Review of Archaeology of Minnesota: The Prehistory of the Upper Mississippi River Region by Guy E. Gibbon University of Minnesota Press

Archaeology of Minnesota: The Prehistory of the Upper Mississippi River Region. Guy E. Gibbon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780816679096

This essay is a part of our series, Graduate Students and The Middle Ground Journal.

In this ambitious text, Guy Gibbon offers the first comprehensive survey of Minnesota’s 13,000 years of pre-contact history. Gibbon arrays an impressive amount of up-to-date archaeological evidence to offer a number of broad characterizations of Minnesota precontact archaeology. His work offers generalized frameworks within which other archaeologists of Minnesota can fit new data. The book makes a valuable contribution to the study of long-term patterns of human life before European contact in Minnesota and argues for its relevance to understanding global patterns of human life more generally.

Gibbon is most interested in reconstructing the social, political, and economic systems—or lifeways—of pre-contact Native Americans.  He identifies nine types of lifeways found in Minnesota that vary by region and time. To track how these lifeways changed over time, Gibbon organizes the book along a chronological four-phase sequence. The first phase, “Pioneer foragers,” was characterized by the presence of free-wandering families and bands that moved freely from one food patch to another and in pursuit of wild game. In phase two, as Native Americans gained familiarity with the land, populations grew, and material culture diversified, mobile hunting bands began to travel less and lived within circumscribed “food resource territories.” Different lifeways developed for those who hunted deer in the forests compared to those that hunted bison on the plains. The third phase of human change appears in conjunction with “but probably not dependent on” the arrival of modern climate and vegetation patterns about 5,000 years ago. Human populations increased again during this phase and the first signs of pottery are found. “Second order foods” such as fish, wild rice, squash and other domesticated plants became more important to support larger human populations. The fourth phase lasted from about 650 years ago until the period of European contact and saw the emergence of larger, more settled societies or “tribes” that depended on intensive wild rice harvesting or maize agriculture.

Due to the incomplete nature of the archaeological evidence in Minnesota, when Gibbon reconstructs the lifeways of Minnesota’s precontact Native peoples, he relies heavily on models developed by Lewis R. Binford in Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets (2001). Binford developed data sets from a sample of 390 hunter-gatherer societies from around the world and analyzed many variables including rainfall, elevation, biotic class, average temperatures, average size of foraging areas, and group size. He used the data sets to construct many of what he calls “frames of reference” to be compared to each other in order to reveal broad patterns among all hunter-gatherers. From these frames of reference, Binford built a “Basic Terrestrial Model” that predicts aspects of highly mobile terrestrial hunters based on environmental and demographic factors. Since the archaeological evidence from Minnesota is limited in its ability to reconstruct fully the lifeways of precontact Native Americans, Gibbon often relies on Binford’s predictive “Terrestrial Model” to reconstruct hunter-gatherer societies when the archaeological evidence is lacking.

In addition to using Binford’s model, Gibbon sees environmental history as a vital tool for reconstructing lifeways over time. The first chapter establishes the primacy of the environment in his analysis by reconstructing over 13,000 years of climatic and environmental history in Minnesota through the use of a computer-modeling tool created by climatologists and geologists. The most important environmental distinction in Minnesota is the longer growing season in the southern parts of the state. This climatic difference led to the adoption of maize (corn) cultivation in the south, while communities in the north and in central Minnesota continued to rely on hunting and gathering food resources, such as wild rice. The environmental division between north and south remained one of the most important factors shaping human history in the region throughout the pre-contact period.

The book is organized chronologically and focuses on the identification of long-term processes of change. Gibbon divides the book into three sections, each section covering a distinct era of Minnesota’s archaeological past and containing two or three chapters that review the various patterns of change found in northeastern, central, southeastern and southwestern Minnesota. Every chapter begins with a review of the archaeological data, followed by a reconstruction of Native American lifeways drawn from that data.

Chapters two and three reconstruct the first people and early foragers of Minnesota during the Paleoindian and Archaic Period, circa 11,200 to 500 BCE. Due to the “near invisibility of their remains in the archaeological record” (60), Gibbon acknowledges that the lifeways of archaic hunter gatherers remain, “underexamined and poorly understood.” He readily admits that his reconstruction “remains conjectural” and is “largely based on trends predicted” in Binford’s Constructing Frames of Reference (85).

In chapters four and five, Gibbon reviews northern and southern lifeways during the Initial Woodland Period, circa 1000-500 BCE to CE 500-700. The first appearance of pottery containers during this period marks a major shift in lifeways from the Archaic period to the Initial Woodland Period. During the Initial Woodland Period, there is also evidence of new technologies, the use of new or previously underused food resources, a readjustment in subsistence efforts, and augmented competition among regional social groups.

The final section covers the Terminal Woodland and Mississippian Period, circa CE 500-700 to 1650. The most important changes among Native Americans in Minnesota during this period were population growth and an increased reliance on domesticated plants. This period was also marked by the construction of earthen mounds, new types of pottery, and stone projectile points.

In the conclusion, Gibbon moves away from his focused analysis of Minnesota archaeology to draw connections to world history, arguing for the relevance of archaeological knowledge to present-day crises, such as environmental degradation and poverty. In defense of archaeology and its value in resolving contemporary issues, he argues that if present-day crises are “not unanticipated but rather predictable outcomes of the unfolding of trends in human lifeways through time, then the study of long-term trends in the history of human societies becomes a more urgent concern than it is today” (203).

Since Gibbon nods to the connections between Minnesota archaeology and world history in the conclusion, I would have liked to have seen a more prolonged comparison between the processes and patterns of human change in Minnesota to different areas of the world, rather than mostly using Binford’s Constructing Frames of Reference as a tool to fit Minnesota archaeology within Binford’s global frameworks. While this might not be possible as the archaeology of Minnesota “remains underinvestigated from a lifeways perspective”, and Gibbon stresses that all his proposed frameworks are “tentative” (204), ideally, one could use archaeological research from Minnesota or elsewhere to confirm or contradict the larger generalizations of human change that Binford identifies, but as Gibbon readily admits, such archaeological data in Minnesota is not sufficient. Still, it seems it would be as fruitful for understanding world history to examine the ways in which Minnesota precontact history does not fit into Binford’s global frameworks, rather than to fit Minnesota precontact history only within the existing framework. Perhaps Gibbon’s book can provide the groundwork for another scholar to make this type of comparison.

This book is a must-read for any scholar who studies the Upper Mississippi River Region, and is valuable for comparative purposes to those who study long-term human change in other places around the world. Pedagogically, due to its narrow focus on Minnesota, the book has limited value for most world history classes, except perhaps as a case study of human change from hunter-gatherers to more complex societies. The book would be an ideal addition to any course that covers the longue durée of the Upper Mississippi River Region.

Reviewed by Noel Edward Smyth, University of California, Santa Cruz
Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]