Archeologists time-travel 9,000 years to pre-settler Sask
Science | by Gregory Beatty
Last winter, you might recall, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum held an “official fossil” contest to chose a provincial emblem. Seven candidates were in the running, including a mammoth that inhabited Saskatchewan during the Wisconsin glacial episode around 15,000 years ago.
The Wisconsin episode was in its waning days then, having lasted for over 100,000 years. With the glaciers that had covered the province in mile-thick ice retreating, the area opened up to human habitation.
And now, the Saskatchewan Archeological Society is opening that history up.
Over the last two summers, the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society has been doing a field dig at a bison processing site at Ogema, about 100 kilometres south of Regina near the U.S. border.
The site isn’t as old as the mammoth fossil, but radiocarbon dating of bison bones indicates it’s around 9,000 years old.
“The Farr site was discovered in the late 1960s or early ’70s by an archaeologist who actually lives in Winnipeg now, but he’s from that area,” says the SAS’s outreach coordinator Karin Steuber. “He used to traipse around the hills and coulees as a kid and find arrowheads, and he’s always had the idea that maybe there was something intact beneath the plow zone. He brought it to our attention three years ago. We were just wrapping up a field project at a historic site near Batoche so we thought, ‘let’s do some excavating and see what we find.’
“Next thing you know we have an intact occupation layer 10 to 15 centimetres beneath the plow zone, so that made it really exciting,” she says.
Out of Asia
The archaeological record suggests the Americas were populated through multiple migrations from Asia during the latter part of the Wisconsin glacial episode. Blocked from moving eastward by the Rocky Mountains and the aforementioned ice sheets, Indigenous people journeyed down the west coast, then at some point further south entered the American plains, and later moved northward in pursuit of game as the glaciers retreated.
That theory comes with a caveat, though, says Steuber.
“One of the interesting things about archaeological research now is it’s constantly changing,” Steuber says. “People are finding new sites, so our understanding of human history in North and South America is continuously being updated.”
Some of the progress is due to technology, she adds.
“Drones are becoming more prominent, and archaeologists are using them to take aerial photos with LIDAR [which uses near infrared, ultraviolet and visible light to map surface and sub-surface detail] to identify potential sites.”
Like paleontology, archaeology is a multi-disciplinary profession. Knowledge of geology, geomorphology, genetics, geochemistry, biology and more are all relevant, and as advances in those disciplines are made, archaeologists gain new tools to examine the past.
“We often describe archaeology as being like a giant puzzle,” says Steuber. “Usually you don’t have all the pieces. But hopefully you have enough that you can reconstruct what’s going on and make some educated guesses about what people may have been doing and why they were doing it.”
In Saskatchewan, archaeology is divided into pre-contact and historical periods. The latter includes settler activity and begins around 1690 A.D. To help protect sites of archaeological significance from development pressures related to roads, pipelines, housing developments and whatnot, Saskatchewan has a vetting process similar to an environmental assessment that’s administered by the Ministry of Parks, Culture & Sport.
“Archaeologists report their findings to the regulatory body which is the ministry’s Heritage Conservation Branch,” says Steuber. “They can say, ‘Sorry, it’s something really significant so we can’t have you plowing through it.’ You could also mitigate it by digging the site up and gathering as much information as possible. Both options are very expensive for companies, but they have occurred. Or they could decide there’s nothing of significance and give the go-ahead.”
Saskatchewan’s tragic history of colonization imposes another constraint on the practice of archaeology in the province, says Steuber, and it’s one the SAS takes seriously.
“When you’re getting into the historic period especially archaeologists have a duty to consult with First Nations and Métis groups to learn about their oral histories and traditions. That can definitely influence what we find at an archaeological site and how we interpret it,” Steuber says.
With sites such as Ogema that are many thousands of years old, she adds, the connection to oral history and tradition is typically pretty tenuous.
“But we still like to involve First Nations and Métis groups to share that history and see what they have to say about what they’ve been taught specific artifacts mean.”
As Indigenous people spread out across the Canadian Prairies, they developed sophisticated strategies for mass bison kills using cliffs, sand hills and other geographic features to their advantage.
Ogema predates that period, says Steuber.
“It’s a bit of an odd place for a kill, but we’re not looking at dozens of bison, it’s likely less than 10, so it could just have been a single event,” says Steuber. “There’s a lot of bison bones, then on the surface there’s spear points that date back to a period we call Scottsbluff culture. But it’s significant in that it is so old. Sites of that antiquity are very rare in Saskatchewan.”
For plains First Nations, Steuber says, the bison was the equivalent of the supermarket — providing raw material for food, clothing, shelter, tools and even fuel via buffalo chips.
“If you didn’t catch that bison you weren’t eating,” she says. “There was no trip to Safeway or take-out, so it was very much life and death.”
Beyond bison kill and processing sites, Saskatchewan archaeologists also study other remnants of pre-contact Indigenous life such as campsites, pictographs, petroglyphs, effigies and medicine wheels to learn more about the province’s distant past.
“When you’re the first person to excavate something that’s been buried in the ground for 9,000 years, it’s humbling,” says Steuber, speaking specifically about the Ogema site. “You see the attention to detail and care that went into making these artifacts.
“It makes you very thankful for things like indoor plumbing and heating that we have now, and not having to withstand our winters without those modern conveniences,” Steuber says.
“That’s really what makes archaeology so fascinating, just to learn what people did in the past and how they survived, and how very lucky we are today with what we have,” she says.
To learn more about the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society and its affiliated branches visit saskarchsoc.ca.