10,000-year-old Native American presence revealed

Gazette Article by: Barbara Sholl
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 1995

Common images of archaeological finds include golden treasures of the tombs of Egypt or intricately carved temple ruins hidden by jungle growth in Central America. Although these discoveries are exciting and newsworthy, hundreds of archaeological sites right here in Illinois are being mapped, excavated, studied and preserved.

According to Dr. Rochelle Lurie, a scholar, archaeologist and President of Midwest Archaeological Research Services, Inc., state laws enacted in 1990 require in many cases that archaeological surveys be conducted whenever land is to be developed on a large scale, and where municipal governments or state agencies are involved. Federal laws also require surveys whenever Federal lands, money or permits are involved. These regulations have created opportunities for Dr. Lurie and her team to survey, excavate and study the artifacts of northern Illinois’ earliest inhabitants, the PaleoIndians, who arrived in this area 10,000 to 12,000 years ago after the retreat of the Wisconsin ice sheet. Studying the remains of early human cultures provides archaeologists with information and insights into the lifeways of ancient peoples.

In 1993 an earlier survey by Dr. Lurie’s team led to what is now referred to as the Garrison site in West Lake Forest. A subdivision was being planned, and there was evidence of early human habitation based on findings of stone points and fire-cracked rocks. Dr. Lurie studied maps dating from 1840 to gain an understanding of the early topographical features of the land.

The maps demonstrated that where the North Branch of the Chicago River now flows, there was once a marsh, or “skoky.” The Garrison site, along the margins of the ancient marsh, was once elevated and dry, located near high ridges used as trails by ancient peoples. This area, on the border between marshland and oak savannah, contained abundant supplies of food. The site was inhabited several times between 8,000 B.C. and 700 A.D., leading Dr. Lurie to conclude, “This was a really good place to live.” These dates were established by examining the styles of dart and spear points. Although soil anomalies which might represent the remains of processing, storage or garbage were found, no charcoal or bone was preserved. Therefore, no radiocarbon dating could be obtained.

Dr. Lurie points out that the entire site was not excavated because such sites are considered “non-renewable resources,” may be destroyed by excavation, and should be preserved for future scientists to evaluate with more sophisticated techniques than we have today.

The Garrison site is but one example of over 350 known sites in Lake County. There are hundreds more in Cook and Will Counties. There are also possible sites all along the North Shore and here in Winnetka.

Amateur explorers should be aware that collecting artifacts from the surface of the ground removes important evidence and clues to ancient human activities. In some instances it also may be illegal. Lectures and museum field trips are a responsible way to ensure that we all will share an understanding of the prehistory of the land we now inhabit.

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