ONALASKA — Archaeologists monitoring reconstruction of Hwy. 35 are unearthing remnants — including possible human bones — of a Native American settlement that dates from nearly 500 years before the first white people settled La Crosse.
Scientists from the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center have found almost two dozen likely skeletal fragments as well as hundreds of food and garbage pits, cooking hearths tools and other artifacts of the Oneota people who inhabited the Onalaska area between about 1300 and 1600 AD.
Though the discoveries have created some delays, project manager Joe Gregas said $4.6 million project is big enough that contractors can work in other areas while archaeologists dig. He said the DOT is still aiming for its Nov. 16 completion date, thanks in part to the dry summer.
“We knew that we had a burial site in there and that there was going to be more coordination,” said Jim Becker, the archaeology program manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
In accordance with federal law, the DOT met with interested parties, including the state Historical Society and the Ho-Chunk Nation to agree on a process for monitoring construction and looking for archaeological and human remains.The MVAC is contracted by the department of transportation to follow bulldozers and excavators between Elm and Poplar streets, which laboratory director Connie Arzigian said was the site of a village occupied by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk, Ioway, Oto and Missouria tribes.
All burial sites are protected by state law, and Becker said any time remains are discovered during construction, the DOT must stop work and consult with the Historical Society for direction.
There have been 23 such discoveries in the Onalaska project, but that doesn’t necessarily mean 23 graves. In many cases Arzigian said it’s no more than a bone fragment that will be sent to a skeletal analyst to verify it is human.
The people of this area tended to scatter graves throughout the village rather than clumping them in cemeteries, Arzigian said. Each discovery is treated in accordance with the law.
“We are sensitive to all human remains,” Becker said.
Generally when remains are found, Arzigian said, archaeologist try to leave them in place; in this case the road project makes that difficult.
“If there are remains found, we want them placed back in the ground,” said Bill Quackenbush, historic preservation officer for the Ho-Chunk Nation. How and where those remains are interred, he said, will be determined at the end of the process.
There’s far more than remains under the road.
About a dozen UW-L students and MVAC staff have been sifting through the sand about three feet under the road bed where dark splotches mark pits used to store food and later garbage.
Other finds have included fish scales as well as clam and mussel shells and shards of large pots used for storing and cooking food. Smaller circles could mark where wood beams once supported homes or storage sheds, Arzigian said.
On Friday, archaeologists unearthed a bison scapula shaped into a hoe blade that would have been grafted onto a stick. They also found a bone sharpened into an awl used to make clothing from animal hides.
The Oneota people were farmers, growing mostly corn, squash and beans, but also hunted deer and elk and caught catfish, drum, northern and other fish. Arzigian said the bison hoe was likely acquired through trade or crafted during a winter hunt on the western plains.
Archaeologists knew there was a native settlement under the road, but Arzigian said they’ve been surprised by the density of features found — more than 400 pits in a four block area. Unlike other local sites, this one hasn’t been plowed or eroded.
“One of the nice things about this is it’s more undisturbed,” she said. “The road has actually protected it.”