3,000-Year-Old Canoe Found in Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Region

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by Emrah Cetin / Getty Images)

The Great Lakes of North America are no ordinary bodies of fresh water. Covering an area of over 90,000 square miles, the five interconnected lakes are so large, and their waters so treacherous, that they more closely resemble an ocean than what one would consider a typical lake.

Formed near the end of the last ice age, scientists estimate the Great Lakes are anywhere from 7,000 to 32,000 years old. In total, the Lakes house around one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. And within this vast expanse of water are more than 6,000 shipwrecks, close to 200 species of fish, and countless fossils dating back thousands of years, making the ancient lakes historical and archeological hotspots.

Researchers’ most recent find, however, was one of their most impressive yet. In Lake Mendota, just 100 miles west of Lake Michigan, the Wisconsin Historical Society, together with Wisconsin’s Native Nations, unearthed the oldest canoe ever found in the Great Lakes region.

“Members from the Ho-Chunk Nation and Bad River Tribe were present at the canoe recovery,” the historical society explained in a news release.

Discovered in pieces in the lake bed, the impossibly old canoe came from a single piece of white oak. According to the historical society, indigenous people built and used the canoe 3,000 years ago. The 14.5-foot boat was found just feet away from where a 1,200-year-old canoe was found fully intact last year.

Ancient Great Lakes Canoes Remain Under Restoration

The unbelievable find of not one but two Native American canoes dating back millennia is only the beginning for preservationists. Since the find, they’ve been hard at work restoring the Great Lakes boats in a process that will take two years.

“Finding an additional historically significant canoe in Lake Mendota is truly incredible,” said James Skibo, the historical society’s resident archaeologist. “[It] unlocks invaluable research and educational opportunities to explore the technological, cultural, and stylistic changes that occurred in dugout canoe design over 3,000 years.”

Because researchers found the canoes so close to each other, they’re now hypothesizing that Lake Mendota could house an entire village, long submerged underwater.

“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,” Skibo said.

As for Native Americans present for the find, the Great Lakes canoes provide further proof that Native people have resided in the region for thousands of years.

“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,” said Ho-Chunk President Marlon WhiteEagle. “Every person that harvested and constructed this caašgegu (white oak) into a canoe put a piece of themselves into it.”