The early archaeological history of Wisconsin can be traced back to the Indians who populated the state for many thousands of years before the advent of Western civilization. The earliest archaeological artifacts of Wisconsin Indians date back to the Archaic period, about 8,000 BC. There are older artifacts present, such as a spear found near a mastodon skeleton that dates back to 11,000 BC, but the first consistent and abundant signs of culture did not appear until the Archaic period.
During the Archaic Period, Indians lived exclusively through hunting and gathering, fashioning copper harpoons for fishing and copper spears for hunting. The mining of copper and the production of copper artifacts would play an important role throughout the history of Wisconsin Indians. The copper culture flourished in the Woodland Period, starting about 1,000 BC. By then, Wisconsin Indians maintained extensive trade in copper as well as stones like quartzite or obsidian. Trade flourished with other Indians around the Great Lakes, particularly tribes in northern Michigan, as well as with tribes living in the South. The Indians initially obtained large amounts of copper by scavenging. They then fashioned copper tools by heating raw copper in a fire and then hammering it into shape with a rock or other hard object. This open-hearth technique is similar to the way they made pottery by simply heating scavenged clay in an open fire. Such metalworking technology allowed the Indians to create a wide range of tools, ranging from large spears, often thrown with the help of an atlatl, to small knives. These knives were particularly useful in butchering animals and efficiently dividing them into usable parts.
After the Middle Woodland period, which concluded around 500 AD, Indians transitioned from a hunter/gatherer subsistence strategy to a more agrarian economy. Although hunting was still important, farming, particularly of maize, became an important means of food production. Around the same time, a mound culture began to take hold. Indians constructed elaborate and sizeable effigy mounds of earth, most likely for religious purposes. Effigy mounds were usually in the shape of a bird or a man, and can be from 60 to over 200 feet long. The bird-shaped mound on Observatory has a wingspan of 133 feet, while the three mounds behind the Nat range from 66 to 143 feet in size. Overall, the cultural practices and technological advances of Wisconsin Indians thousands of years before the arrival of Western explorers demonstrate a breadth of knowledge and culture once thought to be limited to Europeans, and firmly place the Indians as an important civilization in its own right.