Minnesota Prehistory

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Taxonomy of Minnesota Prehistory

What is Minnesota Taxonomy?

In order to understand history archaeologists and scholars have found it necessary to classify time periods by a multitude of traits and aspects etc. Though history itself, regardless of time, place or space is entirely arbitrary, most historians acknowledge the separation of these traits and aspects as valid. In the late 1930s, Midwestern archaeologists came to the realization that systems currently used in the southwest for classifying sites and artifacts were difficult to associate with certain time periods. The problem was that Midwestern sites didn't show clear stratification and were poorly preserved. Luckily there had been a great deal of well documented archaeological research done in the Midwest which had resulted in an enormous amount of data and artifacts.


Phase Aspect Focus
LateWoodland Upper Oneota Orr
Blue Earth
No Aspect Silvernale
Great Oasis
Plaines Head Waters Lake Black Duck
Red River Arvilla

W.C. McKern led a meeting of archaeologists, who began with the assumption that there is a relation between cultural origins, cultural history and the artifacts they used. The classification then takes artifacts from the smallest possible unit, the component, and grouped them with nearby sites. The nearby sites with similar artifacts are grouped with this into the next level, and this level is grouped with similar ones, and so on. In this manner, they developed a system that didn't rely on chronological and spatial areas for their cultural definitions, but in similarities between their technologies.

The Midwest Taxonomic System, or McKern System, was adapted to Minnesota archaeology by Lloyd Wilford in 1944 and later refined in 1951. His system took the two identified patterns in Minnesota and fit the three major cultural patterns identified for Minnesota into four periods.

Level Definitions

  • Pattern - A taxonomic level that is made up of similar phases. Similar patterns are grouped into a base or a period.
  • Phase - A taxonomic level that is made up of similar aspects. Similar phases are grouped into a pattern.
  • Aspect - A taxonomic level that is made up of similar foci. Similar aspects are grouped into a phase.
  • Focus - A taxonomic level that is made up of multiple components that contain similar artifacts. Similar foci are grouped into an aspect.