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Ancestry of the land before time: more than crude oil is being uncovered in northern Alberta's vast boreal forests, where people have lived for eleven millennia.


Locked up in the sands of northeastern Alberta lie some 175 billion barrels of crude oil--the world's second-largest reserves, after Saudi Arabia. Now producing over a million barrels a day, the area could triple its output in a little over a decade, given the CAN$80 billion of new investment pouring in. It's a massive undertaking that promises to accelerate the already frenzied action in this corner of the oil patch. Highway 63 out of Fort McMurray teems 24/7 with semis, flatbeds, buses, pickup trucks, and vans; gargantuan Caterpillar dump trucks move with purpose over the horizon. All are doing their part to extract a precious resource from these rich sands and cash in on a high-priced global commodity.

Many might think of human activity as a recent phenomenon in this hinterland. But thanks to impact assessments required for the mammoth oil sands projects, archaeologists are discovering that the area has been abuzz for millennia.

Evidence of ancient human habitation is being found at hundreds of sites in these Athabasca lowlands, a region that was almost a complete void in the archaeological record just a few decades ago. It's a huge boon to archaeologists like Brian "Barney" Reeves, who says that "such a discoverable and undisturbed record exists in very few locales in North America." Enough evidence has by now been revealed to define entire new cultural complexes that have made their way into the academic literature.

Like all Canadian provinces, Alberta has a government-regulated system for ensuring the protection of historical resources such as archaeological sites. All projects carry the risk of damaging a historic resource--known or unknown--so individuals or companies undertaking the activity are required to conduct a Heritage Resource Impact Assessment (HRIA) at their own expense before they can obtain a permit. These assessments are normally subcontracted by developers to qualified consulting archaeologists. So the booming oil sands have been paralleled by booming levels of HRIAs--and this has archaeologists and academics delighted.

Prior to recent oil sands activity, precious little funding went into exploring the archaeology of Canada's boreal forests such as these, because it took a relatively large investment to come up with a significant volume of data. Boreal forests are tough environments where archaeological evidence is hard to come by. Thousands of years of deposits are limited to only a few inches of stratification. The acidic soils eat up bones, leather, wood, and other telltale organic residue, offering little to reconstruct ancient ways of life and almost no chance for radiocarbon dating. Stone tools, their manufacturing debris--scraps such as flakes, chips, and broken tools, known as debitage--and fire-broken rock from campfires are mostly all that remain, and these are hard to find.


Unlike the prairie dwellers who organized communal hunting events such as mass buffalo jumps, leaving troves of artifacts behind, boreal forest hunters generally chased solitary animals in dispersed locations. For archaeologists, this has made finding spear, dart, and arrow points a hit-or-miss affair. Adding to these woes is the sheer difficulty of locating sites amid dense forest, muskeg bogs, and summer mosquitoes.

The Athabasca lowlands weren't always like this; the climate was once much warmer and drier. Humans may have been living here as far back as 10,500 years ago, though recent geological studies by University of Calgary geographer Derald Smith have shown that they would not have stayed long. Smith and his team have found evidence that 9,900 years ago a massive flash flood of glacial meltwater, called the Agassiz Flood, scoured its way through northeastern Alberta. The study showed that as the floodwaters retreated over the next 400 years, a complex of ridges, knolls, escarpments, beaches, spits, peninsulas, and islands emerged. These features became part of a redefined system of lakes and a very wide Athabasca River with extensive bays--where companies hold valuable oil sands leases today.


The very shapes of these landscapes and shorelines defined human use of the area in ancient times. Based on these, archaeologists look for clues in likely spots where people might have camped. Reeves and his teams, for instance, discovered complexes of ancient campsites and stone tool workshops. One highly significant site they located was on an old shoreline of a past lake named Nezu.

Projectile points found at the Nezu site date to around 9,000 years ago. Reeves theorizes they were left behind by groups of hunters who migrated from the northern plains, drawn by the thousands of animals grazing on the shrubby grasslands that thrived in the warm, dry conditions. Knives, scrapers, and other stone tools point to a variety of activities as the hunters camped all along the old lakeshore. Analysis of blood residue on the tools has provided clues as to what animals were being exploited: bison, caribou, moose, beaver, bear.

Assistance with site searches has come from a computer model devised by archaeologist Brian Ronaghan and assembled partly using his own contract HRIA findings from oil sands leases. The model shows landforms that were above water at various stages of the receding floods, so that is where he and others have successfully focused their searches. In fact, one of the main formations has been nicknamed "Ronaghan's Ridge" by his peers, in honor of the number of sites found there. "They're all between 9,500 and 7,500 years old," he says. "We've found where they used the terrain for entrapments too, and occasionally where they processed kills."

