Archaeological History - Prehistoric Peoples

Archaeology is the study of past cultures based on objects and evidence they have left behind.

To know about a past for which there are no written records, physical remains must be studied in an orderly way. As with any science, this field is continually changing as new discoveries are made and new ideas are developed. The following is a brief discussion on Wisconsin archaeology, generally representing the views of archaeologists and anthropologists. By contrast, many Native people rely more on oral tradition to inform their views of views of the past, especially with regard to the population of North America via the Bering Land Bridge.

Paleo-Indian (10,000 - 8500 BC)

The earliest humans to enter Wisconsin were part of what is called the Paleo-Indian Tradition. At the end of the Pleistocene -- or Ice Age -- Native people entered North America via the Bering Land Bridge, a broad piece of land which was exposed by lowered sea levels. Paleo-Indians were big game hunters and gatherers of plants and other foodstuffs. The tundra was home to large game animals, such as mammoth, mastodon, bison, giant ground sloth, and musk ox. Archaeologists know that Paleo-Indians in the Great Lakes region hunted these animals because in several areas of the Midwest, projectile points have been found with skeletal remains of these animals.

Paleo-Indian people are thought to have came to Wisconsin from the west and south about 12,000 years ago, as glaciers melted and tundra (scrubby plants and grasses dwarfed by long winters and permafrost) emerged in the cold climate. Several decades ago, a mastodon kill site was discovered in Boaz in the southwestern part of the state. Several mastodon butchering sites have also been found in southeastern Wisconsin, and are under study by archaeologists. These sites include evidence that Paleo-Indian people cut up large animals, including mastodons, for food. However, there is no conclusive evidence yet that Paleo-Indians actually hunted and killed these large animals. In the Great Lakes region, big game animals hunted or scavenged by Paleo-Indians frequented upland areas, along old lakeshores, and on high terraces in river and stream valleys, so more Paleo-Indian sites will likely be discovered in those areas.

Very little is known about these early Wisconsin residents because so much time has passed since their existence: artifacts are either poorly preserved or nonexistent. Also, Paleo-Indians appear to have been nomadic in small groups, moving frequently to follow animal migrations, meet other Paleo-Indian groups for trade and social interaction, or harvest seasonal resources. Because of this, they left little impact upon the landscape. Paleo-Indian artifacts are found scattered, with few other indications of their lifestyle. Most stone artifacts were used in processing game and dressing hides, and include end scrapers, small flake knives, abraders, choppers, rubbing stones, and gravers. The most well-known Paleo-Indian artifacts are Clovis and Folsom projectile points, both identified by a fluted base, which are thought to have been used on spears. On Clovis points, the flute extends only partway up the sides of the point, while the flute extends almost the entire length on Folsom points. Clovis points are more common in Wisconsin than Folsom points. The points were often made from Knife River chalcedony from North Dakota, Indiana hornstone, or Upper Mercer flint from Ohio, which indicates that the Paleo-Indians traveled over long distances or traded for these raw materials. Other types of Paleo-Indian tools made of perishable materials, such as bone or wood, have not survived the centuries.

Early Archaic (8500 - 6000 BC)

The Early Archaic Tradition is largely a continuation of the Paleo-Indian way of life, so some researchers refer to this time period as the Late Paleo-Indian. The forest-edge tundra moved northward as glaciers melted further, allowing conifer forests to grow in the northern part of Wisconsin and more deciduous trees to grow in the south. As these forests emerged, big game species which were adapted to colder climatic conditions moved northward toward the glaciers, so people needed to rely more on other sources of food, including smaller mammals and gathered plant resources. Hunting was still the major food source, but was supplemented with fishing and gathering. As Native populations increased, people spread out and traveled less, settling into particular regions and adapting to the landscape and environment there. Decreasing contact between groups of people and the need to hunt a broader range of animals and adapt to new environments created more diversity in projectile point styles and types during this period, reflecting the development of diverse ways of life.

