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Madison’s Lake Mendota holds thousands of years of human history

Canoes, thousands of years old, have been discovered in a Madisonian lake.

Scientists are on a lakeshore pulling out an ancient dugout canoe found in the lake.jpeg

Maritime archaeologists recovered a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe from Lake Mendota. | Photo via Wisconsin Historical Society (Dean Witter)

Beneath Lake Mendota’s waters are a cache of dugout canoes made long ago by the Ho-Chunk people. In May, one was radiocarbon dated to be 4,500 years old. It is the oldest canoe yet recorded in the Great Lakes region, dating back to 2,500 B.C.E.

To put that in perspective, it was made around the time of the pyramids of Egypt, the construction of Stonehenge, and more than 1,700 years before Ancient Rome was settled.

Indeed, the waters of Tee Waksikhominak (the lake’s name in the Ho-Chunk language) carries a deep history.

In 2021, the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS), in partnership with the Native Nations of Wisconsin, began recovering two dugout canoes. Testing revealed that one was 1,200 years old and the second 3,000 years old.

The first was the oldest fully intact vessel ever extracted from Wisconsin waters. Further, it was the first canoe found with artifacts on board. It had fishing gear.

The second, found 100 yards away from the first, prompted scientists to study ancient shorelines and fluctuating water levels.

Later, the organization found even older pieces of canoes in the same area, as many as 11 in total, including the recently revealed 4,500-year-old canoe.

An underwater photo of a thousands-year-old dugout canoe.JPG

Underwater image of a dugout canoe from Lake Mendota discovered in 2021. | Photo via Wisconsin Historical Society (Tamara Thomsen)

Discovery

Tamara Thomsen is a member of the Women Diver’s Hall of Fame and a WHS maritime archeologist. The Madisonian explored the depths of Lake Mendota for years before discovering the first canoe in June 2021. After the WHS consulted with partners of the Ho-Chunk Nation, it was decided to recover the boat for study. The second was recovered in 2022.

“Seeing these canoes with one’s own eyes is a powerful experience, and they serve as a physical representation of what we know from extensive oral traditions that Native scholars have passed down over generations,” said Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation Bill Quackenbush upon the canoes being found.

“We are excited to learn all we can from this site using the technology and tools available to us, and to continue to share the enduring stories and ingenuity of our ancestors.”

Findings

The canoes are concentrated along 800 feet of ancient shoreline (since submerged). Wood analysis, conducted by Madison’s USDA Forest Products Laboratory, reveals that the trees used to make the canoes differed over time. Elm, ash, white oak, cottonwood, and red oak were used. The oldest one is made of elm, a hard wood, one challenging for modern woodworkers to use.

Archeologists are hypothesizing that the canoes may have been intentionally cached in the water to prevent freezing and warping in the winter months. Over time, they were buried by natural forces.

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Members of the Ho-Chunk Nation clean a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe recovered from Lake Mendota. | Photo via Wisconsin Historical Society (Dean Witter)

Next Steps

The remaining canoes will not be recovered due to their fragile nature, but they will be documented and studied in situ. The recovered canoes are being preserved and treated which will take years to complete (approximately 2026). They will then be sent to Texas A&M University to get prepared for public display.

“Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it,” said Ho-Chunk Natio President Marlon WhiteEagle. “By preserving this canoe, we are honoring those that came before us.”

To learn more about the canoes, follow the Wisconsin Historical Society’s dedicated canoe webpage and on social media.