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Early Peoples and Indian Civilizations

Who were the first people of Kansas? How did they get here? How did they live? Most anthropologists believe the original inhabitants of the United States arrived approximately 15,000 years ago by crossing what was once a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska. (Today these landmasses do not touch because of geologic changes. The Bering Sea separates the two areas.) These prehistoric Indians then traveled south through Alaska and Canada into what is now the continental United States before settling in Kansas and other areas. These Indians, known as the Paleo culture, were nomadic and led a simple existence that revolved around a great respect for nature. They hunted large animals such as woolly mammoths and mastodons for food and clothing. 

Around 7,000 B.C. these animals became extinct, possibly because of a change in climate or because of hunting by the prehistoric Indians. Following the extinction of these large mammals, a new culture known as the Archaic Indians developed. These Indians hunted smaller animals such as antelope and buffalo, and gathered seeds, berries and other fruit to eat.

The Mound Builders culture, or Woodland Indians, developed in Kansas around 500 B.C. The Mound Builders lived together in groups and began farming the land. They built large burial mounds for their dead. They also introduced the making of pottery and the use of bows and arrows to Kansas.

Approximately 1000 A.D., the Village Gardeners culture appeared. Farming became more advanced with the use of gardening tools, such as hoes. There are a number of excavated archeological sites in central Kansas of this period. These include the LeBeau, Glenn Elder and Albert Bell sites along the Republican River, and the Minneapolis site near the Solomon River.  The various tribes also traded goods among themselves and with the southwestern Puebloan Indians, some of who settled in western Kansas. The El Cuartelejo site, in Scott County, is the northernmost known historic Puebloan settlement.

The final culture of the prehistory period, known as the Protohistoric Indians, developed about 1500 A.D. These peoples included the Wichita, Kansa, Plains Apache and Pawnee Indians. More sophisticated tools were used by these Indians to hunt and grow crops. Most of these Indians lived in villages and survived by a combination of buffalo hunting and farming. Some groups, such as the Apache, were more nomadic and roamed the plains in search of buffalo. The environment heavily influenced the lifestyles of these Indians.

The great quantity of buffalo provided a source of food, clothing and shelter. Their diet was determined by the food available where they lived. The natural resources of an area determined what kind of homes the Indians built. In places where forests grew, the Indians used wood to build their homes. Where wood was not available, Indians used other raw materials such as rock, mud, clay and sod to build homes. Some Indians used animals skins such as buffalo hides stretched across poles to construct "tipis." They were skillful architects in building homes that stayed cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Example of Wichita Indian lodge at Kansas Museum of History in Topeka

Additional Resources


Learn more about the Mound Builders civilization.

Study Guide Questions

  1. Who were the first prehistoric Indians in Kansas and how did they live?
  2. What changes occurred in the next prehistoric Indian culture in Kansas?
  3. Describe the culture and lifestyle of the Mound Builders and Village Gardeners?
  4. How did the Indians in Kansas live at the time of their discovery by European explorers?

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