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This activity provides a visual representation of how long people have lived in the area we call “Michigan.” Archaeology shows that the first people, called Paleo Indians, arrived here about 10,000 B.C. Unlike people of the Middle Ages, Biblical times or ancient Chinese dynasties, Michigan’s first people left artifacts (studied by archaeologists) and oral traditions (studied by anthropologists), but no written records. Missionaries and other Europeans who arrived in the Great Lakes area around 1620 began its written history.
By making a time line with time marked along a string in 500-year intervals, students become aware of the eons about which we have only limited information derived from archaeological investigation and oral tradition.
Note: The time before written history is often termed “prehistory.” Yet the people who lived here had a long history, although unwritten. You might want to use the term “precontact” instead.
- Students will compare Michigan’s long existence with its short written history.
- Students will identify key dates in Michigan’s existence.
Michigan Social Studies Curriculum Content Standards
- • 3 – H3.0.10 Create a timeline to sequence early Michigan history (American Indians, exploration, settlement, statehood).
- String, yarn or twine: one piece at least 12 feet long, for each student
- Colored markers
- Teacher’s reference page: “A String Time Line of Michigan History” [PDF]
Making the Timeline
Have students each make a string time line of Michigan history, then visit other grades to show younger students how much history Michigan has. The photo on the teacher’s reference page illustrates the string time line. Give each student a piece of string. Then have students do the following (see reference page):
- 1. Indicate today’s era: Knot one end of the string. This will symbolize this year.
- 2. Show time in 500-year intervals: Measure back from the knot 5 inches and knot the string again. Keep tying knots in the string every five inches until you have 24 knots beyond the first one. Color the knot at 1500 years with a red marker.
- 3. Indicate the amount of time since the Europeans arrived (around 1620). Color the year 2000 knot and color the length of string for about 4 inches back from the knot (to indicate 400 years) with a black marker.
- 4. Color the last knot with a blue marker to represent 10,000 B.C. (approximate arrival of the ancient Paleo people).
- 5. Partially show (and imagine) the time it took for this land we call Michigan to form by leaving the end of the string before the blue knot as long as you can. (The teacher’s version of the time line might have the wound ball of string still connected at that end.)
Using the Timeline
Conduct a discussion about the meaning of the knots and colors. Ask:
- 1. Which part of the string shows how long people have lived in Michigan? (all from the 10,000 B.C. [blue] knot)
- 2. When did Columbus arrive in the Western Hemisphere? Where would that date fall on the string time line? (1492, next to the 1500 [red] knot)
- 3. Which part shows the time for which we have Michigan history that people wrote down? (the black colored section after the Europeans arrived c 1620)
- 4. Which part of the string shows the amount of time for which we have history of peoples that is not written down? We call this time “precontact” and depend upon archaeologists to help us learn how people lived then. (the uncolored portion of the string from 1620 to the blue knot)
- 5. Optional: Have students make a tag for their own birth date (or an event they’ve studied). Tie it onto the string at the appropriate place. Add tags for the archaeological periods illustrated in the Michigan Historical Museum’s First People exhibits.
Ask students to each give a brief talk using the string time line to explain what they now know about time and history in Michigan. After they have practiced their presentation, visit other classrooms so they can share what they learned.
Questions for Discussion or Research
- 1. What would you like to know about Michigan history that you could only learn from an archaeologist or the oral tradition of Michigan’s Indians?
- 2. How does Michigan’s climate make it difficult for archaeologists to find intact artifacts left behind by Michigan’s first people?
At the Museum
- Read and follow the time line in the first people exhibit. How do the colors indicate different eras?
- Find examples of artifacts that show us how the first people lived (projectile points, pots, tools, etc.).
- Anthropology: the study of people, their relationships, culture and history
- Archaeology: the scientific study of the people of the past through things they left behind (e.g., implements, artifacts, monuments, inscriptions) found in the earth
- Artifact: an object made or modified by people
- Oral tradition: information, opinions, beliefs, and customs handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth
- Time line: a visual representation of important events or years in chronological order
- Halsey, John R., ed. Michael Stafford, associate ed. Retrieving Michigan’s Buried Past: The Archaeology of the Great Lakes State. Bloomfield Hills, MI: Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1999.
- Lewis, Ferris Everett. Michigan, Yesterday and Today (ninth ed.). Hillsdale, MI: Hillsdale Educational Publishers, 1980.
- Tanner, Helen Hornbeck (Editor). Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
Please contact staff at the Michigan Historical Center with questions, concerns, and requests for educational content.Contact