TRAVERSE CITY — Little was known about prehistoric northwestern lower Michigan in 1966, when anthropologist Charles Cleland and his college archaeology students started 40 summers of digging around.
Cleland, then a Michigan State University professor looking for field-study opportunities for his students, had a hypothesis. He postulated that a prehistoric "Traverse Corridor," stretching from the base of Grand Traverse Bay to the Mackinac Straits, was used by early Native Americans during their warm-season migrations thousands of years ago.
His theory earned a National Science Foundation grant that funded the initial discovery in the late 1960s and 1970s of 30 to 40 prehistoric summer villages and many smaller camp locations in this region.
Today, this continuous avenue of Great Lakes coastal plains and inland lakes is known as a summer fishing, hunting and gathering ground used by two different groups of prehistoric people about 1,800 years ago at the latest.
One group came from Canada to catch and dry fall-spawning whitefish and lake trout along the Great Lakes shoreline to take back to winter camps in interior forests. Archaeological evidence indicates they used gill nets by 900 A.D., Cleland said.
The second group came from the southern parts of the Upper Great Lakes, Ohio Valley and as far away as Georgia. They relied more on agriculture but also hunted, fished, grew corn and gathered a variety of foods in the open marshes, mixed lowland and upland forests around the inland lakes.
Cleland retired from MSU in 2000. He now lives in Norwood with his wife, Nancy, an ethnobotanist who also worked on some of the excavations and writing projects. Cleland's most recent book, "Faith in Paper," was published this fall by University of Michigan Press.
The stone tools, flint arrowheads, copper spear points, decorative marks on pottery shards and animal bones found a half-century ago in this region explained much about the area's earliest summer residents.
Numerous discoveries shed light on the region's rich history: