Lake Mendota canoe 3,000 years old, recovered by maritime archaeologists

3,000-year-old canoe recovered from Lake Mendota, Madison

Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologists, alongside partners from Wisconsin’s Native Nations, recovered on Thursday, Sept. 22 a 3,000-year-old dugout canoe from Lake Mendota.

This canoe recovery comes less than one year after the recovery of a 1,200-year-old canoe from the same lake in November 2021. 

A news release says radiocarbon dating performed on the latest canoe places it to 1000 B.C. That makes it the oldest ever discovered in the Great Lakes region by roughly 1,000 years.

3,000-year-old canoe recovered from Lake Mendota, Madison

Officials say the 3,000-year-old dugout canoe is carved from a single piece of white oak and measures approximately 14.5 feet in length. It was initially located by Wisconsin Historical Society maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen during a recreational dive in May of this year. Discussions about recovering it from the lakebed began immediately following the discovery, in collaboration with Wisconsin’s Native Nations. It was found in the same area the first canoe was discovered, suggesting that the location of Lake Mendota’s shoreline may have changed over time and could have once been much lower, according to Dr. James Skibo, Wisconsin Historical Society state archaeologist.

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Although it is likely that water transportation dates back to the arrival of Native peoples in this region, this discovery provides the earliest direct evidence. The 3,000-year-old canoe helps to tell a more complete story of the continuum of Native life in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region. Members from the Ho-Chunk Nation and Bad River Tribe were present at the canoe recovery.

3,000-year-old canoe recovered from Lake Mendota, Madison

Wisconsin Historical Society archaeologists, along with skilled volunteers, conducted the excavation and recovery efforts. The canoe was hand-excavated in preparation for today’s recovery mission and then securely transported to the State Archive Preservation Facility in Madison for preservation and storage. It will be cleaned and cared for by Tribal members and Society staff before being hand-lowered into a large preservation vat also containing the 1,200-year-old canoe discovered in 2021. Together the canoes will undergo a two-year preservation process that will conclude with freeze-drying to remove any remaining water.