Human history in the area has been traced back approximately 8 to 10 thousand years to the period, in the wake of the last ice age, when glacial Lake Agassiz covered much of what is now southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario. Lake Agassiz formed from meltwater collecting in the depression between the receding ice sheet and the unglaciated land to the south. At its maximum extent, the higher elevations of the present ELA probably existed as islands in the eastern portion of the glacial lake. As the land rebounded and the lake gradually receded, aboriginal peoples moved into the area, leaving artifacts at various locations near what is now Lake of the Woods.
Over the ensuing centuries, different peoples inhabited the area, relying on its many waterbodies as transportation routes. Hunting and fishing, plus the gathering of wild rice, were the major subsistence activities. Copper tools and weapons dating from 2000 BC have been found in the region. People of the "Laurel Culture" inhabited the region to the south of the ELA from approximately one to three thousand years ago and were probably responsible for introduction of the bow and arrow to this region. About 1000 years ago, a new culture, the Blackduck people, first occupied the Lake of the Woods region. This culture, which may have been responsible for many of the rock paintings found throughout the area, remained dominant until the 1700's. The relative proximity of the prairies led, over the centuries, to various interactions between plains and forest tribes.
By 1700, two tribes, the Assiniboine and the Cree, occupied the Lake of the Woods Region. Later, an Algonkian tribe, the Ojibwa (Chippewa), moved into the region from the east. Armed with guns introduced by the Europeans, they were able to push out earlier resident tribes. They had violent encounters with the Sioux who lived on the great plains as the two tribes sought control of the Lake of the Woods region. Sioux Narrows, located southwest of the ELA, was reportedly the scene of one such event. The Ojibwa descendents currently reside throughout the region. The nearest First Nations presences are the Whitefish Bay (south), Rat Portage (west) and Eagle River (northeast) Bands, but there has been little direct contact with the Experimental Lakes Area by these people in recent years. The most obvious evidence of aboriginal presence in the immediate vicinity of the ELA are the numerous red ochre rock paintings found along the shores of Dryberry, Teggau and other lakes. These paintings probably date from the period of the Black Duck Culture, and several studies have detailed the sites in the ELA region (Dewdney and Kidd 1967; Lambert 1983, 1985).