3,000-Year-Old Dugout Canoe Recovered From Wisconsin Lake

Archaeologists believe it’s the oldest canoe ever found in the Great Lakes region

Cleaning the canoe
Members of Ho-Chunk Nation and the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa help clean the 3,000-year-old canoe found in Lake Mendota. Courtesy of Dean Witter / Wisconsin Historical Society

While teaching a scuba diving lesson this spring, Tamara Thomsen spotted a piece of wood poking out of the sand of Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota. Though many people would’ve thought nothing of it, Thomsen—a maritime archaeologist—had a strong feeling the find was more than just driftwood.

That’s because, about a year earlier, Thomsen had discovered a 1,200-year-old canoe at the same lake in Madison. And her hunch was right: The piece of wood was part of another dugout canoe, this one an estimated 3,000 years old, the Wisconsin Historical Society revealed last week.

“Not a joke: I found another dugout canoe,” Thomsen texted her boss in May, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Sophie Carson.

Canoe underwater
The canoe on the bottom of Lake Mendota Courtesy of Tamara Thomsen / Wisconsin Historical Society

The canoe—carved around 1,000 B.C.E., likely by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation—is made from a single piece of white oak that stretches 14.5 feet long. Archaeologists believe it’s the oldest canoe ever found in the Great Lakes region by 1,000 years; it’s also the earliest direct evidence of water transportation used by Indigenous peoples in the region.

“This one predates agriculture, predates pottery. This one predates all of Wisconsin's [effigy] mounds,” says Amy Rosebrough, an archaeologist with the historical society, to the Wisconsin State Journal’s Barry Adams. “I don't have words for what this is right now. I can't really think of much that competes with this. I really can't. I mean Wisconsin has incredible archaeology, but this is stellar.”

Thomsen's latest find was located only about 100 yards from the canoe she stumbled across in June 2021, while swimming on her day off. The vessels’ close proximity suggests that the shoreline of Lake Mendota, the largest of Madison’s five freshwater lakes, probably shifted over time. Indigenous people likely once lived in ancient villages where the water is now.

Recovering the canoe
Volunteers and archaeologists move the canoe found in Lake Mendota. Courtesy of Dean Witter / Wisconsin Historical Society

Finding 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, the Wisconsin Historical Society state archaeologist, in a statement.

The historical society now plans to work with members of the Ho-Chunk Nation to search for more canoes and other artifacts from possible submerged villages. They aim to launch a systematic search of the lake this winter, per NPR's Juliana Kim.

Canoe close-up
A close-up of the 3,000-year-old canoe Courtesy of Dean Witter / Wisconsin Historical Society

Citizens of Ho-Chunk Nation and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa helped hand-excavate the 3,000-year-old canoe from the sand this spring, along with archaeologists and volunteers. They then transported the canoe to a state preservation facility in Madison, where tribal members and archaeologists carefully cleaned and lowered it into a large preservation vat that already contains the 1,200-year-old canoe found in 2021.

Experts will spend the next two years preserving the canoes, a process that includes freeze-drying them to remove any remaining lake water.

The canoe
The canoe after being recovered from Lake Mendota in Madison Courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society

The canoes will then feature prominently in a new 100,000-square-foot history museum slated to open in Madison in 2026, per the Wisconsin State Journal.

“Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it,” says Marlon WhiteEagle, Ho-Chunk Nation president, in the statement. “By preserving this canoe, we are honoring those that came before us.”