Middle Archaic (6000 - 3000 BC)

The Middle Archaic Tradition developed at different times within the state, depending on continuing changes in the environment and the human adaptations they fostered. The climate became warmer and drier, and mixed conifer-hardwoods and plants of prairie-forest border replaced the boreal forests. People of the Middle Archaic relied on deer and small game hunting, but there was more emphasis on plants, especially nuts. They also developed techniques for dealing with forest resources. This period marks the introduction of ground stone tools, which included gorgets, axes, and celts. The presence of woodworking tools suggests that at this time, Native people chopped wood and may have fashioned dugout canoes, wooden bowls, and other implements.

Late Archaic (3000 BC - 1000 BC)

During the Late Archaic Tradition, a new hunting technique -- the use of an atlatl or spear thrower -- was developed. Wooden spear throwers were used to increase the force and throwing range of spears in hunting. Bannerstones and birdstones are thought to have been used as weights on spear throwers. As the technology of spears changed, so, too, did the type of points used on spears, and Native people began to use stemmed projectile points for hunting. Archaeological studies of animal bones and preserved plant remains and tools have shown that in the northern third of Wisconsin, Indian people relied on hunting in the winter and fishing in the summer. Native people in the southern part of the state relied on winter deer hunting, spring and summer fishing, and plant resources, especially nuts and seeds. Harvesting these foods required regular, planned movement between resources, taking advantage of the particular seasons of specific resources. Widespread exchange networks of food and resources -- including raw materials for tools -- developed in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

The Late Archaic period was once referred to as the Old Copper Culture, but modern archaeologists do not believe that the increased use of copper tools was an indicator of a single distinct people and their culture. Archaeologists believe that there is some overlap between the Middle Archaic and Late Archaic, especially in the use of copper, and that the copper use which was thought to be characteristic of the Late Archaic actually began in the Middle Archaic and developed over time. The increased use of copper represents a shift in the technologies used to gather food and make necessary objects. Copper was mined by prehistoric Indian people from deposits in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and made into tools through cold hammering and not by smelting (heating the copper to liquid). Copper tools used by these people include hunting, fishing, woodworking tools, and other forms to meet everyday household needs. One of the most common forms is the socketed spear point. Other copper artifacts include spuds, celts, awls, knives, fishhooks, and ornaments, such as beads and pendants. Old Copper items tend to be found in prehistoric cemeteries with other grave goods, such as dogs and bone tools, left with the burials. The presence of cemeteries is evidence of obvious attachment to particular places which were returned to again and again, thus illustrating longstanding connections between Native people and the lands they occupied. In addition, the inclusion of artifacts with the dead is an indication of belief in the afterlife and the need to honor the dead with appropriate ceremonies. Although this is not the earliest evidence of burial ceremonies, it is one of the most obvious manifestations.

In southern Wisconsin, two regional traditions of treating the dead, called Red Ocher and Glacial Kame, also emerged during the Late Archaic. Red Ocher Complex burials are usually in a flexed position in a pit excavated from a natural ridge or knoll, often made of sand or gravel. The burials are accompanied by grave goods, the most distinctive of which is a blue-grey to almost black, fine-grained chert cache blade. Artifacts also found in these graves include large white chert blades, cubic galena (lead ore) crystals, copper artifacts (usually beads and awls), ground stone artifacts (stone tube pipes, birdstones, gorgets), and necklaces made of shell beads traded from Native groups in marine environments. The graves were then capped by powdered red ocher, a mineral ranging in color from mustard yellow to bright red. A point type commonly associated with the Red Ocher burial style is called a turkey-tail point, because the base end resembles the tail of a turkey. The second burial technique, called Glacial Kame, is thought to be a forerunner to Red Ocher. The burials were placed in gravel knolls and had grave goods such as marine shell ornaments, beads, and gorgets.

