Faunal Resources

What kinds of animals were hunted in the past? What role did they play in the diet? Were there other things besides food that animals provided? These are some of the kinds of questions that archaeologists have answered based on the kinds of animal remains found at sites.

Deer were the most important food in the diet for virtually all of prehistory, and continue as the most popular game animal today. There were other game, including elk, muskrat, beaver, bear, otter and mink, often taken for their furs as well as food. Birds include wild turkey, Canada geese and ducks.


Deer were vital to the ancient economy. They provided meat, fat, antlers for points and for flintknapping, bones for tools, and hides for clothing and shelter.

These deer bones were broken and then cooked to remove the fatty marrow inside, producing bone grease. Fat was a valued resource in the past, particularly during the long winters.


Wild Turkey

Wild turkey feathers were highly valued for arrow fletching and were widely traded.

Turkey feathers



Bison were always important on the Great Plains. During the Oneota period, people east of the Mississippi began to move west to hunt bison during the winter, for both food and hides. They brought the shoulder blades back to La Crosse to use as hoes in the fields.

1912: Mandan woman demonstrating the hoe. (Taken from "Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden," by Gilbert Wilson, 1987).
Bison shoulder blade made into hoe.


Riverine Resources

What kinds of resources were obtained from the river? What kinds of tools were used? Were the bones and shells used for anything besides food? These questions have been addressed by archaeologists based on the remains of fish and other riverine resources found at archaeological sites.

The Mississippi and smaller rivers and streams provided many fish, with freshwater drum, catfish, northern pike, suckers, gar, bowfin, bullheads and sturgeon popular. Fishing techniques have been suggested from the nature of some of the artifacts recovered. They can also be suggested from the nature and size of the fish. Large fish may have been speared. Nets and seines would have been the most efficient way to harvest schools of smaller fish in the shallow backwaters. Even crayfish and turtles were eaten.

Netsinkers are small rocks with a groove around the middle for fastening to the net.
Bone harpoon



Turtles were popular for their shells and meat.

This turtle shell was made into a platter. The vertebrae were ground down to smooth the interior.



Fish were one of the most important summer resources. In addition to telling us about what people ate, their bones can also tell us what season they were caught. Fish grow continuously throughout their lives. Their bones and scales have annual growth rings similar to the rings on a tree. We can tell a fish's age by counting the rings. We can tell the season the fish were taken by seeing how much of the current year's growth ring had already formed when the fish was caught.

Using growth rings, we learned that schools of two year old bullheads such as these were taken in the late summer when they could be scooped up with a net in the backwaters of the river.
Fish bones, including those of drum, bullhead catfish and sucker.



Freshwater mussels were collected as food. Their shells were used as tools, made into serving implements, and ground for pottery temper.

Mussel shells in a refuse pit at the Gundersen site