Diver Tamara’s dual discoveries pay homage to Native Americans

Marine archaeologist Tamara Thomsen was not working but enjoying a recreational dive last November when she came across the remains of a canoe. It turned out to be 1,200 years old.

“I’ve never seen this underwater [before] and I don’t think I’ll go back to that in my career,” she told reporters – but six months later she found another canoe, and this one was 3,000 years old. It was by far the oldest ever found in the Great Lakes region of North America.

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This ancient device has just been raised from Lake Mendota in Wisconsin by a team of divers, in the presence of the descendants of the Native Americans who would have once paddled it. Carved from white oak, the two canoes had been preserved for centuries in lake sediments, although recent partial exposure had left them in fragile condition.

Tamara Thomsen – not one but two canoe finds (WHS)

Thomsen works for the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) and made his breakthrough discoveries in the largest of the four lakes in the state capital, Madison. Both canoes lay on a steep slope at a depth of about 8 m.

The first, which on the face of it had been built in the 1950s, turned out to contain oval stones which are now thought to have been net sinkers used for fishing. After a timber sample was carbon dated to around AD 800, the canoe was raised for preservation.

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The second discovery in May again happened by chance, when Thomsen was giving a diving lesson near where she made her first discovery. The WHS archaeologists were so amazed when the results of carbon testing on the antlers of the second canoe dated it to around 1000 BC that they repeated the test three times to be certain.

The discovery of Tamara's canoe
The second canoe excavated on the lake bed (WHS)

Found without fishing gear, the oldest canoe dates from the Late Archaic period when Native Americans were hunter-gatherers wandering in groups of no more than 60 people. Although archaeologists knew they would have had the tools to carve a canoe out of a tree trunk, the discovery provided the first physical evidence – and its confident design suggested that even 3,000 years ago , such ships were nothing new.

The owner of the canoe is said to have been an ancestor of the Ho-Chunk Nation (People of the Big Voice) who still inhabit the area. “The recovery of this canoe built by our ancestors provides further physical evidence that Aboriginal people have occupied Teejop (Four Lakes) for millennia, that our ancestral lands are here and that we had a developed society of transportation, trade and commerce” said Ho-Chunk President Marlon WhiteEagle.

The discovery of Tamara's canoe
Ho-Chunk Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Bill Quackenbush works with his son Lucas to help clean up the 3,000-year-old canoe (WHS)

“Every person who harvested and built this caašgegu (white oak) in a canoe put a piece of themselves there. By preserving this canoe, we honor those who have gone before us. We appreciate our partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, which works together to preserve a part of not only the history of our ancestors, but also the history of our state.

Raising Canoe 2

Representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation and Bad River Tribe stood by on September 22 as a WHS dive team worked in very low visibility, often touch alone, to lift the canoe, which measured 4.4m but was broken into several pieces. A plastic stretcher and tarpaulin were slipped underneath so it could be lifted using lifting bags and towed ashore.

2022 WHS Mendota Canoe 2,061 copy
Divers keep the dinghy stable on its raft while towing it to shore (WHS)

Both canoes are currently undergoing a two-year storage period in a tank until they are deemed strong enough to be reassembled.

Archaeologists believe that the owners used to sink their canoes in shallow water to preserve them during the winters, and that they could have lost them if severe flooding had left them in deeper water.

The discovery of Tamara's canoe
Archaeologists James Skibo and Tamara Thomsen bump their fists after successfully lifting the canoe (WHS)

“Finding an additional canoe of historical significance in Lake Mendota is truly incredible and opens up invaluable research and educational opportunities to explore the technological, cultural and stylistic changes that have occurred in canoe design over 3,000 years” , commented WHS state archaeologist Dr. James Skibo, and he suggested further excavations were now needed.

“Since it was located less than 100 meters from where the first canoe was found, at the bottom of a waterfall in the lake bed, the discovery prompted us to look for the fluctuating water levels and the ancient shorelines to explore the possibility that canoes were near what are now sites of submerged villages,” he said.

Also on Divernet: Diver’s Jawbone Find Sparked Archaeological Breakthrough

Nohemi M. Moore