Early Woodland (1000 - 300 BC)

The Woodland Tradition was a time of rapid culture change, and includes the development of pottery, burial mounds, and cultivated plants. People hunted and fished, but plant foods became more and more important, eventually leading to the development of agriculture. What began as a process of tending specific plants grew into a system whereby plants were intentionally sown, tended, and harvested -- including corn, beans, and squash --  all of which were developed by Indian people in other parts of the country and introduced to Wisconsin via contact and trade. In general, the introduction of plants and the pots needed to cook grains happened at about the same time, and the first part of this period, the Early Woodland Tradition, is marked by the earliest known Wisconsin pottery at approximately 700 BC. Two pottery types from this period are called Marion Thick and Dane Incised. Marion Thick pottery is thick-walled, coiled pottery with straight walls, a circular mouth, and often a flat bottom. Dane Incised pottery has incised and fingernail-impressed decorations and a base that comes to a rounded point. It has thinner walls than Marion Thick pottery, but both show evidence of careful manufacture and decoration. There is also some evidence that building mounds to hold human burials may have begun during the Early Woodland. The growth of horticulture brought about greater population concentrations and changes in society, including greater differences in individual status and increased ceremonialism.

Middle Woodland (300 BC - AD 400)

In southern Wisconsin during this period, people tended to build their villages along rivers. The southern people hunted, fished, and gathered plants, especially seeds. There is some evidence that the warmer southern climate also allowed them to raise gardens. In the northern part of the state, villages developed along the lakes so people could easily fish and hunt. Emphasis was on Great Lakes fishing, using gill nets, hooks, and harpoons, and intensive seasonal use of fish. Pottery tended to be in the form of heavy pots with pointed bottoms and cordmarked or stamped exteriors. In the northern part of the state, life continued much as it had during the Early Woodland. Shorter growing seasons did not allow much reliance on planted crops, so northern people gathered wild plant foods to augment their hunting and fishing.

During the Middle Woodland, members of what is called the Hopewell culture entered this region from the central and lower Illinois River valley. Wisconsin was a source for copper and other resources, so the Havana Hopewell moved in to trade and develop exchange networks for these resources. Hopewell sites are defined by large earthworks and exotic traded materials, such as chalcedony from North Dakota, jasper from Ohio, shell from the Gulf Coast, and obsidian from Yellowstone. Artifacts from this period include platform pipes, clay figurines, marine shell ornaments, silver sheets, textiles, pearl or copper necklaces, copper breastplates, pan pipes, copper earspools, curved and straight-base monitor pipes, and large corner-notched knives --  almost all of which have been found in burials. Hopewell burials contain many grave goods and were placed in rectangular log tombs in the center of large conical mounds. Not all Hopewell graves include spectacular grave goods and because of this, archaeologists believe that exotic traded goods were used as status symbols or markers of rank by some members of the population.

Although the Hopewell culture cast a broad sphere of influence, the people who came to Wisconsin most likely did not replace the Indian people already living here, but rather lived among them or adjacent to them and influenced local cultural adaptations. Along with traded artifacts, the Hopewell also introduced new ideas about technology, including different kinds of pottery. In Wisconsin, Hopewell pottery tends to have smooth surfaces that are marked with rocker, cord-wrapped stick, or crosshatching. There are often exterior nodes and zoned decorated surfaces on the pots, which are tempered with crushed limestone, sand, or grit. Most Wisconsin Hopewell sites are found along the Mississippi River and in the southern part of the state. A northern variant of the Hopewell called Red Cedar River Hopewell has somewhat fewer grave goods but which included clay funerary masks. The Hopewell presence in Wisconsin ended at about AD 400. Archaeologists do not know what happened to the Hopewell people here or in the Illinois River valley, but Native people in Wisconsin continued their moundbuilding tradition on a smaller scale and no longer included exotic trade goods in burials.

Late Woodland (AD 400 - 1100)

The last Woodland period, called the Late Woodland Tradition, is marked in Wisconsin by the appearance of effigy mounds and the development of the bow and arrow. People tended to live in small farming complexes, especially in the southern part of the state. Farming was a more stable and storable source of food than hunting and gathering. Within specific group territories, Native people moved their settlements to take advantage of specific seasonal resources, such as spring fishing or harvesting wild rice. As populations increased, competition for hunting areas and good agricultural lands may also have increased because there is archaeological evidence for increased conflict between groups.

