Thursday, December 17, 2015

Our Ancestors...Who Walked This Land Before Us?

by Richard de Wilde

Richard's collection of artifacts
As a boy growing up on our South Dakota prairie farm, I had a fascination for the early people who had lived there. We found evidence of their existence in the form of arrowheads, spear points and stone hammers as we picked rocks from our cultivated fields.  The South Dakota farm of my youth had been scoured by an ancient glacier and left many rocks to be removed.  Every year my four siblings and I picked rock from 300 acres of farm land.  Two on each side of the rock wagon and the youngest driving the tractor.  With time spent nearly every day after school and Saturdays picking rock, we had ample opportunity to find ancient stone tools and to contemplate how their owners lived and survived on the prairie.

As a youth, I was an avid hunter, trapper and went fishing whenever we could take a little time before and after our farm work.  We would hunt ducks and geese on the prairie potholes every morning before school.  “Mom, ducks in the garage!  We’re off to school.”  I’m sure that Mom got tired of processing our success, but wild game was a large part of our diet and we were poor farmers and a young family struggling to make ends meet.  And all the time, I am thinking, “How did the early people do it without guns and trucks and electricity and chainsaws or even steel handsaws to cut the wood to build with and keep warm?”  The answer seemed simple in my young mind.  Of course… they had more time, because they didn’t have to go to school!  Nonetheless, I tried to fashion handles to stone hammers and made spears and bows and arrows.  I often wondered if maybe I had been a Native American in a past life?

Wherever I have been since my childhood farm in northeast South Dakota, I have looked for signs of earlier inhabitants.  My college years in western South Dakota introduced me to the Black Hills and the Badlands of western South Dakota.  My college buddies in archeology were uncovering rich finds of prehistoric bones of giant mastodons and other interesting prehistoric creatures that used to live in the Badlands.  It was during this time that I was also introduced to Native Americans from the Rosebud reservation and was fascinated to learn about their rituals and practices.

So it comes with no surprise that when I moved to southwest Wisconsin to our present farm that I continued, as time permitted, to explore the earlier inhabitants of our farm and region. I find the best time to look for artifacts is just after a rain, when the ground is dark and small stones are washed and visible.  For years I have collected chips and pieces of stone & rock that look as if they had been worked with the intention of becoming a tool of some sort.  Sometimes they look like a characteristic arrowhead while it is less evident what others may be.

Recently I met Jim Theler, a neighbor and retired archeologist who has devoted his life to studying ancient people of this area through his work with the University of Wisconsin—La Crosse.  This past year Jim showed us burial mounds on property adjacent to our farm.  These mounds are called effigy mounds and are raised piles of earth built in shapes, which are often animals. Because we work in the woods, harvesting ramps & trees, we wanted to be able to identify these mounds so as not to disturb them with logging & harvesting….just in case we might have some as well!  We feel it is important to continue to show respect for the people who struggled, lived and farmed this land before us.  Building a logging road through the heart of a burial mound just doesn’t seem like a respectful thing to do.

It's hard to see, but Richard swears when you're standing there
you can see a 40 foot bear-shaped effigy mound!
Shortly before meeting Jim, one of our landlords found out he had effigy mounds on his land and he
was kind enough to take us out to see them.  While it is hard to identify them, I began to notice and study the subtle changes in the landscape that make up the mounds.  I also started thinking more about where the mound builders might choose to live and build their burial mounds.  Most of the mounds have been found on hillsides facing south and west and located above springs and water sources.  My intrigue continued to grow and I started looking at some parts of our land that seemed to fit the criteria and may be a good location for a mound.  I had an inkling we too may have some mounds on our land.  Recently, I asked Jim to come to our farm and look at our land and the artifacts I have found over the past 25 years.  I showed Jim my display of artifacts….ok, I dumped them out of a few cans I had stored them in.  He sorted through my findings and was able to separate the different arrowheads and pieces of tools, etc. based on the time period in history they came from.  Some of the pieces likely date back as many as 10,000 years ago!  Interestingly, the mound builders who built the effigy mounds in this area were here much more recently—just a mere 1,500 years ago!  I find it very interesting to think about the fact that people lived and survived on this land as many as 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.  It makes our 30 years on this farm and the 200 years that European settlers have been in the area seem like such a small blip on the radar.  It also makes me think we must try to tread lightly to preserve the land for those who will live here long after we are gone.

Jim will be coming back to our farm to continue helping us in our explorations.  I’ll be writing more about this topic and the findings on our own land in January.  If you’re interested in this topic, I’d like to recommend Jim Theler’s book, Twelve Millenia...but you can’t have my signed copy :)


Anonymous said...

That was an extremely interesting article. Thanks for writing it.

Kelly K. said...

There are more articles to come! Check back to find out more about our ancestors who lived in this area before us. We are planning three more total so far, but it is so fascinating that one never knows!