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A crossroads of two prehistoric cultures
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MPR News Video: Meet Ernie Boszhardt and learn more about what he found at the site outside of La Crosse. RealPlayer and a fast Internet connection is required to view the video. (MPR video/Rob Schmitz)
Archaeologists in La Crosse say they've discovered evidence of a rare exchange between two ancient cultures. They say the discovery of pottery, jewelry and bones from a site near La Crosse could solve the puzzle of the origins of the people who lived here a thousand years ago. But not everyone agrees. The find has launched two archaeologists in a fierce academic debate.

La Crosse, Wisc. — Almost 1,000 years ago, people who lived on the banks of the Mississippi River near La Crosse hosted an important dinner party. Their guests came from an exotic culture hundreds of miles away. Over a meal of dog meat, they exchanged ideas, and according to La Crosse archaeologist Ernie Boszhardt, they united their cultures. Boszhardt and his student Danielle Benden are walking along the edge of a pit the size of a football field outside of La Crosse.

"We're in a sand dune, so everything bigger than a grain of sand is an artifact," he says as he picks up a pottery shard.

Bozart doesn't even have to get his hands dirty. Ancient pottery fragments stick out of the sand all over the place. At first glance, the fragments pretty much look the same. They're broken, they're dirty, and they're really old.

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Image Boszhardt and Benden look for artifacts.

But to an archaeologist, this site is a ceramic cornucopia.

One type of pottery at this site has a rough, unpainted surface. It has been tempered, or strengthened, with grit. People from the 'Late Woodland' culture made this pottery. They inhabited this area from A.D. 800 to around A.D. 1100. Although they built creative effigy mounds in the shape of birds, bears, and lizards that still scatter the region's landscape, their pottery was pretty mundane.

But there's another, much more creative, style of pottery here that caught archaeologists by surprise. This kind of pottery is smooth, sometimes painted red and smudged black, with curved rims and tempered with shells. It was made by the Middle Mississippian people, a civilization that rarely ventured this far north.

The Middle Mississippians were from Cahokia, located hundreds of miles away in present-day Illinois. At its peak around A.D. 1100, Cahokia had around 25,000 people, a city bigger than London at the time. It is the largest prehistoric North American civilization discovered north of Mexico.

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Image Danielle Benden washes artifacts

At the La Crosse archeology lab, Danielle Benden uses a toothbrush to scrub dirt off of pottery fragments. After she washes them in a shallow tub, she and Boszhardt place the fragments in one of two piles: Late Woodland or Middle Mississippian. But, as Bozart points out, some of the fragments represent a fusion of the two styles.

"This is a Mississippian pot, its got the rolled rim, it's got the angular shoulder, smooth surface, but its tempered with crushed grit," Boszhardt says, caressing the large ceramic fragment. "That's woodland temper. It looks like a pure Mississippian group coming up and meeting a pure late woodland group in Onalaska, and in a short period of time you're starting to get inter-marriage, I'm guessing."

Boszhardt says this marriage led to the birth of the Oneota culture.

The Oneota were semi-nomadic tribes who followed and hunted buffalo herds through the prairies of this country from 1200 to the 1600s, the beginning of recorded history in America. The Oneota later turned into a handful of native american tribes, including the Ho-Chunk and the Dakota.

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Image Ernie Boszhardt and student Danielle Benden

The origin of the Oneota people is a hotly-debated topic among archaeologists. Boszhardt says the find in La Crosse of the blending of two cultures' pottery styles leads him to believe that this is the birthplace of the Oneota.

"By 1200 AD, Mississippian and Late Woodland are gone. There's no evidence that these people moved to another place," says Boszhardt, "They didn't go to Nebraska or Florida for the winter, and they just didn't disappear off the face of the earth, but in the same place afterwards you get the Oneota culture. It just makes perfect sense that the Oneota emerges from these two cultures getting together."

But this theory is controversial.

David Overstreet is an archaeologist at Marquette University.

He's also Ernie Boszhardt's former mentor.

According to Overstreet, Boszhardt's theory that Oneota culture derived from a marriage between Late Woodland and Middle Mississippian cultures is baseless. For proof, he points to his own findings of Oneota pottery in Northeastern Wisconsin. He says radiocarbon dates from sites he's discovered show the group's presence as early as 900 AD.

If Overstreet's dates are accurate, they predate Middle Mississippian presence in the area, thereby making Boszhardt's theory impossible.

"I don't argue that I am right and they are wrong, I simply argue that the more work that is done keep generating these earlier dates for Oneota, and they reject them out of hand and say they're bad dates," says Overstreet.

I don't think it does a service to archaeology, in any respect, to make grandiose claims when there's clearly nothing new here. It may be new to the La Crosse terrace, but the sun doesn't rise nor set there.
- David Overstreet, archaeologist at Marquette University.

Overstreet says Boszhardt has ignored radiocarbon dates that show the Oneota culture existed as early as 900 AD. He says Boszhardt also ignores the fact that there are many sites in Wisconsin where Late Woodland pottery is found alongside Middle Mississippian pottery.

However, according to Boszhardt, Overstreet's method of radiocarbon dating is flawed.

Radiocarbon dating uses a radioactive isotope called carbon 14 to determine the age of organic material. The method doesn't produce exact results.

Boszhardt says many samples from a given archaeological site must be dated in order to come up with an approximate age for all the artifacts. Boszhardt says Overstreet's claim that he's found Oneota relics from 900 AD is based on a few samples from a large number of carbon datings.

All the others date the relics at around 1200 AD.

"There's always going to be some bad radiocarbon dates out there. I dated a cave site, a radiocarbon-dated cave site, that came out to be 3000 years into the future," says Boszhardt.

A month ago, Boszhardt told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Overstreet's radiocarbon dating methods were "bunk." Overstreet says he feels slighted by a comment of this nature from a former student of his. He says Boszhardt is displaying an arrogance uncommon among archaeologists.

"He's a former student of mine, but I didn't teach him his bad manners," says Overstreet. "I don't think it does a service to archaeology, in any respect, to make grandiose claims when there's clearly nothing new here. It may be new to the La Crosse terrace, but the sun doesn't rise nor set there."

Back on the La Crosse terrace, Ernie Boszhardt takes a break from gathering artifacts to check out the hundreds of cookie cutter houses surrounding the pit. Pretty soon, this pit, along with its artifacts, will be filled and more houses will be built on top it.

"In our culture, we build things to last, what, 30 years? 50 years maybe? Nobody puts their names or dates on their buildings anymore, because they're not built to last," says Boszhardt.

Ironically, he says, the dry sand the contractor will fill the pit with will actually help to preserve the artifacts. This will allow archaeologists 100 or 200 years from now more time to examine the site's artifacts. And maybe that will finally put the debate of the origin of Oneota culture to rest.

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