Thursday, January 21, 2016

Western Wisconsin: How Native American People Lived in the Past-Part 2

In this week’s newsletter we will continue with our series about the Effigy Mound builders who lived in our area 1,000 to 1,500 years ago.  This week we’ll look further into how they lived, moved and what they ate.—Richard

    Part 2: Food & Shelter
by Jim Theler

Settlement of the Effigy Mound People
The Effigy Mound people lived by hunting and
gathering from the wild.  They moved seasonally to take advantage of different animals, plants and resources. In the summer months the Effigy Mound people in Western Wisconsin moved to the Mississippi or Wisconsin River valleys.    In late summer or early fall, they would form smaller groups and move to one of the interior valleys of western Wisconsin’s un-glaciated “Driftless Area.” Rather than returning to the location where they had spent the previous winter, they would select another valley for their winter camp. Selection was important as people needed to be spaced out on the landscape so as not to overuse resources, namely deer and firewood which were vital for winter survival.

Frequent moving necessitates having simple, portable houses.  In early historic times, Native peoples in this area used simple pole structures covered with cattail matts or sheets of bark that could be tied to the poles making a secure dwelling for most seasons. In western Wisconsin archaeologists do not find evidence of year-round houses of the type we see in some agricultural societies. Rock shelters were popular winter living sites especially if they were on hillsides or cliff faces that faced south or east and were located near a water source. Archaeologists have also found indications during the Effigy Mound period of circular, semi-subterranean houses, some with a long entrance; these were designed for temporary refuge in the coldest winter weather. These houses were apparently heated with hot rocks brought in from fireplaces outside.

Winter House
(Richard’s observation)  As we are in the midst of the coldest part of winter, I can’t help but think about fire.  We know Native Americans had mastered fire, but how did they manage it?  We know it is possible to start fires by skillfully rubbing sticks together, but what a chore!  Every time you want a cup of herbal tea or a hot meal you have to start from nothing?  I don’t think so!  From our own experience of heating with wood, we try to keep enough hot coals in the stove to rebuild a fire easily.  I sometimes struggle to start a fire in the cold fireplace and I have paper, kindling, an axe and matches!  My guess is they were masters of keeping enough hot coals to start a new fire and it is thought that they even moved to a new camp with hot coals carried in a bison horn or heavy clay pot.

During the fall and winter months when the Effigy mound people lived in the interior valleys, they would primarily hunt deer as well as elk and smaller game. Bison were absent or very rare in this area and black bears were rarely taken. Archaeological excavations at winter sites have uncovered tens of thousands of animal bones, many of which can be identified. By analyzing the animal remains and counting the number of right and left bones, it is possible to tell not only what species of animals were harvested, but the number of animals, the amount of meat represented, and what animals were most important in the diet. The answer to that question is deer. Typically, deer, with an occasional elk, made up 85% to 95% of their winter diet.

The Effigy Mound hunters used the bow and arrow for hunting. Small, lightweight arrow points found at their living sites are very different from the larger, heavier spear points of earlier times. The bow and arrow replaced the spear about A.D. 500 or 600. This was an important innovation in fire power. With a quiver of arrows, a good bowman can get off several shots in a minute and increase hunting efficiency.  While a lone hunter would be able to harvest game, small groups doing drives with the most skilled archers at ‘nick points’ where deer would flow through was undoubtedly the most effective strategy. Based on our knowledge of hunters and gatherers, everyone shared in the harvest and an animal didn’t belong to just one person.

So just how abundant were deer? In our oak savanna-tall grass prairie landscape, Effigy Mound hunters were the apex predators and it is believed that deer were much less common than at present. Today, in good habitat, wildlife managers often find 20 to as high as 50 deer per square mile. During Effigy Mound times, that number was probably closer to 2 to 5 deer per square mile. Over hunting deer would exceed the cull rate to sustain the herd.  This scenario would place the humans in jeopardy during the lean, late winter and early spring months.

Deer and elk bone from winter sites are often found broken open with vertebrae and ribs pounded into small fragments. This was probably done to remove the marrow, a rich source of fat and other nutrients. Smaller crushed bone was boiled to render “bone grease” that could be scooped off the top of the pot. Larger long bones were split open and tubes of marrow removed.  Native Americans also made “pemmican,” a sausage-like product made of fat, marrow, dried venison and sometimes berries. Pemmican could be kept for long periods during the cold season and consumed as needed.  There is little doubt that it was made in Effigy Mound times.

Richard's Arrowhead Collection
(Richard’s Observation)  But Native Americans certainly ate a more complete diet than venison.  Unfortunately, the archeological evidence is limited to what survives 1,000 years in the ground.  Jim introduced me to one of his colleagues, Connie Arzigian, a nationally known expert on the upper Midwest prehistoric Native American use of plants and gardening.  She explained that certain things, e.g. nuts and seeds, are preserved by being charred in cooking fires.  Plants such as greens and roots are soft and do not leave a trace after 1,000 years.  Connie has found evidence of extensive use of native nuts including walnut, hickory and butternuts.  She has also found evidence that the mound builders kept small gardens where they cultivated goosefoot, squash, gourds and even sunflowers.  There is even some evidence that they were selecting sunflowers to produce larger seeds.  Later on, larger plantings of corn were established.  It is easy to imagine that they harvested and ate many more greens and roots that were not preserved.  These plants may have included arrowroot, sunchoke root, watercress and many different berries such as wild blackberries, raspberries and strawberries.  

Gourds from the mound builders' time

When winter broke, the small groups of people would move to their summer camps along the river valleys.  With the stress of surviving winter behind them, living was much easier.  Fish, mussels and small game were readily available and there was not much need for large quantities of firewood.  Excavations at summer sites along the shores of the Mississippi and its backwaters have uncovered vast refuse deposits with the remains of freshwater mussels, fish, small mammals and nesting waterfowl mingled with broken pots, arrow points and charcoal from camp fires.

In our next newsletter article we’ll look further into some of the social aspects of the Effigy Mound building society.  These people had an interesting way of organizing their community and people.  We’ll discuss more of these aspects as well as how their burial mounds fit into the big picture.

Drawings & Gourd Photo borrowed from the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center.

1 comment:

Pamela S said...

This is fascinating!