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A Journey to a New Land

Mammoths and Tundra


The clothing, tools and structures used by early people were made from both organic and inorganic materials. Inorganic materials, such as metal, stone or clay, are very durable and often last for thousands of years. But most organic materials, such as wood or animal hide, usually decay and disappear very quickly.

When objects are buried in the ground, their burial environment determines how rapidly they will deteriorate. The oxygen and moisture that is present in most soils causes organic objects to rot and decay. Insects and small organisms in the soil will feed on many types of organic materials and highly acidic soils can destroy wood, bone and other organic materials very quickly.

There are certain extreme burial environments that promote the survival of organic objects. Objects buried in very dry conditions, such as deserts, tend to dry out rapidly and preserve for long periods of time. Similarly, organic materials buried in very cold, frozen conditions, can survive intact for thousands of years, and those that become waterlogged also tend to survive very well. In these conditions, the destructive effects of oxygen, moisture and insect activity are greatly reduced, or completely absent, so organic materials are less likely to decay.

A piece of spruce root

This tiny piece of spruce root survived for about 10,000 years in waterlogged conditions. It was found at a site in Haida Gwaii called Kilgii Gwaay.

Unfortunately, these extreme burial environments are quite rare. So archaeologists must often try to interpret the activities, customs and beliefs of early people based only on the surviving artifacts of stone, metal or clay. All of the other objects and structures that early people made and used have decayed and disappeared over time.