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What a find! 3,000-year-old canoe pulled from Wisconsin lake

The Wisconsin Historical Society says the 14.5 foot dugout canoe was pulled from Lake Mendota Thursday, and was dated using radiocarbon technology.
Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society
Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologists recovered a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, on Sept. 22, 2022.

MADISON, Wis. — There are old boats, and then... there is THIS. 

Researchers pulled a dugout canoe thought to be 3,000-years-old from the waters of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin Thursday. Carved from a single piece of white oak, the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) says the canoe is 14.5 feet long, and carbon dating technology puts the date of its creation at approximately 1,000 B.C. 

The canoe was originally discovered at the bottom of Lake Mendota by WHS maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen during a recreational dive in May, within 100 yards of a canoe recovered last year that is dated at 1,200 years old. 

“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,” said WHS archaeologist Dr. James Skibo. “Since it was located within 100 yards of where the first canoe was found at the bottom of a drop-off in the lakebed, 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.”

Area Native American tribal leaders were on hand when the canoe was pulled from Lake Mendota. They, along with scientists, are hopeful that the discovery shines a light on the story of early native life in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes Region. 

Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society
The canoe is carefully transported from the beach to a waiting trailer. Among those carrying the canoe are Bill Quackenbush (third from front on the right), the Ho-Chunk Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, and Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen (left, second from front), who found the canoe at the bottom of Lake Mendota in May 2022. Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologists recovered a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, on Sept. 22, 2022.

“The recovery of this canoe built by our ancestors gives further physical proof that Native people have occupied Teejop (Four Lakes) for millennia, that our ancestral lands are here and we had a developed society of transportation, trade and commerce,” reflected Ho-Chunk Tribal President Marlon WhiteEagle. “Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it. By preserving this canoe, we are honoring those that came before us."

WHS says the canoe was hand-excavated in preparation for Thursday’s recovery mission, then carefully and securely transported to the State Archive Preservation Facility in Madison to be stored and preserved. Tribal members and WHS staffers will clean the vessel before it is hand-lowered into a large preservation vat that also contains the 1,200-year-old canoe. 

Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society
Wisconsin State Archaeologist Jim Skibo, front left, raises his arm as dive team members walk the dugout canoe to shore at Spring Harbor Beach. Also helping in the operation is Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen (right, third from front), who found the dugout canoe while exploring Lake Mendota in May 2022. Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologists recovered a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe from Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, on Sept. 22, 2022.

Together, both canoes will undergo a two-year preservation process that concludes with freeze-drying to remove any remaining water. 

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