These archaeological sites are of no small consequence. Reeves and his co-researcher, archaeologist Nancy Saxberg, feel Nezu and the hundreds of sites discovered along the old shorelines are unique and of national significance. They figure such a discoverable record exists in very few places in North America. "The Lower Athabasca record has outstanding potential to contribute fundamental knowledge to the nature of the early northern landscapes and their reoccupation by early native peoples, the nature of these people's cultures, and their responses to the landscape," says Reeves.

The initial oil sands impact assessments were carried out in the early 1970s, soon after passage of provincial legislation requiring formal heritage-site protections. One of the first sites found was dubbed the Beaver River Quarry. It yielded one of the earliest pieces of evidence in the area: a spear point of a type that occurred on the northwestern plains as early as 10,500 years ago. Another matched a southern plains type from between 10,000 and 9,500 years ago, which was found during an HRIA for Shell Canada.

That assessment yielded 49 new sites on the eastern side of the Athabasca River. Eight of these occurred along a picturesque, crescent-shaped ridge overlooking a small lake beside the Athabasca called Creeburn Lake. When archaeologists discovered thousands of stone tool flakes and broken tools there, in such a pleasant spot where ancient toolmakers and their families could assemble in large groups and watch for game, they immediately knew their significance. These eight sites, along with others since discovered on the ridge, were later consolidated into the Creeburn Lake site, which has now been protected as a Provincial Historical Resource by the government of Alberta.


Local aboriginal groups such as the Fort McKay First Nation still consider Creeburn Lake a special place. They recount oral histories about the Lathering place: how it got its name, what it was used for. Much of that activity is still around today, such as hunting, fishing, and gathering "bush medicines" like rat root. "I was born and raised there," says local resident Howard Lacorde. "Me and my dad hunted for ducks along the lake and he told me that long ago there were 8,000 people at Creeburn." Flora Grandjambe, another elder, says she still dries moose meat and tans hides in ways passed down to her by previous generations.


Jack Ives, provincial archaeologist and manager of Alberta's Heritage Resource Management Branch, elaborates on the site's regional significance: "The boreal forest environment is one where small groups of people needed to circulate widely to make a living without being at too much risk. You can't go around in gangs of 300 or 400 people and expect to feed yourself. So there are really only a few seasonal opportunities for ingathering like Creeburn. And so people would take advantage of it to socialize--probably marriages took place."

Ives feels that the hundreds of smaller sites found in the vicinity are related to the Creeburn Lake site. "All of these sites are six to ten kilometers [four to six miles] back from the river," he says. "Creeburn Lake was the hub of regional ingathering activities. The little sites are where activity took place away from that hub. They might be residential spots or the products of day trips where an animal was killed and all that's left is a broken tool or projectile point. So there's a logical connection to these tiny sites in the region and Creeburn Lake itself."

It's unfortunate, Ives says, that the acidic soils have dissolved evidence of other important subsistence sources such as fishing, making it impossible to get the whole picture. "Early studies in the oil sands series were estimating that two-and-a-half to three million whitefish would have been running in the Athabasca River in the fall," he says. Ives's vision of harvesting this resource has been enshrined in a diorama at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton.


Smaller projectile points with notches in their bases appeared at Creeburn Lake starting around 7,750 years ago, heralding the arrival in the area of a new weapon. The atlatl was a throwing stick or board with a notch at one end, used to propel a dart--much like a lacrosse stick does for a ball. It was well adapted to the open grasslands of the time, which facilitated the forward lunge needed to launch the weapon. Projectile points dating from 4,500 to 3,500 years ago were also recovered from Creeburn Lake, showing that the area was still popular after the encroachment of today's forest and muskeg, which was complete about 5,000 years ago--around the time of the planet's last major climate change.

As interest in developing northeastern Alberta's oil sands accelerated into the late 1970s, archaeological explorations kept pace. But the roll was soon to come to an end. New oil sands activity ground to a virtual halt in the early 1980s as policies instituted by the federal government and a collapse in crude prices essentially killed interest in development. Except for a few surveys that weren't funded by the energy industry, the flow of new data stopped.

There was a bit of a silver lining, though. Ives recalls that the slowdown provided an unexpected opportunity to step back and look at the big picture. North of Fort McMurray, a mega-project called Alsands--which had been planned in response to escalating world crude prices--was cancelled in the early 1980s due to price uncertainties and cost escalations. "The Alsands project had cleared a massive area," Ives says. "We walked around this and soon realized the immense density of sites in the region. What was really surprising was that almost every little bump on the terrain had some kind of site on it. Some of them had three or four." This was before Smith's analysis of the Agassiz Flood and Ronaghan's landform simulation program, so Ives at the time had spotted the pattern of sites occurring on what later turned out to be ancient islands and shorelines.

