Archaeology reveals culture of region
By Mike DuPré
Local Wisconsin families go "up north" to cool
homes to beat the heat and humidity of summer.
Illinois residents do the same, vacationing on a
cool and breezy island in Lake Superior.
It happens every summer, and it happened 1,000
Bob Salzer, professor of anthropology and
anthropological archaeologist at Beloit College,
has extensive expertise on the region's
archaeological history because for years he has
studied the Gottschall site, where rock paintings
of the Ho-Chunk ancestors have been excavated.
The site is a "rock shelterment," or cave, in Iowa
County, north of the Wisconsin River and near
In addition, Ho-Chunk effigy mounds have been
found in Rock County and Janesville but not cave
paintings such as at Gottschall.
Many effigy mounds were in the shape of
thunderbirds, bears and turtles, which the
Ho-Chunk ancestors revered as naturalistic deities.
The effigy mounds generally were 2 to 3 feet high,
"Almost all the mounds have burials, but that
doesn't seem to be the main reason--because
some don't have burials," he said.
Because of their cave paintings--and probably their
cultivated fields--the Ho-Chunk ancestors of 1,000
years ago were not nomads.
"They probably died within 50 miles of their birth.
The cave paintings were difficult to leave. They
were cultural ties, and their cultural landscape was
filled with ancestors," Salzer said.
Scholars have developed several theories about
who the residents of this region were 1,000 years
ago. Salzer believes the Ho-Chunk ancestors were
native to the area 1,000 years ago and that
another group of Native Americans, the
Mississippians, essentially invaded what is now
To resist the Mississippians, the Ho-Chunk
ancestors formed a confederacy known as the
Oneota, Salzer theorizes.
After 900 A.D., Ho-Chunk agriculture evolved into
an intensive enterprise in this region.
Main crops were "corn, beans and squash, the holy
trinity in the New World," Salzer said. Gourds,
sunflowers, tobacco and weedy plants that
produced seeds also were cultivated.
Corn was introduced gradually into the region
around 900 to 1000 A.D., from either the
southeast, southwest or both.
Cultivation was extensive. Planted fields could
encompass 200 to 500 acres.
The Ho-Chunk ancestors lived in permanent
villages that probably lasted 20 years or so until
the building materials of wood and bark wore out.
"Some were more substantial post buildings,"
Though it's difficult to determine how big the
typical village was, Salzer estimated a village's
population at a dozen to 50 people.
The Ho-Chunk were divided into clans with distinct
rights, responsibilities and duties. The two major
groups were the Thunderbirds and the Bears.
Thunderbirds were secular leaders who had the
power to start fires but were banned from digging
in the earth. Bears became the security or police
force; they could not start fires but could dig in
Such a division of rights and duties ensured that
the clans would cooperate to work for their mutual
survival. Ho-Chunk ancestors were required to
marry outside their clans, ensuring an intertwining
of genetic traits and creating interdependence.
The Ho-Chunk used the bow and arrow to hunt and
fight. Their stone knives were small and
leaf-shaped. They fished with bone harpoons and
bone hooks and made lures from clam shells.
Deer, elk, bison, fish and clams provided meat and
protein for the Ho-Chunk.
They generally made their clothing from buckskin.
In time they learned to weave textiles--probably
from their enemies, the Mississippians. Woven
textiles were major trade items.
The Ho-Chunk probably ate one major meal a day
and snacked as they felt hungry. Kids chewed on
maple syrup as candy.
A thousand years ago, the average Ho-Chunk
lifespan probably was 35 to 45 years. Men's
average height was about 5-foot-6. They lived in
family units of four to five people that might
include a sister-in-law or grandfather.
The seasons determined how they spent their
In the spring, the entire family searched
waterways for mussels, clams and spawning fish.
Everyone planted seeds for the year's crops.
Spring also was a time for the people to gather to
reinforce and celebrate marriages--the Ho- Chunk
were basically monogamous--and bury the dead.
"The bulk of deaths were over the winter. Just like
now, winter then was when most people died,"
Salzer said. "Getting back together in a group was
a way to reaffirm social solidarity. They would
gather, party, sanctify marriages. Then give
everyone a bucket of dirt, and they'd go out and
build a mound."
In the summer, women tended crops while men
fished or simply lay around.
"Summer was down time for the men. The family
might take (some time off) and go to the caves."
Evidence has been found of Illini summer
encampments on Madeline Island in Lake Superior,
indicating that Native Americans, just like today's
society, moved north in the summer to avoid heat
The harvest and serious hunting were done in the
Men hunted year-round, but in the fall, migratory
waterfowl moved through the region, and animals,
especially deer, achieved their greatest weight.
"Winter was down time. They'd live off the
supplies they laid in. Winter was a time for
story-telling and major ceremonies. The snakes,
the evil spirits, had gone back into underworld,"
The Ho-Chunk religion is "most difficult to assess.
They believed in a soul and an afterworld, or else
there was no reason for burial."
The Ho-Chunk ancestors occupied this region for a
long span, dating back to 1500 B.C.
Material, such as the cave paintings near Muscoda,
date to around 1000 A.D.
One group of cave paintings can be identified as
part of tribal legend, the Legend of Red Horn,
whose genesis was probably the Mississippians'
occupation of the region.
Archaeologists and anthropologists call them the
Mississippians because their main settlement was
by the Mississippi River in southern Illinois near
what is now East St. Louis.
