‘A portal to the past’: Second ancient canoe pulled from Lake Mendota—dating back to 1,000 B.C.

MADISON, Wis. — With a bit of help, another ancient piece of history has sailed home to the Ho-Chunk Nation — and marked Lake Mendota as having preserved the oldest canoe ever discovered in the Great Lakes region.

Maritime archaeologists with the Wisconsin Historical Society alongside members of Wisconsin’s Native Nations recovered a 3,000-year-old canoe Thursday morning from 30 feet under Lake Mendota. The discovery came just 100 yards away from another: last year, the Society recovered a 1,200-year-old canoe from Lake Mendota’s waters in November.

RELATED: 1,200-year-old canoe pulled from Lake Mendota

For Ho-Chunk Nation president Marlon WhiteEagle, the discovery points to the significance of the Ho-Chunk tribe’s ancestry in the region dating back several millennia.

“It shows that we had a society with transportation, trade, commerce that was a part of our fabric of society back then,” he said. “Recognize that our ancestors have been here and they thrived here in this region.”

Maritime archaeologists started carefully excavating the canoe by hand from the sediment on Monday, then in a roughly two-hour operation on Thursday morning, teams of Society divers and skilled volunteers towed the canoe to shore by placing it on a piece of polycarbonate plastic, then lifted it into a hammock sitting on air mattresses to support it on the trip across the water.

The canoe is in several pieces and faces a lengthy restoration process: Tribal members and Society staff will clean the canoe at the State Archive Preservation Facility, where it will then join the 1,200-year-old canoe in a large preservation vat and undergo a two-year preservation process that involves freeze-drying. The pandemic has delayed the restoration of the first canoe, experts noted.

The canoe’s discovery

“This is not a joke.”

It took some convincing for maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen to get her boss to believe she’d discovered a second dugout canoe in Lake Mendota. In May, she’d been scuba-diving with a student in Lake Mendota near the Shorewood Boathouse area. A seasoned archaeologist who specializes in shipwreck sites on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, she knew almost immediately what the exposed end of the canoe was.

But it took three rounds of carbon dating with three different places to believe its age: the canoe dates back to about 1,000 B.C. — 1,800 years older than the canoe discovered last year.

“It’s unfathomable to think about the people that lived on this landscape before us and how long ago it was,” Thomsen said. “I wrote down the number on a piece of paper and, like, looked at it a couple of times to make sure that I could get my head wrapped around it.”

The discovery points to the possibility that Lake Mendota’s shoreline has changed and had once been lower — a discovery that brings more questions about an era archeologists are still researching.

“Finding an additional historically significant canoe in Lake Mendota is truly incredible and unlocks invaluable research and educational opportunities to explore the technological, cultural, and stylistic changes that occurred in dugout canoe design over 3,000 years,” Society state archaeologist Dr. James Skibo said in a statement. “The find has prompted us to research fluctuating water levels and ancient shorelines to explore the possibility that the canoes were near what is now submerged village sites.”

One of two First Nations in Wisconsin and headquartered in Black River Falls, the Ho-Chunk Nation’s ancestral land stretches across five states, including Wisconsin.

Last year’s canoe came from the Moundbuilders, ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation — and this new discovery points to more evidence of a civilization that archeologists are still studying. Society CEO Christian Overland wonders — were there villages in the area now covered by Lake Mendota?

“This is a rare opportunity for people to understand the Ho-Chunk’s ancestors through a lens, through an object,” Overland said. “Is it a new pathway and portal to the past? …That’s part of the story we’re going to bring up out of the water–and the investigation starts. The storytelling starts. History moves forward in a new way.”


Photojournalist Mark Schilling contributed to this report.