The Beringia land-bridge theory—that the first humans in the Americas migrated from Asia to North America over the Bering Strait 12,000 years ago—has been seriously challenged.
The discovery of important new archaeological sites, such as Serra Da Capivara in northeast Brazil, Monte Verde in southern Chile, and Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania, appear to show that humans had arrived in the Americas in several waves as much as 20,000–30,000 years ago, though these later figures are somewhat speculative and remain in dispute amongst experts.
It appears the first peoples of the Americas came by boat from the South Pacific and only later by foot from Siberia. Despite these exciting new finds, there is still no reason to think that humans came to what would become Minnesota any time before about 9,000–10,000 B.C., since most of the land was covered by ice before this.
Little is known about the first Minnesotans, the nomadic Paleo-Indians, who followed the melting glaciers north, hunting large game such as mastodon, musk ox, and giant beaver along the way. It is assumed they did not make pottery or fabrics since none from this time have been found. What have been uncovered in large numbers are their weapons. The finely made projectile points were attached to spears and thrown by atlatls, a powerful and accurate weapon. After these megafauna became extinct (debate continues about whether overhunting or climate change was the primary factor) around 6,000 years ago, so did the Paleo-Indian way of life.
With less game to sustain them, the hunter-gatherers of the Archaic period began to settle into longer-term campsites near bodies of water and rely more on what they could find locally. They still hunted, but also learned to fish and relied more on harvesting edible plants like acorns, cherries, blueberries, and plums. Technology advanced and people made knives, scrapers, axes, and drills. Toward the end of this period people began to construct burial mounds, and those living along the northwestern Great Lakes, including Minnesota, pounded tools out of copper nuggets.
After 1000 B.C. the Woodland culture began to rise in the Ohio River Valley, climaxing in the area’s Hopewell societies. There were many large societal advances during this time, but most came slowly to Minnesota. Most notable was the manufacture and use of pottery. Tools became more specialized and eventually these people learned to use bows and arrows. People soon settled in permanent villages, and their sedentary lifestyle led to the cultivation of plants like sunflower, ragweed, and wild rice. People made simple jewelry, decorated their pottery, and became increasingly ceremonial. Burial mounds became larger, more complex, and more common as the importance of individual leaders grew. For unknown reasons the Woodland culture began to decline around A.D. 500–600, but it lingered on in Minnesota until about A.D. 1700 in the northern part of the state.
Beginning about a.d. 1000, a new series of cultures known as Mississippian either moved in and replaced some of the Woodland peoples or the Woodland peoples evolved into them. Mississippian culture was heavily influenced by ideas from Mexico, and it flourished across the eastern half of the continent. Cahokia, its spiritual and cultural heart, was a city of over 30,000 people across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis. In Minnesota, which was again far from the center of power, the influence was tempered somewhat. Villages grew large, possibly upward of 800 people, and were often fortified.
Corn (a Mexican import) was the era’s most important crop, but since it did not grow well in the north, wild rice became the staple in Minnesota. Pipes carved from stone quarried at what is now the Pipestone National Monument in southwest Minnesota spread across North America due to their deep spiritual import. Though several cultures related to the Cahokians, such as the Great Oasis and Cambria, lived amongst each other in Minnesota, the Oneota were the most advanced and widespread.
By the time Europeans first arrived in the state, the Mississippian cultures had largely faded away, though their modern descendents, the Dakota (aka Sioux), were spread across the center of Minnesota and occupied the majority of the state. Other Mississippian progeny, the Iowa and Oto tribes, remained in the far south. The Cree controlled the far north, and the Assiniboine, descendents of but enemies with the Dakota, inhabited the northwest corner. Some Omaha and Cheyenne might have been in the southwest corner and far west-central regions respectively, though we may never know for sure.
The Ojibwe (aka Chippewa or Anishinaabe), Minnesota’s other major historic Indian culture, were centered around Sault Ste. Marie in Upper Michigan when the French came up the Great Lakes. Beginning in the 1640s the League of the Iroquois, in an effort to monopolize the fur trade, attacked other tribes in the area, and most Ojibwe fled west, eventually settling in northern Wisconsin and forcing some Dakota villages to pick up and move west in the process.
As they became more enamored with the goods they received from the French in return for the furs they trapped, the Ojibwe moved into northern Minnesota to occupy the most fertile lands. The resulting animosity between the two tribes would eventually lead to over a century of on-again, off-again war; the Ojibwe usually came out on top.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition