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Easing Alberta drought conditions slowly ending rare archaeological opportunity


"Blackfoot people have been saying, 'We've lived on this land since the day of creation,'" says Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn, archaeologist and a professor at Simon Fraser University.

The Blackfoot people say they have always lived here.

Western science is slowly coming to the same conclusion, helped in part by the exceptionally low water levels of the past two years.

"Because we have an oral history, the archaeological record is our only archive," Yellowhorn says.

"As an archaeologist, I can corroborate that (oral history) using my own research and lines of evidence that typically archaeologists don't explore."

As the major reservoirs in southern Alberta slowly approach the low end of their normal levels, that opportunity is coming to an end.

"Our ability to access the site is contingent upon water levels," says Kyle Forsythe, an archaeologist with the Royal Alberta Museum.

"When water levels reduce, that means that we are able then to access parts of the site that would normally be underwater."

Fieldwork is normally conducted in the fall when water levels are at their lowest but for the past two years, researchers have been able to explore rarely-seen locations for up to six months of the year.

Some of the more productive sites are also known by collectors, who remove the artifacts before researchers can document them.

Without the context of the surrounding soil, position in relation to other artifacts or nearby finds, the stone pieces lose their ability to teach us anything about the past.

In effect, after lasting millennia, a piece of Alberta's story is destroyed.

"It's not well known to people that it is actually illegal to collect artifacts privately," Forsythe says.

"The reason for that is the association between artifacts is integral to reconstructing the history of what happened in a place."

In a storage room at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, he shows off a stone point made in the Clovis style – an elaborately chipped piece of stone that was likely fastened to a spear or atlatl dart.

Somewhere around 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, a family group used it to survive.

The point shows signs of care and use.

"You can see the twist in there," he says, running his finger along an asymmetry in the blade that's obvious once he points it out.

"That suggests that it was re-sharpened intentionally on either side to maintain that cutting edge."

The point came from a private collector in southern Alberta.

It may have been accidentally dropped or discarded, or it may have been lost with a wounded animal that changed a family’s fortunes.

Any clues to exactly when or why or who last held it are gone, lost forever when someone placed it in their pocket.

Not just people

The earliest evidence of people and animals in Alberta dates to about 13,500 years ago, as plant life filled in behind retreating glaciers.

Plants brought animals, and the animals brought people.

"We have, for example, evidence of directly hunting things like musk ox and bison in particular, but also horse," Forsythe says.

"And we have horse bones with associated stone tools that show people were hunting horses and camels."

The earliest people lived alongside camels, scimitar (sabretooth) cats, cave bears, giant ground sloths and an ancestor of the modern domestic horse – a wide array of animals that died out here for reasons not well understood.

Christina Barron-Ortiz is a paleobiologist, studying the tracks and bones left all those years ago.

"Sites like this one that just predate the extinction event can tell us about how the populations of these animals were doing leading up to the extinctions," she says.

As the reservoirs dried out in 2022 and 2023, they exposed a fragile picture of that chapter in our history.

She holds up a cast of a mammoth track, taken from the mud of a reservoir.

These tracks are important because they offer a look at animals' behaviours, how many appear to be travelling together and the age and sex makeup of the herds.

"Some of these animals at the site were actually potentially declining. So they were starting to have fewer younger individuals and more older individuals," Barron-Ortiz says.

These finds are also at risk of being destroyed by unwitting foot traffic.

Some of the tracks are only visible for a few hours.

Others are buried under the mud – broken up without ever being seen when feet sink down through the layers.

Human footprints discovered in White Sands National Park in New Mexico have a generally accepted date of 23,000 years, based partly on seeds found preserved in the mud at the site.

The finds align with genetic drift models which predict when Indigenous North Americans last shared a common Asian ancestor. Top Stories

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