that by the time Europeans returned to the state to settle, the life and tribal identities of Native peoples had changed dramatically. The massive death toll caused by diseases brought to the Americas by European expeditions meant that life on the continent was changed on a large scale. By some estimations up to 80% of the Native American population died in a relatively short period of time because they lacked immunity to the unfamiliar diseases that Europeans brought with them. Major shifts in population and a reorganization of the surviving Native American cultures occurred, thus making it difficult to connect modern and historically known tribes to groups that existed farther in the past.

Even before this trauma, Native American groups who occupied an area were not static over time. Groups evolved and moved as one would expect in a 10,000 year time span. Tribal names that make sense to us today would likely have meant nothing to Native Americans in the Ozarks 9,000 years ago. In the absence of written records it is difficult to trace cultural affiliations that far back.

What archeologists do know about the people who lived in this region is mostly based on the artifacts that they left behind and the similarities they show to artifacts found in other archeological sites. The connections change through time, but the Ozarks seem to be connected to peoples of the southeastern United States, and to some degree to the Southwest and Midwest. We see this in the similarities in pottery styles, basket-making techniques, symbols used in rock art, and the movement of food plants into the region. However, our work is not done. Archeologists are constantly working to further understand the past and refine what we know about the peoples who once lived and used Ozark bluff shelters. Our interpretations change as we gather more data.

For instance, in the 1930s there was an attempt to name the culture that used the bluff shelters. The name chosen, “Bluff-dweller,” was not based on any Native American tribe, but was constructed based on an interpretation of the artifacts. The interpretation turned out to be wrong and served to create the appearance of a distinct culture isolated from its neighbors. This also shows the possible dangers of trying to put a name to cultures of the past.

Osage & Caddo Connections

Even so, there are some tribal names that we can link to the late prehistoric and historic periods in the Ozarks—about the last thousand years of our 9,000 year occupation span. Several tribes, such as the Cherokee, Kickapoo, and Shawnee, called the Arkansas Ozarks home in the nineteenth century. They are relative newcomers in the area, having arrived in the late eighteenth through early nineteenth centuries, largely due to pressures caused by European settlement east of the Mississippi and in the Midwest. Moreover, these tribes were, for the most part, removed from Arkansas to Indian Territory by the mid-nineteenth century, making their sojourn in Arkansas fairly short. Both the Osage and the Caddo Nations, however, have deeper historic roots in the Arkansas Ozarks.

The Osage tribe used the Ozarks in historic times and consider the Arkansas Ozarks a part of their ancestral territory. The Osage are identified as a Dhegiha Siouan language speaking tribe, along with the Omaha, Ponca, Kaw, and Quapaw. According to Osage oral tradition, the origin of the Dhegiha Siouan tribes is in the Ohio River valley. By the end of the Mississippi period, however, the Osage had moved westward to settle primarily within the central and western portions of what is now the state of Missouri—but continued to use the Arkansas Ozarks as hunting territory.

Archeologists believe that the Native Americans we now call the Caddo grew out of the indigenous Woodland period cultures in southwestern Arkansas about AD 800–900, and the border region between Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma is largely considered to be the Caddo heartland. The Caddo are one historic tribe that is relatively easy to connect to their prehistoric antecedents. Their archeological assemblages are marked by very distinctive pottery styles throughout the Mississippi period. The Arkansas River Valley and parts of the adjoining Arkansas Ozarks have long been described as the “Northern Caddo Area” by archeologists who saw clear connections between regional ceremonial sites, such as Spiro Mounds in eastern Oklahoma, and the Caddo heartland. Additionally, several ceremonial mound sites within the White and Illinois River basins in Northwest Arkansas show clear ties to Spiro. More directly for our purposes, researchers are now drawing connections between these Spiro-influenced mound centers and distinctive mortuary patterns found in some Ozark bluff shelters—particularly in the Upper White River basin.

Archeological Timeline for Arkansas Ozark Bluff Shelters

So, while we can’t offer you an uncomplicated answer as to “who” used the bluff shelters, we can offer you a timeline of the way life changed for the people who used Ozark bluff shelters. This timeline has been constructed by archeologists interpreting changes in the artifacts that we recover from our bluff shelter excavations.