Archaeologists Found the Oldest Canoe in the Great Lakes Region

Tamara Thomsen discovered a piece of wood peeking out of the sand of Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota this spring while instructing a scuba diving session there. Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist, had a suspicion that the find was more than simply driftwood even though many people would have passed it by without a second glance. This is due to Thomsen’s discovery of a 1,200-year-old canoe at the same Madison lake. The Wisconsin Historical Society disclosed this week that the piece of wood was really from another dugout canoe that was thought to be around 3,000 years old.

Archaeologists Found the Oldest Canoe in the Great Lakes Region

The Canoe Is a Rare Find!

Thomsen’s most recent discovery was barely a hundred yards or so from the one she discovered in June 2021 while swimming on her day off. The proximity of the vessel indicates that Lake Mendota’s coastline, the largest of Madison’s five freshwater lakes, has likely changed over time. Ancient communities where the water is currently were probably formerly inhabited by indigenous people.

The discovery of a second canoe in the same region “unlocks invaluable research and educational opportunities to explore the technological, cultural, and stylistic changes that occurred in dugout canoe design over 3,000 years,” says James Skibo, state archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The historical organization now intends to collaborate with Ho-Chunk Nation members in the quest for other relics from possibly drowned settlements. According to NPR’s Juliana Kim, they want to conduct a thorough search of the lake this winter.

Hand-Excavating a 3,000 Canoe

Along with archaeologists and volunteers, members of the Ho-Chunk Nation and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa assisted in hand-excavating the 3,000-year-old canoe from the sand this spring. The canoe was then delivered to a state preservation facility in Madison, where tribe members and archaeologists painstakingly cleaned it before placing it in a sizable preservation tank that also holds the 1,200-year-old canoe discovered in 2021.

The canoes will be preserved over the next two years by experts, who will also freeze-dry them to get rid of any last bits of lake water. The canoes will then take center stage in a brand-new history museum with 100,000 square feet of space that will debut in Madison in 2026.