in Wisconsin History
All communities have stories that describe their beginning. These stories connect the community to the world at large, and they establish the foundations for group behavior and unity. This traditional history is carefully nurtured, guarded, and passed from one generation to the next, for it serves as the soul of the community. Traditional stories incorporate factual accounts of events and the creative interpretations necessary to engage community members and weave diverse narratives into a coherent whole. Inappropriate behavior is identified and the punishments prescribed; appropriate behavior is extolled and the rewards detailed. These stories prepare individuals for membership in their community and prepare the communities for the inevitable dramatic changes that engulf them, sometimes changing them forever. Funny, poignant, serious, and sometimes grisly, these carefully considered and informative stories form a central part of people's everyday lives.
For thousands of years traditional stories held the world's history; today they form the core that holds many communities together. Slowly and cautiously a new concept, a new way of understanding history and the world, developed in the early decades of the seventeenth century in Europe and later in the United States. Europeans began to understand that the world was much older than they realized and that human history stretched back over millennia. This realization set off a search for our early ancestors both in Europe and in America.
In America much of the earliest archaeological activity focused upon the identification and documentation of the amazing earthworks that occupied large sections of the country's midsection. By 1860, the quest for the First Americans began to share the spotlight with burial- and effigy-mound research. Both endeavors involved avocational archaeologists, professional archaeologists, geologists, and anthropologists. Between 1860 and the consensus-confirming discovery at Folsom, New Mexico, in 1927, these individuals came to realize that the early history of the Americas was different from that of Europe. They established a set of criteria for evaluating the validity of archaeological reports concerning the First Americans. And, at least in their own minds, they established that American Indians had been in the Americas for thousands if not tens of thousands of years. In addition to the artifacts they recovered, these early archaeologists incorporated information from geology and paleontology, soil science, human biology, and the behaviors and histories of living American Indians. This practice of consulting diverse sources to develop as complete a picture of the past as possible continues today. The work of these pioneers did not answer all the questions concerning the First Americans, but it did set the stage for a new round of questions.
Archaeologists refer to the First Americans and their cultures as Paleo-Indians. Members of these communities followed the retreat of glacial ice northward across Wisconsin. They developed a mobile lifestyle that allowed them to mimic the ebb and flow of game and changes in the availability of plant foods and other resources as they moved easily from place to place. Although these small communities were often isolated, they did meet other groups, and these meetings served important social functions, probably occurring at spiritually charged locations.
Paleo-Indian communities were not unchanging. In fact, to survive they had to be shrewd and capable of adapting to changing social and environmental conditions. They did this so effectively that these communities sustained themselves for nearly five thousand years, circa 12,500 to 8,000 years ago. They prospered not only by adapting to changing conditions and being willing to learn new ways of living, but also by retaining important elements of a strong ancestral legacy. At this point in time, archaeologists cannot identify specific Paleo-Indian political entities, but it is clear that different groups of Paleo-Indians lived in Wisconsin. These political entities may be reflected in the different types of spear points that have been recovered in the state. The different point styles may also reflect the changes these people made as they adapted to new conditions.
In Wisconsin, First American sites came to broad public attention in 1897, when members of the Dosch family saw the bones of a large animal in an eroded stream bank. Digging unearthed a nearly complete mastodon skeleton. Two spear points were also recovered with the bones at this site, near Boaz, Wisconsin. This spectacular find was widely publicized, prompting others to look for similar sites.
More Paleo-Indian points were discovered and their locations identified. Many of these artifacts were donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society and other museums. The recovery, reporting, and analysis of these points revealed that Wisconsin's first residents had lived in all corners of the state. The collections became the core of an ever-expanding base of information on the first residents of Wisconsin, and they are reanalyzed as new questions come to the foreground.
Wisconsin has become an important place in the search for answers to questions about the First Americans. Weaving together information from museum collections and private sources, and following up these inquiries with extensive fieldwork, archaeologists have located five sites in southeastern Wisconsin where bones from mammoths appear to exhibit evidence of butchering. Stone tools were recovered at two of these locations. These sites, and the early dates associated with them -- 12,500 to 12,000 years ago -- sent shock waves through the archaeological community and made front-page news. These research efforts continue, and people are waiting to see what exciting new information comes to light.
[Sources: Birmingham, Robert A. and Leslie E. Eisenberg. Indian Mounds of Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, c2000). Theler, James L. and and Robert F. Boszhardt. Twelve Millennia: Archaeology of the Upper Mississippi River Valley (Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, c2003). The History of Wisconsin: volume 1, From Exploration to Statehood by Alice E. Smith. (Madison, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1973)]