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The story of human occupation along the southern shores of Lake Mendota begins more than 12,000 years ago—to around the time the last glaciers retreated from this area. Early people migrated to this area, we assume, because of the advantages of living near lakes and waterways that provided easy transportation routes as well as bountiful hunting and fishing. Perhaps they were also attracted to the beauty of the landscape.
Our understanding of this long span of human history is still developing and challenged. Old theories are constantly being replaced by fresh ideas informed by new discoveries. What we thought we knew about the people who lived here and how they interacted with their environment will continue to evolve as we explore the evidence they left behind.
Many different cultural traditions are represented in the archaeological record of this area. By analyzing the artifacts that these early people left behind—for example, spearpoints, ceramics, and stone tools—we are able to piece together their story. We can begin to answer questions such as: How did they hunt? How did they store their food? And what might their spiritual practices have been?
The University of Wisconsin-Madison is especially fortunate to have many sites right on campus where the archaeological record can still be explored and studied. You can find more distinct archaeological sites here than on any other university campus in the country—maybe even in the world! The entire campus landscape can serve as a classroom for learning about the peoples and creatures who have lived here in the past.
This assertion will come as a surprise to many people. We don't often pause to consider the possibility that all around us is evidence of past cultures. But if we know where to look and how to read the landscape, then perhaps we can begin to see some of the inscriptions left on the landscape by the past inhabitants of this place.
Unfortunately, over the past 150 years, many archaeological sites on campus have been destroyed by agricultural practices and building construction. Our hope is that through education, outreach, and site identification we can preserve the remaining archaeological sites on campus.
And of course, the Native American experience in this area belongs not just to the ancient past. Indian peoples continued to inhabit the Madison area all through the period of European-American settlement. Today, Madison is home to many Native Americans of many tribal affiliations for whom the mounds and other archaeological features of the campus are powerful symbols of living traditions. These places continue to be sacred places that deserve to be accorded respect and reverence.
The study of the ancient past in this area is a complex topic. We encourage you to review the archaeological reports listed at the conclusion of this article for a more thorough treatment of Native American archaeology in the Four Lakes Region. In particular, the 2004 report prepared by the staff of the Great Lakes Archaeological Center offers an excellent overview of the many different traditions that once flourished in this region.
Undoubtedly the best known and most visible legacies of past native peoples at UW-Madison are the earthen burial mounds that are widely scattered across the campus, with several of the most prominent being located in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Much has been written about these places—yet much remains unclear.
To view the locations, go to the Preserve Interactive Map, click the HUMAN LANDSCAPES menu and open the "Indian Mounds" layer. You can view the approximate locations of all the known Native American burial mound sites on the main campus. These include mounds that are still visible (we refer to these as "extant"), and mounds thought to be destroyed, or at least no longer visible above ground. The label associated with these locations on the map includes a number used in the state Archaeological Site Inventory (ASI) maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
There are four extant mound groups you can visit on the main campus, all but one of them located within the boundaries of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Recently these mound groups were surveyed and entered in a special burial sites catalog maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The site surveys establish a 25-foot preservation buffer around the mounds.
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