Caribou movement offers clues to ancient artifacts
Researchers are exploring ice patches in Jasper’s Tonquin Valley for signs of ancient caribou hunters’ tools.
Todd Kristensen with Alberta’s Archaeology Survey is leading a team on a five-day exploration of alpine snow patches in the Tonquin Valley and adjacent Mount Robson Park. Using caribou movement data, and by relying on recent discoveries of ancient wooden shafts just over the Jasper National Park border, Kristensen hopes to uncover any significant artifacts which may give clues as to who was using the area and what they were doing there.
“We’re trying to figure out where people were hunting caribou by going to the areas the caribou target,” Kristensen said.
In the last two decades, significant archaeological discoveries have been made in the Yukon and Northwest Territories by examining the areas where caribou historically congregate. There, frozen in the ice, scientists found notched spears, dart shafts with feathers still attached and other immaculately-preserved tools. The key to locating the rich repositories, scientists discovered, was looking in the places where caribou would seek refuge from predators and insects—the high alpine.
“The preservation was phenomenal. These discoveries spurred a big program,” Kristensen said.
But Jasper was never on the archaeologists’ radar—until 2009, when Parks Canada alerted Kristensen to the discovery of two wooden shafts high above treeline at Barbican Pass, just beyond Jasper National Park’s western border. At the time, the location of the artifacts was simply noted, however, in 2014 Jasper’s cultural resource specialist, Mike Dillon, was able to get them carbon dated. Results indicated the shafts were 2,500 and 500-years-old, respectively.
“It was implying that people might have been using these areas for 2,000 years in between,” Kristensen said.
COURTESY OF TODD KRISTENSEN
But who were these ancient people? Kristensen admits he is still learning about the unique intersection between what researchers believe were western cultures from the interior plateau and the Columbia River Basin, and the plains and foothills-based groups in what’s now Alberta. More likely, rather than shedding light on who used the area, the discovery of tools would provide some insight on how the area was used.
“If people were coming up to the alpine areas to hunt game they might not need to hunt buffalo,” Kristensen said.
Now, Kristensen’s team is trying to trace those ancient foodsteps. They’re basing their study area not only on the discovery of the ancient tools, but also on Parks Canada’s recent radio collar data for caribou. If the Tonquin Valley herd is anything like the caribou of the Northwest Territories, as Kristensen hopes, they’ll travel to the same alpine snow patches as their ancestors—whether or not those snow patches even exist anymore.
“Even with no snow the caribou would bed down near these ancestral resting spots, it’s got to be something genetic,” Kristensen said.
But if the lack of snow is bad for caribou staying cool, it’s horrible for preserving 2,000-year-old wooden spears. All over North America, Kristensen said, the race is on to make archaeological discoveries before climate change unlocks the glacial ice and exposes the delicate artifacts to the alpine air.
“We’re facing the reality of maybe 10 years of ice patch work before some of these archives are gone forever,” Kristensen said. “Some have been cased in ice for thousands of years. We’ve got a pretty narrow window to record some pretty unique stuff.”
The Archaeology Survey of Alberta asks that if climbers or hikers discover any unusual wood above treeline that they leave it in place and report any findings to Parks Canada.
COURTESY OF TODD KRISTENSEN