New Data on the Late Woodland Use of Wild Rice in Northern Wisconsin

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Test excavations at the Robinson site, a large multicomponent village and mound complex in the upper Wisconsin River drainage, identified a Late Woodland Lakes phase midden and four features. An uncalibrated eighth-century A.D. radiocarbon date was obtained on charcoal from a feature that contained carbonized wild rice. This find is consistent with the previously postulated expansion of wild rice collecting during the early Lakes phase. Additional pit features containing wild rice were excavated at two small campsites located nearby. An eleventh-century radiocarbon date is associated with wild rice and maize from the Fishers Island site, and three twelfth-century dates were obtained from the Ghost Shirt Island V site, indicating the continuing importance of wild rice through the late Lakes phase.


The importance of wild rice (Zizania aquatica) to the subsistence economy -of several Upper Great Lakes Native American tribes, including the Chippewa, or Ojibway, the Ho Chunk (Winnebago), the Menomini, and the Santee, or Eastern Dakota, is well documented. The historical and ethnographic accounts of wild rice exploitation by Native Americans in this region led some early-twentiethcentury ethnologists to designate Wisconsin and adjoining portions of Michigan and Minnesota a distinct "wild rice culture area" (Jerks 1900:1036; Kroeber 1939). The ethnographic record for this region provides much information concerning the methods of harvesting and processing wild rice. However, the antiquity of intensive wild rice gathering has not been firmly established. The ethnologist Albert Jerks (1900:1114) supposed that it was a recent development and that the Upper Great Lakes tribes had gathered wild rice for only 300 to 500 years. More recently, archaeologists have argued that wild rice collection must have begun at a much earlier date. Elder Johnson (1969b:35) and Robert Salzer (1974) suggested that wild rice became an important resource for prehistoric Late Woodland cultures in the upper Midwest after around AD. 800. Salzer ( 1974) inferred that wild rice exploitation resulted in a shift in site location preferences from riverine settings to lake shores during the Late Woodland Lakes phase in northern Wisconsin. Arzigian (1992) reviewed previous reports of prehistoric wild rice utilization in Wisconsin and Minnesota. She concluded that there are dating problems at many sites and that carbonized rice grains rarely have been recovered and documented from datable prehistoric contexts.

Beginning in 1990, the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center (MVAC) initiated an archaeological site testing project in the headwaters region of the Wisconsin River in north-central Wisconsin that has evaluated nearly 100 prehistoric archaeological sites (Moffat et al. 1991, 1992, 1993). These sites were located on the shorelines of 16 water-control reservoirs on the upper Wisconsin River and its tributaries, and they had been impacted by recreational activity and development as well as shoreline erosion. The headwaters reservoirs are well within the region characterized as the wild rice district, including the northern two-thirds of Wisconsin and Minnesota east of the Mississippi River. The upper Wisconsin River drainage contains numerous habitats suitable for the growth of wild rice. One of the research goals was to investigate prehistoric subsistence patterns and the development of intensive wild rice harvesting.

Lake Nokomis, or Rice Reservoir, an impoundment of the Tomahawk River in north-central Lincoln and southwestern Oneida counties, has the highest site density of the upper Wisconsin reservoirs (Figure 1). Late Woodland sites are particularly common on this reservoir. During the 1991 and 1992 field seasons, MVAC archaeologists located several Late Woodland sites that contained intact habitation deposits and pit features (Moffat et al. 1992). Systematic flotation of soil samples from archaeological deposits at three sites on Lake Nokomis provided new data on Late Woodland subsistence patterns in the headwaters region. …