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.

Western Wisconsin: How Native Americans Lived In The Past: Part 1

In our last blog post in December, I introduced you to our neighbor Jim Theler.  Jim is an archeologist who has extensively studied the prehistoric people of our region. Our conversations have been spurred on by my findings of effigy burial mounds on our land last year.  I often wonder what daily life was like for those who lived on this land long before us.  I invited Jim to share his thoughts and the findings of his work to help us better understand these people. 

I think it’s important to understand that the people Jim will be talking about in his articles, the Effigy Mound Builders, are actually a more recent culture inhabiting our land only 1,000-1,500 years before us.  However, Jim mentions that people actually lived on our land as much as 12,500 years ago!  This was during a time referred to as “the last ice age” when the glaciers were retreating north in Wisconsin.  Prehistoric mammals including mastodons, mammoth elephants, long-horned bison, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, short-faced bears, and giant beaver roamed the land at this time.  There were Native American people here as well who hunted these creatures with finely crafted and razor sharp spear points, possibly thrown with the aid of a powerful spear thrower called an “atlatl.”  Can you imagine?  I have actually found a couple of those very old spear points on our land which Jim helped me date back to this period! 

So over the next couple thousand years the pre-historic animals disappear, became extinct and were replaced by the animals we know today.  The landscape changed as well to include trees and plants we are familiar with.  All the while, Native American people were likely living here, learning how to live with the changing climate, flora and fauna……Amazing!  I continue to find it very fascinating to learn more about these people and how they survived so many years ago. ---Richard

Part 1: Introduction and Landscape

by Jim Theler

Recently, Richard de Wilde discovered several unrecorded “Effigy Mounds” on his Harmony Valley Farm and asked me to come and take a look. This led to a discussion of how the people who build these mounds lived in the past. As an archaeologist, I have spent the past 40 years excavating and analyzing the finds from the living sites of ancient Native Americans in western Wisconsin’s Crawford, La Crosse and Vernon counties.  Archaeologists have been studying the ancient mounds and living sites of these first Wisconsin residents since the 1850s and the work continues by archeologists working in the region in association with UW-LaCrosse. The first major summary was by Wisconsin’s first scientist, Increase A. Lapham, who in 1855 published maps of Effigy Mounds near the modern town of Eastman in Crawford County. This was followed in 1884 by a mound survey by T. H. Lewis who was sponsored by a wealthy Twin Cities resident A. J. Hill. Lewis’ work included recording several effigy mound groups in the North and South forks of the Bad Axe River, in Vernon County. Excavations in Crawford County were undertaken by the Smithsonian Institution in the Late 1880s. In the 1920s and 1930s, archaeologists from the Milwaukee Public Museum excavated a number of mounds in western Wisconsin. In the late 1970s, archaeologists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison began doing long-term excavations on many living sites in the region. 

Before Europeans arrived, western Wisconsin was a region with scattered groves of white and bur oaks, referred to as oak savannas. The higher, rolling uplands and ridge tops one sees today around Westby and Viroqua, as well as the valley bottoms, had extensive tall grass prairies. The oak savannas and prairies were maintained by repeated fires of both natural and human origins. This is the vegetation Government Land Office (GLO) surveyors reported when they surveyed much of Vernon County in the winter of 1844-45. Many locations in the tall grass prairies of the uplands had no trees to serve as section corner “witness trees,” so the GLO surveyors had to pile rocks to mark section corners. Some wooded areas existed in areas naturally protected from fire (a “fire-shadow”) along some steep east- and north-facing hillsides/cliffs and along stream margins. Timber Coulee got its name as trees suitable for building cabins were available in its fire-shadow. One son of an early pioneer settler said it took his father two years to bring enough logs over the ridge from Timber Coulee by oxen to build a cabin and get their family out of the dugout in which they had lived. By some estimations today, we have 80 to 90 % MORE woodlands than at the time of European arrival.

(Richard’s Observation)  The woods we know today are different than they were at that time.   Today our woods are choked with prickly ash, locust and other invasive species that were established after woods were heavily grazed with sheep and cattle and then abandoned.  The largest and best trees are cut for lumber and the weak and deformed are left with the dead tops.  The woods that the earliest settlers describe are “clean and easy to walk through!”  Probably the result of 1,000’s of years of Native Americans hand harvesting dead branches for firewood.  Remember, they didn’t have axes and saws at this time, so they relied on dead trees and branches.

