Robert “Ernie” Boszhardt stumbled 12 years ago upon a sight many Wisconsinites hope to see this weekend — deer.
But Boszhardt wasn’t hunting in the woods. He was 150 feet inside a sandstone cave in the Kickapoo Valley, his flashlight in the damp darkness revealing 20 figures drawn upon the stone.
The abstract designs inside Tainter Cave were of hunters with bows and arrows, taking aim at deer — some with images of fawns in their abdomen.
And they weren’t the spray-painted graffiti he so commonly encountered on cave walls in Wisconsin, but the remnants of a culture that lived in the region roughly 1,000 years ago.
“You’re staring at this wall in wonderment,” Boszhardt said. “I knew it was old, but what did it mean?”
As it turned out, it offered a possible explanation of what led to the disappearance of the people who painted those ancient images.
Effigy Mounds culture
Boszhardt and fellow archaeologist James Theler had since the early 1980s pondered what led to the deterioration of the Effigy Mound people — a culture best known for the construction of thousands of animal-shaped mounds that abruptly ended sometime after about 1050 A.D.
“They just disappear off the map,” Theler said.
The men, now both retired from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Sociology and Archaeology Department, believe the cave images tell what might have happened.
The Effigy Mound people were among the first to use bows and arrows to more effectively hunt their primary food source, white-tailed deer. They ate well and the population flourished but eventually reached a critical mass that could not be supported by the dwindling number of deer.
The pregnant deer in the cave art indicate a late winter or early spring hunt, which would be very rare, Theler said.
“It’s suggestive of desperation, because native peoples are usually pretty careful about not overusing resources,” he said.
The theory clicks with other evidence uncovered in the Driftless Area, they said. Archaeologists found the Effigy Mound people showed less seasonal movement in the years leading up to their disappearance. People remained on the Mississippi River year-round, harvesting large numbers of mussels — an indication the population had become too large to relocate to more ideal inland wintering areas.
The pair have published a book and two papers on their theory, including in the national archaeology journal American Antiquity in 2006.
The Tainter Cave, on private property, has been sealed off to the public to better preserve the discoveries. Archaeologists have thoroughly examined about 100 drawings.
Boszhardt and Theler continue to work toward proving their theory. They are examining deer jawbones recovered from rock shelter excavations in Grant and Iowa counties to determine their age. If they discover more young deer were killed, it would support that overhunting put pressure on the deer population.
Boszhardt and others from the National Science Foundation also are investigating how a culture called the Mississippians moved into the region and might have influenced what became of the Effigy Mound people.
The images in Tainter Cave don’t just hold a message about the past but perhaps the future as well, the researchers said.
Modern civilizations still run into problems when critical resources — such as a primary food source — become rare, Boszhardt said.
“Humans have the tendency to increase in numbers and overexploit resources,” Theler said. “By the time they’ve realized, it is often too late to change the course of events. We are not very good stewards of our land and we should think more about past examples.”