Arkansas State University student Mary Ann Sloan was taking an archaeology course in 1968 when she decided to record information about a Native American site in rural Greene County. The site, on an ice age sand dune in the county’s lowlands, began to attract interest and vandals descended.
Dan Morse, an archaeologist with the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, organized a team and the site was excavated in March 1974, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Little did anyone know at the time, it’s the oldest Native American cemetery found in the New World, according to Louis Intres, regional historian and Sultana Disaster Museum Project director. The site is estimated to be up to 12,500 years old.
“There were Indians in Northeast Arkansas before people were living in the Fertile Crescent,” Intres said.
Northeast Arkansas is at the epicenter for Native American research, Intres said. There have been at least 44,000 identified archaeological sites in the region — likely the most of any region in the U.S., he said.
The first Native Americans in the region were known as the Dalton people. Dalton refers to the unique stone projectile points. The Dalton people were migratory hunters and gathers.
It’s easy to understand why ancient people would have lived in Northeast Arkansas, Intres said. The Mississippi River has spent millions of years “washing” nutrient-rich soils along its western border, and crops flourished in the area for thousands of years. Corn, beans and squash, the three basic crops that have been used to sustain human life throughout the generations, would have thrived in the region, he said. The area’s abundant wild game and fish lured the Dalton people to the region, and then later its rich farm ground kept them here, Intres said.
The Sloan site excavation covered an area of about 12 meters by 12 meters, according to a report published by Dr. Juliet Morrow with the Arkansas Archaeological Survey. As artifacts were exposed in the large block-style excavation, they were cleaned with bamboo picks and paintbrushes. Many artifacts occurred in clusters or concentrations, the report stated.
The discovery locations of all Dalton artifacts were piece-plotted on a grid and catalogued in the field, she said. Many artifacts were also photographed in the field in the locations where they were excavated. Artifacts and bone fragments were shallowly buried in sandy sediment. Bone preservation was very poor; only tiny fragments from 114 cataloged locations were recovered, she stated. Spatial patterning of the artifacts and bone fragments suggests there may have been about 28 to 30 people buried there, the report states.
Most of the known tools of the Dalton tool kit in Northeast Arkansas come from the Sloan site, according to Morrow. Microscopic analysis indicates that many tools recovered from Sloan do not appear to have been made specifically for ceremonial use. Many would have been functional tools for conducting subsistence related activities such as cutting and scraping plant foods and wood; scraping and perforating hides to make clothing and footwear; incising bone and antler and wood; chopping and scraping wood for spears, tool handles, shelters, and canoes; cracking nuts; crushing pigment; manufacturing chert tools and others, according to the report.
Projectile points can also serve as a material expression of group identity, so Dalton points and Sloan bifaces embody symbolism beyond their functionality, Morrow said.
Hunter and gather groups roamed Northeast Arkansas for thousands of years, but eventually those groups transformed into agricultural societies to some degree, according to historians.
The first Europeans to explore Arkansas and encounter its habitats were Hernando De Soto and his party in June 1541. At the time, Arkansas was dominated by two Indian tribes: the Quapaw and the Osage. The Osage were based in Missouri and used northern Arkansas as primarily a hunting ground, while the Quapaw occupied the central and south parts of the state and tended to be more agrarian.
De Soto’s men described Native American corn fields that were 2 miles long and 8 miles deep, Intres said. There were numerous accounts of fights between the two tribes, he said. The Osage were a warring nation and fought with many other tribal groups throughout the region, he said. De Soto died soon after his arrival in Arkansas, and his crew left in an attempt to return home.
French explorers described a similar scene 100 years later with the state firmly in Osage and Quapaw hands, Intres said. Tribal warfare flared from time to time.
Major changes didn’t occur until European and American settlers started to head west more than a century later. By the time Thomas Jefferson had orchestrated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, plans were underway to remove Native Americans from key regions including Northeast Arkansas, Intres said. Tribes were forced to sign a series of treaties that stripped them of their lands and livelihoods.
By 1825, most Native Americans in Arkansas had been removed or had died, Intres said. Their cultures that spanned more than 12,000 years in Northeast Arkansas were memorialized in the fields. Farmers found a rich cache of pots, arrowheads and other tools the first Americans used to sustain life, he said.
These artifacts were little noticed until the World’s Fair in 1893 in Chicago. The massacre at Wounded Knee in South Dakota that left as many as 150 Sioux dead happened about a year before the fair, and there was a Native American exhibit on display. Millions of people were intrigued, and soon a market for Native American artifacts was born.
It continued to steadily grow and then it exploded in the 1920s when a Dardanelle farmer found the largest cache of native artifacts ever uncovered. It was surpassed in the 1930s by finds at the Spiro Mounds site in Oklahoma, just a few miles from the Arkansas border, Intres said.
Northeast Arkansas has a rich Native American history and only the surface has been scratched, Intres added.
“If you want to study about historic cultures … this is the place,” he said.