Called Cahokia, the settlement could have had as
many as 10,000 residents, probably priests of
different cults and their followers, Salzer said.
Monk Mound, a multilevel pyramid excavated at
Cahokia, covers 16 acres. Its base--1,000 by 900
feet--is the second largest base of any discovered
pyramid in the world.
The Mississippians built the pyramid out of dirt
and incorporated silt layers to act as drainage
tubes, Salzer said.
"They were sophisticated engineers. They had a
great deal of experience building such mounds."
The Mississippians had a chiefdom in which a
priest/king ruled and controlled access to food.
"This was a stratified society that the Ho-Chunk
ancestors had never seen before: rulers with
absolute power. The Ho-Chunk ruled by consensus,
and no one controlled food. But these guys
did--even if you were the one who grew the food,"
The grave of one priest-king was found to contain
the bodies of 53 young women--ages estimated at
16 to 26, whose sacrifice for the chief's spirit was
probably a "reflection of the chief's earthly power."
Wealth in the form of piles of arrowheads, copper
from Lake Superior and sheet mica--mineral
silicate--from Georgia were found in the grave.
Such power and far-reaching trade developed an
aristocracy and a bureaucracy, and the subjugation
of ever-increasing numbers of people were
necessary to support the chiefdom.
The Mississippians might have spread into
southern Wisconsin to take its resources of deer
meat, buckskin and Ho-Chunk crops to support
their complex society south of this area.
"The elite had power," Salzer noted. "In a
chiefdom, the chief is in charge of redistribution of
goods and services. They're defended by the gods,
the evidence of which is productivity and success.
"When the chiefs emerged, they forced the
peasants to produce much more corn than (the
population) needed. They used it in trade as
prestige for the chief. It bought luxuries that were
awesome to the peasants, sheets of mica, sheets
"It was pyramid-type structure of society with
aristocracy at top. They were forcing women to use
a type of gruel to wean children so they could
have more children" to increase the population of
workers supporting the chiefdom.
The Mississippians were so successful at conquest
and rule that they enforced a kind of Pax
Mississippian in the region. They needed no
fortifications at their center of power, Cahokia,
and the surrounding countryside.
But their outpost at Aztalan, east of Lake Mills in
Jefferson County, was fortified, indicating they had
to defend the settlement from others, probably
the region's natives, the Ho-Chunk ancestors.
"These people came
into Wisconsin with a
whole new religion, a
whole new political
order. They were not
to the Ho-Chunk
Ho-Chunk were more
democratic than the
ancestors had an
egalitarian society in
which a council of
elders made decisions
built a string of
communities like Aztalan that dotted the landscape in
southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois," Salzer said.
"They were creating a frontier. Their houses were built with
mud plaster on the walls. They were very substantial
things. If you drove a car into one, you'd total the car, and
little damage would be done to the house."
At Aztalan, archaeologists found "strong evidence of
cannibalism: a head with butchering marks in a garbage pit,
a hand in a garbage pit. They'd find human bones with deer
bones," Salzer said.
Before 1000 A.D., the Ho-Chunk ancestors took to the
warpath, which generally involved isolated ambushes, but
they did not engage in warfare, or organized battles for
conquest for territory.
"The warpath was a way for young boys to become
warriors. It was not necessary as a part of manhood; it was
necessary for acceptance into the fraternity of warriors,"
"The warpath was highly organized, highly structured. It
was done for prestige or revenge. They'd scout one or two
people (who had done some perceived wrong) to kill. They'd
kill them and bring back the heads or scalps. If they were
unsuccessful killing a human, they'd kill a deer and celebrate
just as much."
The Mississippians, on the other hand, waged total war for
conquest, not unlike many World War II campaigns. They
fielded armies of warriors wearing armor who burned
villages and killed entire populations. If they allowed
survivors, the Mississippians seized them as slaves. The
Ho-Chunk, too, would take slaves.
For the Ho-Chunk to survive the Mississippian's organized
onslaught, they had to organize, Salzer theorized.
He thinks the natives of this region formed the Oneota, a
political system like a confederacy of tribes.
"I think the Oneota was a response to the Mississippians. It
was an attempt to preserve rule by consensus and, at the
same time, to pool human and physical resources to better
respond to the better organized Mississippians," the
professor said. "It's likely that many different people joined.
There is evidence that some did not.
"By 1300 A.D., the Mississippians were gone. It may have
been more a case of internal Mississippian politics than
"In a chiefdom, when the chiefs are not successful, lose
battles, that's a sign that the gods have abandoned you, and
the peasants vote with their feet. There's nothing worse
than a hereditary class of elite rulers with nothing to rule."
The Mississippian presence in this region peaked between
1050 and 1200 A.D., and by 1200, the Oneota are
widespread, Salzer said.
One of the places the Oneotas certainly lived was on the
shores of Lake Koshkonong. Remnants of Oneota
settlements has been found at Carcajou and Crabapple
points. At Carcajou Point, the Oneota of about 1,000 years
ago apparently lived in small rectangular houses built over
Oneota women performed crucial roles.
"If they were not the decision-makers, they appointed the
decision-makers," Salzer said. "And if they did not make
good decisions, they would be replaced."
The Oneota accomplished achievements many latter-day
observers might think were the sole province of more
modern Europeans: multifamily housing and "corporate"
"Oneota had huge houses, 400 feet long. I'd guess as many
as 10 families would live in them. They had huge fields.
There is a story that you could shoot an arrow all day long
(from one landing spot to the next) and not reach the end of
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