Archaeologists studying the refuse left behind at ancient living sites have been able to piece together how people lived in the past. We have found that Native American societies had ever changing styles of tools and advances in technology over thousands of years. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the “New World,” Native Americans had occupied the portion of North America we now call western Wisconsin for more than 12,500 years. We have found many prime locations that were used as living sites for thousands of years. Digging with great care, archaeologists find that materials closer to the surface tend to be more recent, and the finds grow older as we move deeper. These layered or “stratified” living sites allow us to see the changes in technology and “subsistence” (what people were eating) based on animal bones and burned plant remains.  For instance, we can see the first use of fired clay pots, the shift to the bow and arrow from the spear, and the arrival of corn horticulture. With modern technology we can use radiocarbon method to determine the ages of some ancient remains to within a few decades.
Effigy Mounds
The shifts we see in technology and subsistence have allowed archaeologists to assign names and dates to well defined Native American “cultures.” We do not know what these ancient Native Americans called themselves, so the names we have given them are for convenience of discussion. In western Wisconsin, one well-known division in what we call the Late Woodland period is the Effigy Mound Tradition. This tradition of effigy mound construction is unique to the southern half of Wisconsin with some in adjacent parts of Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. We will be looking at the people who built the effigy mounds from about A.D. 700 to A.D. 1050. How did Native Americans live in western Wisconsin a little more than 1000 years ago?

Through archeological excavation and analysis of the materials recovered, we have learned a great deal about ancient peoples in this area.  In addition, anthropologists who study human societies worldwide have added considerable information. We have learned that people at a given level of complexity organize their societies in similar ways no matter where they live. For example, people who live by hunting animals and gathering wild plants (hunters and gatherers) organize and carry out daily tasks in similar ways, no matter if they live in Australia (Aborigines), the American arctic (“Eskimos”), or the deserts of the American west (Shoshones)-they all have similar patterns of social behavior. We can take the framework that anthropologists have described for recent societies and add information about what archaeologists have found to understand the life-ways of the Effigy Mound people of western Wisconsin.

We will explore more about the ways & life of the Effigy Mound people in our next January newsletter as well as our first winter newsletter in February.  

Spear & Mound Photos borrowed from the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center.

Vegetable Feature: Shallots, Onions and Cipollini

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

We hold tightly to the conviction that daily, year-round consumption of onions is not only a health benefit, but also an easy way to improve the flavor profile of the foods we prepare. Between the regular onions we pack throughout the season, to the shallots in the last box to this week’s cipollini onions, I’d say we’ve got you covered on all fronts!

There are many situations where you might use these three alliums interchangeably, however the last thing we want to do is lump these three distinct culinary ingredients into an undifferentiated mass. So, here goes a brief crash course on their unique attributes. To begin, yellow and red storage onions are just that—ideally suited to keep through the long winter.  Whether you sauté them along with beef or mushrooms or feature them in their own French onion soup, these onions will be your workhorses in the kitchen.

Shallots, which were included in your first extended season box, have been awarded a more fanciful designation.  Shallots have long been recognized as having a rather delicate flavor and, when used raw, they bring a subtle pungency to a dish. When cooked, however, shallots become rich and sweet tasting.

Finally, lets talk about those dark red cipollini onions. Of Italian decent, cipollini onions appear flattened and saucer-like. They are known for being an excellent onion for caramelizing and roasting, as both cooking procedures develop their natural sugars.  One of my favorite destinations for these onions is whole roasted in a balsamic glaze. Cipollini onions can be a bit of a challenge to peel, but don’t worry…there’s a trick.  Using a paring knife, trim away the roots just enough to take a thin layer off the base of the onion and mark the base with a very shallow “X” cut.  Trim the neck part of the opposite side.  Boil a pot of water and drop the onions in the water for just a few minutes.  Drain off the hot water and rinse with cold water.  When they are cool enough to handle, just pop the skins off.

All of these alliums will keep longer if stored in the right environment—typically, dry and dark is ideal, with good airflow. If stored properly, onions and shallots will store for several months.

Roasted Cipollini Onions with Sherry Vinegar

Yield:  4 servings
1 ½ pounds whole cipollini onions
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp thyme leaves
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup plus 2 Tbsps sherry vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the cipollini onions until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain and cool under cold running water. Trim and peel the onions and pat dry.
  2. Transfer the onions to a large ovenproof skillet and stir in the olive oil, thyme leaves, sugar and ¼ cup of the sherry vinegar. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat. Cover the skillet with foil and roast the onions in the upper third of the oven for about 20 minutes, until soft. Remove the foil and roast the onions for about 10 minutes, basting a few times with the juices, until lightly glazed.
  3. Transfer the skillet to the stove. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of sherry vinegar and stir over moderate heat until the onions are richly glazed, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and plenty of pepper and serve.