Around the time Ives was checking out the old Alsands lease, Ronaghan made a momentous discovery there too. It was something archaeologists had never seen this far southeast: microblades--tiny scalpel-sized stone blades which anthropologist Sheila Greaves has called "highly expedient and portable tool kits." Ives and the Archaeological Survey of Alberta then put together an extensive investigation of the Bezya site, as it had been christened, and concluded that it was the extreme southeastward expansion of what is knowN as the Northwest Microblade Tradition from around 4,000 years ago. The whole microblade manufacturing sequence was represented there in immaculate detail; pieces were found that fit together as neatly as a jigsaw puzzle.

Ives figures they were left by northern-based hunters. "Microblades have been found in the Birch Mountains and in the Lake Athabasca region," he says. "That's probably arctic caribou hunters infiltrating the boreal forest somewhat more deeply. As recently as the 1950s, Parks Canada reported thousands of woodland caribou at the southern end of Wood Buffalo National Park, so we're not too far--and you can imagine they might have been even farther south from time to time."

In the late 1980s, a resurgence of interest by energy companies in the oil sands brought a return of industry-funded impact assessments. Archaeologists interested in the Athabasca lowlands could look forward to new HRIAs as the oil companies' old plans were dusted off and revitalized.

The resurgence brought about a new boon in significant finds on the old oil sands leases. For example, fresh excavations undertaken at the Creeburn Lake site turned up what are called Taltheilei points--the first concrete evidence of the arrival of the culture known by that name. Ancestral to the Dene, the forest-adapted Taltheilei people migrated from their homelands in the Yukon and Mackenzie River drainage basin and brought their new hunting tactics, using their smaller projectile points on the bow and arrow. In one of the rare radiocarbon datings from the site, the point was dated at 1,240 years ago.

One intriguing aspect of ongoing archaeological investigations in the oil sands region was the abundance of a stone-tool raw material called Beaver River sandstone, common at Creeburn Lake and hundreds of other sites. "It's just all over the place, it totally dominates archaeological assemblages up there," says Ives. "People up to about 25 or 30 kilometers [15 to 18 miles] away from the greater source area made use of it extensively."

But for over three decades of HRIA investigations, the source of that Beaver River sandstone had eluded archaeologists--until, that is, a company called Birch Mountain Resources commissioned an assessment so it could exploit a limestone deposit on the east side of the Muskeg River. "The reason why no one had found it is that there's no oil sands in this area, or very little," says Saxberg. "So no one had been interested economically." It was that HRIA that led to the discovery of one of the most exciting finds, now dubbed the Quarry of the Ancestors--the mother lode of Beaver River sandstone.

One find near there has Saxberg particularly excited--an ancient spear point with blood residue that matches that of today's elephants. "Without a doubt, it's proboscidean," she says. In northern Canada, that can mean only one thing: the spear was used on a mastodon. The find has raised some questions as to the actual date of the big flood. "Mastodon were extinct in that area supposedly 10,500 years ago, so it shouldn't have been there at all," says Saxberg. "That flood was supposed to have happened 9,900 years ago. So either the flood happened a whole lot earlier than commonly discussed or we have proboscideans much later." It has ignited some academic debate; Saxberg suggests there may in fact have been two major floods.


The Quarry of the Ancestors has other significance too. After extensive exploration of the immediate area, Saxberg suspects it may have been a sort of commercial site. "I think the people there were almost sedentary," she says. "It smacks of a lot of activity; there's more than just debitage. And some tools are used for fine engraving like artists' tools. The whole area is much different from just hunter-gatherers moving around. There were longer occupations here--Fort McMurray's first commercial boom?" she quips. With a significance matching that of the Creeburn Lake site, the Quarry of the Ancestors is now under application for Provincial Historical Resource status.

Only some of the discoveries result in such significant sites. Fortunately, in the case of the Quarry of the Ancestors, development can work around it. Had it been found on an active oil sands lease, resource extraction would not be allowed to begin in that area until a decision was made as to the importance of the site and how it should be protected. Sometimes areas are set aside for protection; sometimes site components are relocated to museums so commercial activity can proceed. Many options are weighed on a case-by-case basis, and resource companies generally respect the process. In this region, good aboriginal and community relations are an important part of the oil sands extraction process.

Which has all paid off. For the first time, archaeologists are able to piece together aspects of prehistoric life for almost the entire eleven millennia humans have lived in the Athabasca lowlands. For some, like Reeves, all these sites and finds have provided enough evidence to establish the distinct features of whole societal systems and to determine how these ancient cultural complexes fit in with broader prehistoric developments across the continent.

Graham Chandler is a full-time freelance writer with over 160 published articles. He holds a PhD in archaeology and has extensive experience with the oil and gas industry.
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Author:Chandler, Graham
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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