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Manitowish Waters Prehistoric Overview

Earliest Communites in Manitowish Waters

The land, rivers and lakes of Manitowish Waters have always been prized by Native Americans. Archaeological evidence has documented human occupation and travel routes in our community from 10,000 years ago by the earliest Americans, called Paleo-Indians.  Retreat of the glaciers left a windy, dusty and cold climate for these people. As the glaciers melted and forged the lakes and rivers of our area, Paleo-Indians moved constantly to hunt and gather in this tundra like environment. It is hard to imagine that small bands of nomadic Indians gathered at the key sites of area lakes to fish, gather and hunt a variety of game, including mega-fauna such as mastodons, musk oxen and giant beaver (the size of modern black bears).

The large number of paleo artifacts recovered locally tells an amazing tale regarding the earliest American Indians who frequented the lakes of Manitowish Waters. Stone tools made of Knife Lake Siltstone, Hixton sandstone, chert, jasper and basalt suggests that Paleo-Indians traveled several hundred miles for raw materials, as well as traded to obtain stone material originally located over 1,000 miles away.

As the glaciers receded the large mammals became extinct. The warmer climate changed the landscape from tundra and spruce forests to a mixed conifer/deciduous canopy. A different variety of land-based flora and fauna as well as aquatic resources became available. The change in environment occurred over a long period of time and as people already living in the region adapted to these changes a different long-term American Indian cultural tradition emerged. Called Archaic Indians by archaeologists, these people occupied the Manitowish Waters area 8000 to 2000+ years ago. This 6000 +/- year cultural tradition is divided into early, middle and late Archaic periods. The environmental conditions over these roughly 6000 years continuously evolved and was marked by dramatic changes. During the middle Archaic period the environment became much warmer and dryer, new game like woodland caribou became dominant,  and water levels dropped significantly. Archaic Indian traditions and activities reacted to these environmental shifts and moved toward water when water levels dropped.  Archaic Indians were less nomadic, living along the lakes and rivers in chains like Manitowish Waters where they fished, hunted wild game and gathered food and medicinal plants. They also used new stone tools like axes to utilize larger trees and invented the atlatl to throw spears with greater force. Many of these Archaic sites were inundated by water when the environment shifted back and water levels increased.

In the late Archaic period copper from Lake Superior was used to shape tools such as fish hooks, axes, awls, spear points and knives. Copper sources and tools made from them are an important factor in an extensive trade network that lasted for thousands of years.  The proximity of Manitowish Waters to the Archaic copper mines linked our community to the “Copper Culture” tradition and trade network.

Manitowish Waters has prehistoric evidence of all three Archaic periods: large early Archaic projectile points from post-Paleo hunting of  large mammals, smaller notched projectile points to hunt smaller mammals during the middle Archaic period, and copper artifacts representative of late Archaic.

The transition from Archaic to what archaeologists call Woodland Indians has four identifying markers: invention of the bow and arrow, pottery making, human burials placed in mounds and the practice of cultivating native and imported plants in family gardens. Woodland Indian cultural traditions lasted from approximately 3000 to 500 years ago and represents the final phase of prehistoric Indians in Manitowish Waters. The climate over the past 2000+/- years was generally similar to today and Woodland people settled in villages along lakeshores. Using the village as a base, people would travel distances to hunt or gather seasonal wild foods: waterfowl during spring and fall migration, wild rice in late summer, berries in late spring/summer, and maple syrup in late winter.  These foods supplemented the mammals (deer, elk, caribou, moose, rabbit, squirrel, beaver), fish, turtle and shellfish which formed the mainstay of the Woodland diet.  Cultivated foods like corn, beans and squash are also found on later Woodland sites. Stone tools were made of local materials, including quartzite, cherts and quartz, and the use of copper to make tools also continued. The numerous resources and more sedentary lifestyle resulted in a growing population. The influences of multiple stages of Woodland Indian traditions are present in Manitowish Waters. Most artifacts discovered in our area are from Woodland cultural traditions.

In the cultural sequence of the Midwest, Mississippian cultures migrating from the south and west, appear around 1000 years ago. In northern Wisconsin, more elaborate pottery vessels have been found on later Woodland sites. Some scholars argue that this may indicate trade and intermarriage between these two groups.   Mississippian lifestyles were heavily centered around the seasons for cultivating plants and may not have found most portions of northern Wisconsin suitable for intensive farming. Recent archaeological discoveries regarding precontact Menominee garden sites and associative pottery in northern Wisconsin suggests an established regional Oneota culture https://vimeo.com/213013405.  Importantly, discoveries of woodland sites in eastern Vilas County and to the north suggest at least seasonal usage of the region by Menominee decedents before European contact. No large scale agriculture, effigy mounds or platform mounds representative of late Woodland, Mississippian or Oneota cultures existed in Manitowish Waters.

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