This archaeological site could prove humans lived in northern Sask. earlier than we thought

On a river bend in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan, archeaologist Andrea Freeman is chipping away hardened soils thousands of years old. She places a small piece of charcoal in a test tube, to be taken back to a lab and radiocarbon-dated. 

“Once we analyze the samples, we can get a sense of what plants and animals were available on the landscape for these people,” she said.

Freeman is part of a team of archaeologists studying a site near Prince Albert, Sask., which researchers believe could prove Indigenous people lived in the region potentially about 1,000 years earlier than current historical evidence shows. The first humans are believed to have moved into the area some time after the receding of glaciers about 10,000 years ago, although there is currently no precise timeline on when they arrived.

Archaeologists from the University of Calgary and the University of Saskatchewan are now searching for evidence into what vegetation existed in the area, which they hope could prove when the climate became habitable and allowed people to move by the North Saskatchewan River.

At an exposed slope of layers of sediment, they’re taking samples of soils, seeds, pollen and charcoal to be taken to a lab for analysis.

They expect to receive preliminary results on the age of the samples within the next few months.

Archaeologists Freeman, Glenn Stuart and Nicko Linares look up at paleosols. They were created by ancient soils preserved under sediment, and can help researchers understand what plants grew here thousands of years ago. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

Freeman, an associate geography professor at the University of Calgary, said the site is one of the oldest and best preserved on the western Prairies, and along with another nearby site, is the earliest evidence of post-glacial human occupation in central Saskatchewan.

“The glaciers retreated from here only about 10 or 10 and a half thousand years ago. So when we look at a site that’s potentially 9,200 years old, they’re coming in really quickly after that landscape is de-glaciated,” she said.

A crossing for bison

The researchers are working closely with nearby First Nations and Métis communities as they embark on the project, hoping to combine their findings with traditional cultural knowledge about the area.

Before the search began, people gathered at the site for a pipe ceremony and other protocols.

Willie Ermine, an elder from Sturgeon Lake First Nation, helped lead the ceremony. He said the location on the river was an important site for migratory animals, like bison, making it an ideal place to camp.

āsowahētān is the Cree word for this area, and it was a crossing for the buffalo to the south, to the great prairie,” he said. “When we say we lived with the buffalo thousands and thousands of years, well, this site will prove that.”

Willie Ermin wearing plaid shirt and Toronto Raptors cap with tent in background
Willie Ermine, an elder from nearby Sturgeon Lake First Nation, helped lead a pipe ceremony before the start of the archaeological search. He said the site was once an important crossing point for bison, and it makes sense that his ancestors would have camped next to the river. (Don Somers/CBC)

Ermine said Cree narratives help explain the past, and he hopes scientific research and traditional storytelling can co-exist. One of those stories tells how bison grew smaller over the years as their diets changed, a piece of history he expects bones at the site will confirm.

“We can perhaps infuse some knowledge into the Western science, but we also value what they can discover,” he said. “It’ll prove different things, probably beyond imagination, as well. We don’t know what the discoveries will be as they dig those different layers.”

WATCH | A look at a pre-contact Blackfoot lodge in Calgary: 

What was life like for pre-contact Blackfoot people? This archaeology project in Calgary is looking to answer that question

Nose Hill Park means a lot to Calgarians, but it has meant a lot to many for thousands of years.
A three week public archaeology project through the University of Calgary is underway at the site of a stone circle, where a Blackfoot lodge once stood.

‘It’s a remarkable site’

Bison bones and tools carved from the material have been found throughout the site, along with flints and other cultural artifacts. There’s also an area with pieces of charcoal and an orange line, suspected to be a former hearth, where a fire would have burned.

In the soil are dark lines called paleosols: ancient soils preserved under sediment. They can help determine past climates and vegetation under which they formed.

River surrounded by plants and vegetation with large puffy clouds reflected in the water
Researchers believe people started living at this spot on the North Saskatchewan River, near Prince Albert, shortly after glaciers receded about 10,000 years ago. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

Dave Rondeau, a local historian, has been exploring the location for several years and helped bring it to the attention of the archaeologists. He’s helping them as the research is underway and working to keep nearby First Nations involved.

“It’s a remarkable site,” he said. “You do have a really good working knowledge of the evolution of this area and who the inhabitants were. It’s unprecedented.”

Arrowheads and other ancient stone tools
Local historian Dave Rondeau has found a number of ancient tools at the site, including some for hunting, starting fires and preparing meat. (Don Somers/CBC)

Rondeau reported one of his finds, a bison-bone tool, to the University of Saskatchewan. It was radiocarbon-dated and estimated to be about 9,200 years old.

“I would really like to nail down the oldest point of occupation,” he said.

‘People who were very bold’

At the dig site, Freeman is working alongside Glenn Stuart, an archaeologist with the University of Saskatchewan, and Nicko Linares, a graduate student from the University of Calgary.

The researchers are marking locations, spraying water on the surface of the soil and scraping it flat before taking samples with a trowel. Each piece goes into a labelled test tube.

Nicko Linares, a graduate student with the University of Calgary, helps clear vegetation at the base of the site before the start of sampling.
Nicko Linares, a graduate student with the University of Calgary, helps clear vegetation at the base of the site before the start of sampling. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

At a lab, some samples will be radiocarbon-dated, and others will be examined under a microscope.

Freeman said the findings could show how the first inhabitants were living more in river valleys than on the plains, shortly after the glaciers retreated. 

“We can get a sense of how they changed their relationship with the landscape over thousands of years,” she said.

“We’re talking about people who were very bold.”

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