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Ioway Cultural Institute : History :

Archaeology reveals culture of region

By Mike DuPré
Gazette Staff

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 years ago.

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 Muscoda.

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, Salzer said.

"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 southern Wisconsin.

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," Salzer said.

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 the earth.

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 daily lives.

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 and humidity.

The harvest and serious hunting were done in the fall.

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," Salzer said.

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," Salzer said.

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 of copper.

"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 particularly friendly to the Ho-Chunk ancestors. The Ho-Chunk were more democratic than the Mississippians."

The Ho-Chunk ancestors had an egalitarian society in which a council of elders made decisions by consensus.

"The Mississippians 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," Salzer said.

"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 Oneota response.

"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 shallow pits.

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" farms.

"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 the field."

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