This archaeological site could prove people lived in northern Saskatchewan earlier than we thought

In a river bend in the boreal forest of northern Saskatchewan, archaeologist Andrea Freeman cuts away at thousands of years of hardened soil. She places a small piece of charcoal in a test tube, which she takes to a lab and performs radiocarbon dating.

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

Freeman is part of a team of archaeologists studying a site near Prince Albert, Sask., that researchers believe could prove that indigenous people may have lived in the region as much as 1,000 years earlier than current historical evidence suggests. It is believed that the first humans settled in the area sometime after the glaciers retreated, around 10,000 years ago, although there is currently no precise timeline for when they arrived.

Archaeologists from the University of Calgary and the University of Saskatchewan are now looking for evidence of vegetation that was present in the area. They hope to be able to show this once the climate becomes habitable again and people can move via the North Saskatchewan River.

On an open slope with sediment layers, samples of soil, seeds, pollen and charcoal are taken. These samples are taken to a laboratory for analysis.

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

Three people look up and point to a wall of earth
Archaeologists Freeman, Glenn Stuart and Nicko Linares are looking up at paleosols, which are formed by ancient soils preserved beneath sediment and can help researchers understand what plants grew here thousands of years ago. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

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

“The glaciers here only retreated 10 or 10 and a half thousand years ago. So when we look at a site that is possibly 9,200 years old, they’re coming back very quickly after that landscape has been deglaciated,” she said.

A crossing for bison

The researchers are working closely with nearby First Nations and Métis communities 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 riverfront location was an important spot for migrating animals, such as bison, making it an ideal place to camp.

asowahetān is the Cree word for this area, and it was a crossing point for the bison going south to the great prairie,” he said. “If we’re going to say we’ve lived with the bison for thousands and thousands of years, this site will prove it.”

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

Ermine said Cree stories help explain the past, and he hopes scientific research and traditional stories can coexist. One such story tells of how bison became smaller over the years as their diets changed, a piece of history he expects bones at the site to confirm.

“We may be able to bring some knowledge to Western science, but we also appreciate what they can discover,” he said. “It will prove different things, probably unimaginable. We don’t know what the discoveries will be when they dig up those different layers.”

WATCH | A look inside a Blackfoot lodge in Calgary before contact:

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

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

“It’s a remarkable place”

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

Dark lines in the soil called paleosols are 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, spherical clouds reflected in the water
Researchers believe people settled at this site on the North Saskatchewan River near Prince Albert shortly after the glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC)

Dave Rondeau, a local historian, has been researching the site for several years and has helped bring it to the attention of archaeologists. He is assisting them as the research continues and is working to involve the nearby First Nations.

“It’s a remarkable site,” he said. “You really have a 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 tools for hunting, making fire and preparing meat. (Don Somers/CBC)

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

“I would like to identify the oldest point of habitation,” he said.

‘People who were very bold’

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

The researchers mark locations, spray water on the surface of the soil and scrape it flat before taking samples with a trowel. Each piece goes into a labeled test tube.

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

In a laboratory, some samples are carbon dated, while others are examined under a microscope.

According to Freeman, the findings could indicate that early settlers lived more in river valleys than on the plains shortly after the glaciers retreated.

“We’re getting a sense of how their relationship with the landscape has changed over thousands of years,” she said.

“We are talking about people who were very bold.”

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