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A Journey to a New Land

Boat and Bear
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Dr. Jon Driver

Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University

Spiritual Beliefs and Charlie Lake Cave

One of the most unusual finds at the site, and something that has not been recovered from other sites of comparable age, were two bird burials. In both cases, these were burials of ravens. The raven, of course, throughout its range, has important spiritual connotations. It does not matter whether you are in Europe, Asia, or North America, the raven is seen as a very special bird, often associated with hunting. At Charlie Lake Cave, we had two ravens that were deliberately buried. One dates to the very earliest time period, close to 12,000 years ago, and the other one is perhaps 1,000 years later. The slightly later raven is particularly interesting because it was not only deliberately buried, but it was also buried with an artifact. This shows, I think, quite definitely that people were involved either in a sacrifice of this bird or, possibly, they gathered up the remains of a recently dead bird and buried it carefully in the cave site.

It's extremely rare to find evidence for spiritual beliefs in sites of this age. There are very, very few sites in North America, for example, that have any indication of the belief systems of some of the first people to live in the Americas. We have a painted bison skull, for example, from a site in the southern plains, and we have a very small number of human burials, and that's really about the only evidence we have so far for spirituality. I think that is mainly because most of the sites that have been excavated are kill sites, places where early hunters killed animals such as mammoth and bison, and those tend not to be the sorts of sites where spiritual activity occurs or is preserved in the archaeological record.

Charlie Lake Cave isn't a kill site; it's probably a campsite, a place where people stopped for a few days as part of their annual round of activities. We can guess that there were men, women and children there, and this is the kind of place where spiritual activity might occur. In addition, the presence of the cave itself is interesting and caves are often associated with spiritual beliefs. So we think there might be a relationship here between these rather carefully buried ravens and the presence of the cave, which could perhaps have been symbolic of an entrance into the underworld or another world, again a fairly common belief in many parts of the world concerning caves.