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Finding A Lost Society
Uw-lacrosse Archaeologists Research The Demise Of The Effigy Mounds Culture.
Wisconsin State Journal :: LOCAL :: C1
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
RON SEELY rseely@... 608-252-6131
On a summer afternoon in 1998, UW-La Crosse archaeologist Robert "Ernie" Boszhardt descended into the darkness of a southwestern Wisconsin cave rumored to harbor paintings and artifacts left by people of the ancient Effigy Mounds culture.
Boszhardt was not expecting much. Such whispered stories of archaeological treasure are common but often turn out to be modern-day graffiti, the "artifacts" actually debris from teenage parties. With the light from the cave's low and narrow entrance fading to dusk behind him, Boszhardt saw plenty of that: doused campfires, scattered beer cans.
But as he went deeper, into larger and completely darkened rooms, he saw in the beam of his flashlight half-burned birch bark torches scattered on the floor and ghostly images of animals migrating across the stone walls. Eventually he found himself facing a wall upon which was drawn an entire herd of deer -- many of the females pregnant, with tiny fawns drawn carefully inside of them -- being hunted by figures wielding bows and arrows.
Boszhardt had little idea then that the painting he found in Tainter Cave would help solve a long-standing archaeological mystery. Its story of a long-ago deer hunt would help explain the relatively sudden disappearance of the Effigy Mound peoples from their Mississippi River valley haunts sometime after 1000 A.D.
In an article published late this summer in the American Antiquities journal, Boszhardt and fellow UW-La Crosse archaeologist James Theler offered an eye-opening explanation for the demise of the Effigy Mound culture. Archaeological evidence, they theorized, shows the Effigy Mound people arrived at their fate because they overhunted the white-tailed deer, their primary food source.
Boszhardt, 51, and Theler, 60, have spent their entire careers studying the ancient people who once lived in the Mississippi River valley and on the adjacent landscapes of the Driftless Area. But -- as with everyone else who has studied the Late Woodland period when the Effigy Mound cultures thrived -- an explanation for the demise of the mound builders remained elusive. They were in the historical record, Theler said, and then they were not.
"Within the Effigy Mound culture," Theler said, "there were very distinct pottery types. These were signature ceramics. And they were found everywhere up to A.D. 1050 and then they stop. It has been a tremendous mystery, a tremendous problem for archaeology."
But over the past decade, archaeological sleuthing by Theler and Boszhardt and their study of existing information allowed them to write the story of how the Effigy Mound cultures probably disappeared from southwest Wisconsin. The evidence, as is usually true in science, came together over years and in sometimes surprising ways.
For example, in the years immediately prior to the disappearance of the Effigy Mound people from the archaeological record, enormous piles, or middens, of mussel shells show up in their camps along the Mississippi. Though interesting, the large size of the middens after 1000 A.D. didn't really click with Theler and Boszhardt until they were having lunch together one day. Boszhardt, Theler said, was talking about how curious it was that the Effigy Mound people were, late in their existence, eating so many mussels, not the most appetizing of foods.
Theler recalled realizing, suddenly, that Boszhardt had hit on something. "I said, You mean they were reduced to eating mussels.'"
It became an important part of the theory -- faced with the dwindling supply of deer, the people of the Effigy Mound culture had to find other sources of food.
Other pieces of the puzzle
Other pieces of the puzzle came together. Theler had done extensive studies of Effigy Mound camps in the Bad Axe River Valley in southwestern Wisconsin, marked by an unusual number of mounds. Theler speculated that they likely marked clan hunting territories and there were so many of them because the valleys were becoming filled with people; both deer and another essential, firewood, were becoming scarce.
But the art from Tainter Cave seems the most poignant evidence. Boszhardt said archaeological studies of campsites reveal that very few deer were killed during the winter months. Also, their studies showed it was rare to find fetal deer at any time because they weren't hunted. The hunt of pregnant deer depicted on the wall of Tainter Cave was the act of a people desperate for food, Boszhardt said.
That theory is echoed by Robert Birmingham, former state archaeologist who also has studied the Effigy Mound culture. Birmingham, who praised the American Antiquities article, said the cave painting -- deep in the cave where no natural light would have aided the artist -- may have been painted by a shaman, a spiritual leader who was, in effect, offering up a prayer.
The drawing of fertile deer, Birmingham said, was likely a plea to the spirits to bring the deer back to a starving people.