Algonquian and Iroquois Cultures

Algonquian and Iroquois

Economic Activity

At the rise of the Algonquian and the Iroquois culture, the people
were considered a hunter and gatherer society. Their main form of
subsistence was fish they caught in the nearby rivers and streams, beaver
they trapped for their food and furs, otter, moose, bear, caribou, some
maize growing, kidney-beans, shads, eel, alewives, herring, and a variety
of nuts. In the Meadowood Phase of the Algonquian, the people also were
able to grow some maize, but depended on collecting scallops, oysters,
quahogs, and soft clams. There is some evidence that people in the Early
Iroquois stage may have grown maize and gathered fish is the summer, but
they hunted exclusively throughout the winter. The Late Iroquois stage
was a time of great agricultural farming. These people grew and quickly
depended on corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers to make up almost 80% of
their daily diet.

As we emerge through time, technological advances played a major
role in the increasing subsistence patterns. Both the Algonquian and the
Iroquois had roughly the same trade tools. These were a variety of war
clubs, bow and arrows, birch bark canoes, they used the hides from their
kills for clothing, snowshoes, stone axes, knives, pipes, and a variety of
agricultural tools. The Iroquois people were also able to obtain guns and
ammunition through the fur trade with the Europeans. The Algonquian
people also had a unique fishing spear that possessed two harpoon points
like that of the Thule tradition. A technological advance that became
very evident from excavations of the Algonquian culture was in the
susquehanna tradition the people used very broad projectile points, but in
the Orient tradition these points were long and narrow with fishtail bases.

Trade among these two cultures was a necessity for their
survival. In the Terminal Archaic period of the Algonquian people they
traded such things as chert, soapstone, projectile points, and cooking
vessels. As the Algonquian culture became stronger, they made an alliance
with the French and began trade with them.
We begin to see the use of wampum by the different tribes of the
Iroquois people in the Late Iroquois period. Initially, the belts of
wampum were used as a form of documenting important events. But as time
went on the use of the wampum was converted as a type of currency that was
used for trading among other bands. Like the Algonquian, the Iroquois
people also made alliances for trade, but the Iroquois became allies of
Great Britain who traded them guns and ammunition for treasured fur pelts,
especially that of the beaver.

Environmental Impact
There is no record of either the Algonquian or the Iroquois people
creating mass destruction to their localized environment. The majority of
the environmental declination that took place was clearing and cutting
away forests for new agricultural fields when their previous one became
soil and nutrient depleted.

Social Organization

Most of the information that we currently have on the social
organization patterns is that of the Iroquois people. Throughout much of
the Middle Iroquois period, the people congregated in bands of localized
matrilineal clans. Within each clan was a leader who oversaw the events
of his clan. Perhaps one of the most intriguing factors about the social
organization was that the men went off to live with their wives and her
family. Once married, her family became his to help protect, and his
biological family was no longer considered his family. Eventually as time
went on multiple clans joined together to form larger communities, most
likely caused by increasing tension from neighboring tribes.
The initial coming together of the original thirteen colonies is
believed to be modeled after the League of the Iroquois. In the Late
Iroquois period, groups of powerful tribes joined forces and created a
pact called the League of the Iroquois. This league consisted of the
Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and the Mohawk. It is believed that the
League of the Iroquois was formed as a way of protecting themselves from
external pressures like the Europeans and the Algonquian. A council of
elders was formed from each of the five tribes, and this council made the
decisions on what was best for the league.

Economic Classes
The people of the Middle Iroquois period had extraordinary class
distinction. Each group had their individual role, and knew that their
survival depended on their carrying out that role. The sachems or chiefs
were divided into two categories, the war chiefs and the peace
chiefs. "Peace chiefs kept a pulse on public opinion, settled domestic
disputes, organized community works, rituals and ceremonies, and
negotiated with others. War chiefs had more limited powers. They
organized and led war parties, dealt with prisoners, and killed suspected
witches"(Fagan, P. 465). Every tribe had a group of warriors that were
under the war chiefs. These warriors would defend their home, go out on
raiding parties, and do the majority of the hunting. The women of each
committee was expected to stay at home and take care of the kids, keep the
house clean, and do most of the agricultural work.

Relating to Subsistence
As stated earlier, the women did most of the agricultural work.
They did the planting, the hoeing, all of the things that go with trying
to obtain a good crop yield. The men of each particular tribe were in
charge of getting enough meat to feed their family. It is often believed
that the men went out to get the meat as a form of obtaining superiority
over the women in the tribe, although the women did the majority of the work.

Population and Settlement Pattern
Population Size
The population of each individual society greatly fluctuated
through time. As in other cultures, the population density greatly
depended on the amount of subsistence that members of the tribe were able
to bring in. When the Algonquian and the Iroquois cultures first began,
their settlements were small and therefore and low populations. But as
they became better farmers their population began to rise. The average
summer village in Early Iroquois times was anywhere between 100 and 400
persons. By Middle Iroquois times, the population rose anywhere up to
2,000 persons in one settlement.

