Wisconsin archaeologists find 3,000-year-old canoe in Lake Mendota, oldest in Great Lakes region by far

MADISON — For the second time in a year, a team of divers emerged on Thursday from Lake Mendota toting a remarkable piece of history.

Nestled in a corrugated plastic bed and floating on two rafts was a 3,000-year-old canoe — the oldest canoe to be discovered in the entire Great Lakes region by 1,000 years, Wisconsin Historical Society archaeologists said.

The archaeologist and scuba diver who discovered it, Tamara Thomsen, also found a 1,200-year-old canoe last year in the same lake, less than 100 yards away. A dive team carefully brought it to shore in November, prompting national and international news coverage.

In both cases, Thomsen wasn't out searching for artifacts. She'd been scuba diving for fun when she saw the first canoe last year. Then, in May, she was teaching a diving class when she spotted the second canoe poking out from the lake sediment.

"Not a joke: I found another dugout canoe," Thomsen texted her boss, state archaeologist James Skibo. "That would be a pretty good joke," he responded.

The next shock came when carbon dating results came back on a sliver of the wood: it was from about 1000 B.C. The archaeologists, operating out of the Wisconsin Historical Society, had carbon-dating experts run the report three times to be sure.

"I'll be absolutely honest, my first reaction was, 'That can't be right,'" said terrestrial archaeologist Amy Rosebrough.

Once they got confirmation that "it really is that old," Rosebrough thought, "OK, now what?'" The team began anew preparations to raise the fragile piece of wood from the bottom of the lake.

The canoe discovered last year — which at the time was the oldest fully intact canoe found in Wisconsin — was from A.D. 800. It's "unfathomable," Thomsen said, that there's a shorter stretch of time from A.D. 800 to today than between the two canoes.

The people who lived along the shores of Lake Mendota are the predecessors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Several tribal members on Thursday called the canoe's retrieval a formal recognition of the history they always have known.

"Our oral history dates us back for thousands upon thousands of years," said Casey Brown, public relations officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. Now, "there's scientific proof of the stories that we've been telling and just the longevity of our people in this area."

More: How a 1,200-year-old canoe found in Wisconsin's Lake Mendota last summer is serving as a bridge for tribal relations.

More: Ho-Chunk Nation launches online dictionary to breathe new life into endangered Ho-Chunk language

For Ho-Chunk, a connection to ancestors

The Ho-Chunk Nation was closely involved in the process of bringing the canoe to shore. From a pontoon boat, several tribal members watched the dive team raise it from about 25 feet underwater.

While on the pontoon, casino cage manager Kyla Beard saw an eagle fly overhead just as the canoe was raised to the water's surface.

"To be able to be in its presence and think about all the people that came before us is very humbling," she said.

And as dozens of people gathered for a glimpse of the canoe resting on the beach, Skibo invited Ho-Chunk members to touch it.

As she bent down to feel the canoe under her hand, Janice Rice, a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison librarian and a speaker on Ho-Chunk topics, also thought of her ancestors.

"It's a landmark time in our lives when we're making a connection with the historic parts of our lives," Rice said. "Just think how many Ho-Chunk people and ancestors stepped in there."

Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle touches a just-recovered 3,000-year-old dugout canoe Thursday, September 22, 2022 from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wis. With WhiteEagle is William Quackenbush, tribal historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. It is the second significant historic canoe discovery from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s maritime archeologist, Tamara Thomsen, who also discovered a 1,200-year-old dugout also found in the lake last year.
Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle touches a just-recovered 3,000-year-old dugout canoe Thursday, September 22, 2022 from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wis. With WhiteEagle is William Quackenbush, tribal historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. It is the second significant historic canoe discovery from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s maritime archeologist, Tamara Thomsen, who also discovered a 1,200-year-old dugout also found in the lake last year.

Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle, who helped lift the canoe into a truck, called the moment "indescribable."

He was looking forward to the opportunity for more people to learn about Ho-Chunk culture and history.

"The canoe demonstrates that we had a society that included transportation and trade and commerce, that we were a developed society," WhiteEagle said.

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Historical use of canoes no longer a 'leap of logic'

The recovered canoe dates to the Late Archaic period, before farming and pottery were introduced, Rosebrough said.

It also predates the construction of large, earthen effigy mounds — built in the Woodland period — which still dot the landscape around Madison today.

Native Americans at the time were hunter-gatherers and lived a nomadic lifestyle, traveling in groups of 50 to 60 people, Rosebrough said.

Archaeologists have assumed that Native Americans used canoes for thousands of years. They have artifacts of tools that they guessed could be used to carve canoes out of wood, Rosebrough said, but "that's been a leap of logic."

"Now, we've actually got a canoe," she said.

The sophisticated design of the canoe suggests that it's not a first attempt — and that it was likely a technology in use even earlier than 3,000 years ago, Rosebrough said.

