Archaeologists Discover Ancient Canoes Hidden Beneath a Wisconsin Lake

One of the vessels dates back around 4,500 years, making it the oldest ever found in the Great Lakes region

Lake Mendota Canoe
A 3,000-year-old canoe at the bottom of Lake Mendota Tamara Thomsen / Wisconsin Historical Society

Maritime archaeologists have found nearly a dozen canoes at the bottom of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. The vessels vary significantly in age, dating to between 2500 B.C.E. and 1250 C.E.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has been working in collaboration with Indigenous leaders, the oldest was created some 4,500 years ago—making it the oldest ever recorded in the Great Lakes region.

The canoes were found in a section of lakebed in the ancestral territory of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Researchers say the new discoveries could shed light on Indigenous communities that lived in the area.

“We have a lot to learn from the Mendota canoe site, and the research happening today allows us to better understand and share the stories of the people who lived here and had a thriving culture here since time immemorial,” says Larry Plucinski, a historic preservation officer with Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, in a statement.

Archaeologists uncovered the first vessel, a 1,200-year-old dugout canoe, in 2021. The following year, they found a second canoe, which was 3,000 years old. Divers successfully retrieved both boats and brought them back to a preservation facility in Madison for further conservation and study. Since then, divers have been carefully scanning the area.

Canoe Research and Preservation
The Wisconsin Historical Society's Katie Latham and Amy Rosebrough work to preserve the 3,000-year-old dugout canoe. Dean Witter / Wisconsin Historical Society

“It was becoming clear that we weren’t just looking at one canoe that had sunk, or two canoes—that we had an assemblage, and they might not all be the same,” Amy Rosebrough, a state archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society, tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Sophie Carson, adding: “We had guessed that people were traveling by dugout throughout this period, but this is absolute proof of it.”

Researchers have now identified up to 11 historic canoes in the area. The boats are constructed from different kinds of trees—elm, ash, white oak, cottonwood and red oak—reflecting changing environmental conditions.

“The Indigenous peoples of Wisconsin and the wider United States fished, traveled and traded extensively on inland lakes and streams, and until now we have not had a clear look at the canoes used in the Great Lakes region,” Rosebrough tells Fox News Digital’s Andrea Vacchiano.

She adds, “To put it in modern terms, it’s like trying to understand life in the Midwest without ever seeing a real pickup truck in person. Canoes allowed people to fish in deeper lakes, to transport goods over hundreds of miles and to travel to faraway places.”

The boats were all located in an 800-foot area that was likely once a shoreline, according to the historical society. Researchers think that Indigenous communities intentionally kept the canoes in the water during the winter to prevent them from freezing and warping. Over time, natural forces likely buried the boats and submerged the shoreline.

Canoe transport
Staffers from the Wisconsin Historical Society transport an ancient canoe after divers retrieved it from Lake Mendota. Dean Witter / Wisconsin Historical Society

Eventually, the first two dugout canoes recovered by divers will be displayed at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s History Center, which is scheduled to open in 2027.

“Seeing these canoes with one’s own eyes is a powerful experience, and they serve as a physical representation of what we know from extensive oral traditions that Native scholars have passed down over generations,” says Bill Quackenbush, a historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation, in the statement.

The other canoes will remain undisturbed at the bottom of the lakebed. They are too fragile to move.

“Once you get a little further back in time, the wood isn’t really wood anymore,” Rosebrough tells WPR’s Sarah Lehr. “It’s fairly mushy. When you touch it, it feels kind of like a bagel that’s been left out in the rain. All that’s holding the rest of the wood up is the water inside.”

The team has also been photographing the vessels’ remains in situ and studying the site using ground-penetrating radar, a non-invasive technology used to examine historic sites without causing damage. Additional analysis of the site is ongoing.

“What’s eating away at me, honestly, is: Are there more?” adds Rosebrough. “Is there a bathtub ring of canoes all the way around Lake Mendota? And that’s just one lake.” Perhaps, she says, additional vessels are waiting to be discovered nearby.

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