Settlement Pattern
The first settlement pattern that we see is during the Terminal
Archaic period. The Terminal Archaic period lasted from about 1650 to 700
B.C. The majority of their settlements were along major river highways,
which served for multiple purposes. As an efficient way of traveling, a
great and vast source of food, and as a means of possible escape in case
of attack. These camps were of semi-permanence and possessed no real
definite roots.
The Meadowood Phase, from 700 to 300 B.C., has been found to be
fairly similar to that of the Terminal Archaic period. The Algonquian
people settled in west and central New York State and Mohawk drainage.
They tended to reside in semi-permanent dwellings that existed partially
below ground level for the possible purpose of conserving heat in the
winter. Winter houses were usually found by streams and ponds in the
backcountry where an abundance of game was to be found. Their houses
tended to be cone-shaped so that they were able to be transported easily.
Made of primarily birch bark, these cone houses allowed for very little
room to move around. Their summerhouses were considered long houses,
which were much larger than their winter homes and able to house multiple
The Iroquois people were not much different than the Algonquian
people in settlement patterns. In the Early Iroquois period, 1000 to
1300 B.C., the majority of the summer camps were found on river flats by
sheltered inlets where they could fish and cultivate a variety of plants
Settlement pattern began to change of the Iroquois people in the
Middle Iroquois period. It was not uncommon to see villages of up to two
and a half acres scattered about the countryside. Feeling somewhat unsafe
residing next to a river way, the Iroquois people moved from the flood
plains inland to the hills where they were able too easily defend their
community. People also began to lead more sedentary lives, building long
houses that held many families and were guarded by a well-fortified log
wall. "[The long houses] were said to be twenty to eighty feet in length
and about twenty feet in width, standing approximately fourteen feet high
at the ridge or center of the long house"(Kubiak, P. 27). But there were
drawbacks to becoming more sedentary. As the population of their tribe
increased, a number of their resources started to decrease. Hunters began
to have a more difficult time finding game. Lumber to keep up the
palisade and their houses became scarce. The soil that they had planted
their crops on began to become nutrient deficient. Infestation of rats,
mice, and fleas began to take over their homes. Because of these
drawbacks, the people were forced to relocate occasionally, and anytime a
community decided to relocate, there was competition with other tribes for
those hunting grounds.
The Draper site is one of the most well known sites for being
completely excavated. At current times, it is the largest Iroquois site
to ever be excavated, covering 19.76 acres and housing roughly 2000 to
3000 people.
Another site that was well excavated was the Kelso site. "The
[Kelso] site proved to be much larger than anticipated, consisting to two
slightly over-lapping villages of 2 acres each, bounded on their
peripheries by multiple stockade lines"(Tooker, P. 71). At the time,
archaeologists were astonished by the work put in building a palisade
around the village. "The fortification features, the earliest known for
the New York Iroquois…are radically different from later Iroquois
palisades made after the introduction of the steel trade ax"(Tooker, P.

Religious Beliefs and Rituals
The burials of the Algonquian during the Meadowood phase are much
different that those of the Mississippian cultures. The people were
usually cremated and placed in closely packed bark-lined pits, located on
natural hills with projectile points and a variety of luxury items.
During the Early Iroquois period, we find that they had less
elaborate burial ceremonies, and buried their dead with few if any trade
The Iroquois people had a number of rituals that they performed
ceremoniously. Ceremonies were performed for marriages, burials, when
tribes moved from one settlement to another and in the spring and fall to
scare away any disease that people might have. Major items that were used
in these ceremonies were rattles made from turtle shells or bark, masks
that were carved from living basswood trees, ceremonial headdresses, and
Another extremely important ritual among the Iroquois people was
that of cannibalism. They often sacrificed their war prisoners to their
gods in hopes of winning favor with them. Although archaeologists are
positive that cannibalism was a common practice, with skeletons that have
been excavated, why they did they acts and what caused them remains a
partial mystery.

The Iroquois people were incredible mask makers. These masks that
were usually used for ceremonial purposes, were often made from live
basswood trees or husks that were braided or twined. The faces took on a
distorted image, depending on what the mask creator's dream was about.
They often had large noses, which appeared to be broken severely, and
large lips. Although sometimes disturbing to view, their maskwork is yet
to be matched.

We know that the Algonquian and the Iroquois people had spoken
languages, but any written form of it is yet to be unearthed. People in
the coastal drainages between Nova Scotia and North Carolina spoke and
Eastern Algonquian dialect. While tribes that belonged to the Iroquois
League spoke in a Northern Iroquois language. Although the different
tribes had their own dialect, each was able to obtain the jist of what the
other was trying to communicate.

Warfare was a major part of the Iroquois life, as well as the
Algonquian. The beginning evidence that we have of warfare among the
Iroquois is in the Early Iroquois period when the first fortified villages
begin to appear.
Warfare in the Middle Iroquois period quickly became a survival
test. Long houses were now closely packed together so that they were
easier to defend. Wars among tribes were a very brutal time, but even
then they had rules of engagement. Only the men were to be killed the
women and children were allowed to live, although sometimes as slaves.
The fallen men's scalps were often brought back as trophies as a sign of
In the Late Iroquois period, no one was more feared than the
League of the Iroquois. One and all feared them. They became extreme
enemies of the Huron and the Algonquian tribes. It is believed that the
Seneca were the most ferocious warriors of all. Their lightening speed,
their strong will, and acceptance of death made even their allies cower in
No one is sure how or why the fighting began between the different
tribes. It is thought that it started from retaliation for someone
getting killed. We don't know why the wars started, but we do know that
they always ended in lots of bloodshed.

(C) Copyright 2000

Fagan, Brian M. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent.
Second Edition. 1995. P. 465.

Kubiak, William J. Great Lakes Indians. 1970. P. 27.

Tooker, Elisabeth. Iroquois Culture, History, and Prehistory. 1970. P. 71.