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.”
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, 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.