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Local News

Archaeological digs at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie yield clues to pre-colonial life

Researchers conducting archaeological digs at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington have been learning a lot about what life was like for indigenous people before the arrival of Europeans in the area.

They’ve found items such as hunting tools and pieces of pots that have helped them better understand the details of late prehistoric life, relationships, diet and more, before French settlers arrived and began recording history around 1673.

University of Notre Dame professor Mark Schurr, postdoctoral scholar Madeleine McLeester and Midewin archaeologist and tribal liaison Joseph Wheeler have worked with a group of about 20 volunteers to excavate the sites over the past four years.

This year, Schurr, McLeester and their team have found and meticulously dug up several pits that the inhabitants used for storage that were later filled with trash by the site’s inhabitants.

“What we’re doing is basically just digging up their trash to get a better sense of how they lived,” McLeester said.

McLeester added that they’ve also found a suite of agricultural products, such as corn or maize, which contain evidence of just how cold it was during the 1600s. She said it was notable to find that the inhabitants were able to grow this food during what is known as the “Little Ice Age.”

“That lets us know that these are really expert agriculturalists who know what they’re doing,” McLeester said.

These findings are also helpful to Midewin’s mission to learn more about the history of the natural land.

The hope for the project’s next phase is to find where inhabitants actually lived. Through the use of thermal imaging and other technology, some promising locations were found, McLeester said, adding that finding a site could be especially revelatory, considering modern development throughout the Chicago area has left little evidence of prehistoric homes.

McLeester also praised the work of the volunteers who came from Will County and elsewhere in the Chicago area. They learn about excavation procedures, use tools to carefully dig up the sites and occasionally find “treasure,” as one volunteer put it.

Tom Carey, 75, of Joliet, said he decided to volunteer for the project, mostly because he wanted to see Midewin up close.

“It’s pretty amazing what went on here before the white man came,” Carey said.

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