As with earlier traditions, artifact styles can be used to delineate the Late Woodland period. Projectile points tended to be small and triangular. Ceramic elbow pipes for smoking tobacco and herbal mixtures also became common. Pottery was less decorative than during the Hopewell period, and usually tempered with finely crushed grit. The pottery was thin and hard, shaped into round pots with round bottoms and narrow necks, thickened lips or added collars, surface roughened, and then decorated with corded lines in parallel rows or more complex designs. In the transitional zone in the center of the state -- between what are considered northern and southern areas -- Indian people practiced horticulture, but could not depend on cultivated plants as a food source. In northern Wisconsin the climate was less favorable for corn gardening, so people depended on fishing, hunting, and gathering.

A cultural tradition called the Effigy Mound Tradition seems to coincide with the Late Woodland. Some archaeologists believe the Effigy period began before the Late Woodland, at about AD 300, and continued until the time Columbus came to the New World. It is marked by animal-shaped, conical, and linear mounds, mainly in the southern half of the state. Common animal forms include panther, turtle, bird, and bear. Mounds tend to be located near lakes or rivers with extensive wetlands. Some mounds contained a burial or two, but most have no burials, features, or artifacts in them. Archaeologists do not know the purpose of these mounds. Some think the mounds served as territorial markers, since people were moving with the seasonal changes to take advantage of natural resources. The mounds could also have served as clan markings or maps. Artifacts from the Effigy Mound Tradition include globular ceramic vessels with cord-impressed decorations found on the upper exterior portions, clay elbow pipes, cordage, and catlinite objects. Exotic materials like obsidian and marine shells appear to have become less common. In northern Wisconsin, instead of effigy mounds, Late Woodland people built large multilayered conical mounds. Pottery from these northern mounds is cordmarked and decorated with cordwrapped stick impressions and parallel horizontal cord impressions.

Mississippian Period (AD 900 - 1600)

The last pre-contact period in Wisconsin is called the Mississippian Period. This period is often divided into Middle and Upper Mississippian Traditions, which archaeologists initially used to refer to site location along the Mississippi River. The Middle Mississippian is marked by permanent stockaded villages with pyramidal mounds and plaza areas, but these were probably also surrounded with smaller farming hamlets and settlements. Their pottery was shell tempered and incised with decorations. The people practiced maize, beans, and squash agriculture, but also gathered wild plants and hunted deer and birds, fished, and harvested mussels. A large village site -- preserved in Aztalan State Park in Jefferson County -- is believed to be the northernmost outpost of these people, who are thought to have come to Wisconsin from the prehistoric urban center of Cahokia near St. Louis. As with the Hopewell people, Wisconsin's Native people adopted ideas from these newcomers. Archaeologists once thought that the people at Aztalan practiced cannibalism, but there is no clear evidence for this. Researchers do not know what caused Aztalan's demise, but archaeological excavations have shown evidence of large fires which burned part of the stockaded walls.

In Wisconsin, the Upper Mississippian Tradition is also referred to as the Oneota Tradition. Some archaeologists believe that Oneota represents a Middle Mississippian adaptation to a more northerly climate, while others believe that it represents an entirely different group of people. This period is marked by permanent villages in lake and riverine areas where people practiced gardening, hunting, and gathering. Burials were in low mounds or cemeteries. Artifacts include triangular points, stone drills, ground discoidals, bone and antler tools and ornaments, shell tools and ornaments, fishhooks, lures, and copper ornaments. Pottery includes squat, round-based jars with handles near the rim, wide mouths, and flaring rims. The pots are shell-tempered with a smooth surface decorated with incised lines. Oneota sites tend to be in the southern half of Wisconsin. Some archaeologists believe that the Oneota people were ancestral to the modern-day Ho-Chunk and Ioway tribes, but this idea is not universally accepted.