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A Journey to a New Land

People, Terrain
Multimedia Library

Dr. Jon Driver

Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University

Artifacts and Animals at Charlie Lake Cave

Let's start with the environments. The ice sheets had retreated from the area and the large glacial lakes that were formed by the melting of the ice had drained. Almost as soon as that happened, just over 12,000 years ago, we find that grasslands were established in the area, and living on the grasslands were herds of bison (or buffalo as some people call them today) that had migrated into the region from the south. This is an environment not at all like the environment in the area today, which is naturally a forested environment. After the retreat of the ice sheets and after the draining of the glacial lakes, the first vegetation was grassland and the bison seem to have done very well on it. We know the bison moved into that area from the south because their DNA, which is preserved in their bones, is the same as the DNA that we find in bison to the south but very different from the DNA that we would find in bison living to the north of the ice sheets in, for example, what is today Alaska or the Yukon.

The artifacts that we find associated with the bison bones also tell the same story. The most important artifact at the site is the spear point, which has similarities to the very well known Clovis points that are found to the south of the ice sheets and date a little bit earlier than this site. For example, if you go down to Montana, there is a site there known as Indian Creek where we have a very similar kind of spear point dating maybe four or five hundred years older than the specimen at Charlie Lake. So we hypothesize that, as the glaciers retreated, as the glacial lakes drained, and as grasslands and bison began to move into this region, human hunters followed the bison north, bringing with them spear points that were typical of the spear points being used further to the south.

Now, that is not to say the environment was like the plains grasslands that we would know of today from, say, southern Alberta or parts of Montana. There were some animals living in the Charlie Lake area 12,000 years ago that are not typical grassland animals. Of these, the most important is the collared lemming, which is the lemming that is now found today in the far north of Canada on the tundra, but which we also find at the base of the deposits of Charlie Lake Cave. So we have an environment that was probably cold, dry, a grassland, dotted with herds of bison, but a much larger bison, an extinct form of bison, known as Bison antiquus, that would have provided even more meat to the hunters than a modern bison would today.