Archaeologists will study both Lake Mendota canoes to compare their possible purposes. The canoe from 800 A.D. was found with fishing tools. The older one was not. Could it have been used for travel? Or to harvest wild rice on the water?

For Rosebrough, an expert on the early Native communities of Wisconsin, the discovery of the canoe is the most important of her career.

"It's No. 1," she said. "I've never done anything like this."

What else could be in Lake Mendota?

The archaeologists believe the canoes, both made of white oak and preserved remarkably well in the lake sediment, could be evidence of a prior shoreline.

It's believed that communities would have deliberately sunk their canoes in shallow water just offshore in the fall to preserve them throughout the winter, returning to them in spring. But Skibo thinks the depth at which both canoes were found — about 25 feet down, both along a steep decline in the lake bed — could indicate periods of drought and flooding.

In the case of this canoe, it's possible that when the inhabitants returned to the site in the spring, it was deep underwater.

So, could there be the remains of an entire flooded village at the bottom of Lake Mendota?

It's Skibo's current theory. He wants to research it more.

Plus, spear and dart points from the same time period have been found along the Lake Mendota shoreline. The artifacts were smoothed out, as if they'd been tumbling in water a long time. But there would've been no reason for people to store dry-land hunting gear in the water, Rosebrough said.

A just-recovered 3,000-year-old dugout canoe is shown Thursday, September 22, 2022 from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wis. It is the second significant historic canoe discovery from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s maritime archeologist, Tamara Thomsen, who also discovered a 1,200-year-old dugout also found in the lake last year.
A just-recovered 3,000-year-old dugout canoe is shown Thursday, September 22, 2022 from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wis. It is the second significant historic canoe discovery from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s maritime archeologist, Tamara Thomsen, who also discovered a 1,200-year-old dugout also found in the lake last year.

The question on everyone's minds Thursday was: what else is down there?

Thomsen, the avid scuba diver, is excited to find out.

"We have not done a systematic search of this area. Can you imagine if we actually do that, what we're going to find?" she said.

More: A larger, more interactive Wisconsin historical museum is slated to open in 2026

Crews worked in low visibility to float canoe to surface

Tribal members, Historical Society staff, curious neighbors and other onlookers gathered to watch a boat tow the canoe, floating on a raft, to Madison's Spring Harbor Beach.

One neighbor, Doris Dubielzig, was "astounded" when she learned the item she was looking at in the sand was 3,000 years old.

Speaking quietly and with awe in her voice, Dubielzig said she was reminded of the Shehecheyanu, a Jewish "prayer of gratitude for having lived to this day."

"It's just amazing," she said.

The canoe itself is in a series of pieces. Underwater, the dive team slid a plastic bed underneath it, then got a tarp under that. The crew attached inflatable bags to the tarp and pumped in air Thursday morning — allowing the whole apparatus to float to the surface.

On Thursday, divers could see only 6 inches in front of them, Skibo said. On previous days when crews were working to prepare the canoe, there was no visibility at all. They were doing everything by feel.

Divers recover a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe Thursday, September 22, 2022 from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wis. It is the second significant historic canoe discovery from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s  maritime archeologist, Tamara Thomsen, who also discovered a 1,200-year-old dugout also found in the lake last year.
Divers recover a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe Thursday, September 22, 2022 from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wis. It is the second significant historic canoe discovery from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s maritime archeologist, Tamara Thomsen, who also discovered a 1,200-year-old dugout also found in the lake last year.

The canoe is currently the consistency of wet cardboard, Thomsen said. As archaeologists did with the previous canoe, it'll sit for two years in a vat of chemicals meant to replace the water in the cells of the wood with a kind of preservative.

A conservator they've hired will be able to put it back together after it's preserved, Thomsen said.

Another onlooker, Susan Lauffer, said the recovery of the canoe was "glorious" and "mind-boggling" to witness.

Lauffer is a retired professor of ancient history, archeology and anthropology and focused mainly on Europe and the Middle East. She was excited about the momentous discovery in her own Madison neighborhood.

"This has just been fascinating to me to learn about what life was like here thousands of years ago," she said.

'Part of you in this canoe'

For the Ho-Chunk, the canoe is a physical reminder of their rich history and culture.

Casey Brown, the public relations officer, built his own canoe with a friend during the pandemic.

His friend told him to touch it and realize: "There's part of you in this canoe."

When he touched the canoe from Lake Mendota, he felt a strong connection to his ancestors from past millennia.

"My grandfathers, grandmothers, they touched the same canoe. That's incredibly powerful to know that they were doing the same thing that I've done with the canoe that I've built," Brown said.

Three thousand years in the future, he said, "someone's going to touch this, and I'm not going to know them and they're not going to know me, and we're still going to have that connection, this object that we've put ourselves into creating."

Ultimately, when the canoe begins its new life as an educational tool, Brown hopes those who see it realize the true depth of Native history contained in the oak.

"We're here and we're staying here," he said. "We're here for the long run."

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 3,000-year-old canoe found in Wisconsin's Lake Mendota