NOTE:  The glazed onions can be made ahead and refrigerated overnight. Reheat gently.

Recipe borrowed from  It was originally published in March 2009 and was contributed by Matt Molina.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Vegetable Feature: Guajillo Peppers

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz
This week, we’re excited to feature a unique offering--the beautiful and somewhat feisty guajillo chile pepper! Pronounced “gwah-HEE-yoh,” these chiles are harvested and then dried on the farm towards the end of the growing season, giving us something to look  forward to as we find ourselves in the depths of winter.

Guajillo Chiles
Deep cranberry-red in color with a thin, leathery flesh, dried guajillos feature a moderately spicy yet somewhat tangy flavor profile. According to the Scoville scale, which measures the pungency of chile peppers, guajillos slide in somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000 units. Considering that this scale extends upwards of one million, guajillos can be regarded as a rather mild chile with a medium level of heat.

Guajillos are used extensively in Mexican cooking and add a wonderful depth of flavor to pastes, butters and rubs for various kinds of protein. They’re also easily featured in tamales, traditional Mexican molés, salsas, soups and stews. Renowned Mexican culinary authority Diana Kennedy, who has often been referred to as the Julia Child of Mexican cooking, advocates for using whole, dried chiles like guajillos and chiles de árbol whenever possible. In comparison to powders you can buy in the store, whole chiles bring a lot more to the table when it comes to spice, freshness and nuance. Mexican cuisine is not the only style of cooking you can incorporate guajillos into.  As you’ll see when you glance at this week’s recipe, they can also be used in Indian dishes and any other recipe where you’re looking for some heat.

When it comes to cooking with whole chiles—don’t be intimidated! Here are some basic steps to help you incorporate them into your regular culinary routine. First things first—don’t forget that the compounds in the dried chiles that give it heat are still active.  Handle with care and consider using gloves when handling them.  If you want a more mild effect from the guajillo, slice the chile open lengthwise, removing as many seeds and ribs as you can. Set a few seeds aside for later if you want the option to add more spice later.  If you want to embrace the heat, skip this step and just use the chile whole.  Next up comes the toasting process. Though this step is optional, it is highly recommended as it intensifies and develops the flavor of the guajillo.  Set a dry skillet over medium heat. Add your chiles and toast for 20 to 30 seconds per side or until you smell their fragrance and notice some browning on the skin. Once toasted, you’ll need to reconstitute your chiles. Place them in warm water for 15 to 20 minutes, then discard the water and get to chopping, blending or pureeing. If you’re a visual learner, head to YouTube and take a minute to check out Gourmet’s “The Test Kitchen: How to Clean and Use Dried Chiles.”

Guajillos will keep for more than one year if kept in a cool, dry location. Feel free to stash them in a clear jar and set them on a shelf where they can be seen and admired until you’re ready to put them to use!

Vindaloo Flank Steak

Serves 4
6-8 dried guajillo chiles, stem removed

1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
¾ cup distilled white vinegar
One 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 garlic cloves
1 small cinnamon stick
2 cloves
Kosher salt, to taste
One 1 ½ -lb flank steak
Extra-virgin olive oil, for brushing
Black pepper, to taste
Warm paratha, pita or nann bread, yogurt and lime wedges, for serving

  1. In a saucepan, toast the chiles, cumin seeds and peppercorns over moderate heat, turning the chiles until pliable and the cumin is fragrant, about 2 minutes.  Carefully add ¾ cup water, vinegar, ginger, garlic, cinnamon stick, cloves and 1 tsp of salt and bring just to a boil.  Let stand off the heat until the chiles are soft, about 30 minutes.  Discard the cinnamon stick.
  2. Transfer the chile mixture to a blender and puree to a smooth paste.  In a baking dish, spread the paste all over the steak and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 6 hours.  Let stand at room temperature for 45 minutes before grilling. 
  3. Light a grill and brush with oil.  Scrape some of the marinade off the steak, then season the meat with salt and pepper.  Grill over moderately high heat, turning, until lightly charred and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part registers 125°F, 10 to 12 minutes.Transfer the steak to a carving board and let rest for 5 minutes.  Thinly slice against the grain and serve with warm paratha or naan bread, yogurt and lime wedges.

HVF Note:  When I tested this recipe, I used an equal amount of skirt steak instead of the flank steak. It was a bit too chilly for grilling outside, so i just cooked the meat on the stovetop in a skillet.  The marinade seemed too valuable to not use it all, so I put all of the meat and the marinade in the pan and cooked it altogether.  We served the meat along with basmati rice, fresh cilantro, plain yogurt and lime wedges.  Most delicious!

Recipe adapted from Food & Wine magazine, May 2015.