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Archeological Records
Digging Up History: An Overview of Archaeology in Alberta

Until recently most archaeologists believed that the area (now known as Alberta) was first populated about 11,000 to 12,000 years ago. According to this theory, as the glaciers retreated an ice-free corridor opened from Beringia, a continent sized land bridge connecting what is now Siberia with parts of Alaska and the Yukon. Nomadic hunters followed game animals south along the eastern slopes of the Rockies into Alberta through this ice-free corridor. The oldest known sites in Alberta date from about 11,500 years ago.

The Plano Period (10,000 - 8,000 BCE)

About 10,000 years ago the climate began to change and grasslands spread across southern Alberta. Mammoths and many other Ice Age animals became extinct,  while other animals flourished including antelope and a new, smaller species of bison. This period, known as the 'Plano' period after the Spanish word for plains, lasted for 2,000 years ago. Several new types of projectile points have been found in sites dating from this period, suggesting the movement of new peoples into Alberta at this time or the continuing technological adaptation of earlier cultural groups.

The Middle Prehistoric Period (8,000-2,000 BCE)

A major technological innovation and a significant climate change mark this period of Alberta’s history. The second major change in this period was climatic. About 9000 years ago, the climate of western North America started becoming hotter and drier before reaching a maximum warmth and dryness about 7000 years ago. Scientists call this the Antithermal or Hypsithermal period. These hot, dry conditions would have reduced the capacity of the prairies of southern Alberta to support grazing animals. As a result, sites dating from this period are more frequently found in the foothills and mountain valleys of southern Alberta or in the northern half of the province. By about 5,000-4,000 BCE the climate in Alberta became more similar to current conditions.

The Late Prehistoric Period (2000 – 250 BCE to 1750 ACE)

It was at about this time that the use of another great technological advance came to Alberta as well. Bows and arrows had been used in Asia for centuries, and they offered clear advantages over the atalatl (a tool used to9 make a hole in leather or hide). Using bows and arrows, hunters could kill large game with greater efficiency and at longer range. Once introduced into North America through the migration of people or technological borrowing, the use of bows and arrows spread rapidly. Archaeologists have been able to trace the path, or "diffusion," of this remarkable new technology with some accuracy since points for arrows are appreciably smaller and more delicate than the earlier points made for atalatl darts.

Historic Period Archaeology

Most scholars make a distinction between the periods before and after written records are available for an area. This is the dividing line between the historic and prehistoric periods. These terms do raise some issues and should not imply that there is no history before written records. In fact oral traditions, winter counts, language, petroglyphs, archaeology and many other types of evidence can be used to reveal the history of Alberta’s first inhabitants, long before the first written records about Alberta appear. These documentary sources only begin to appear in the early 18th century and most date from after 1754 with the first clearly recorded visit by a European fur trader (Anthony Henday) to Alberta.

Prior to the arrival of Henday in central Alberta, Aboriginal peoples in the area were trading with Europeans either directly, by visiting posts to the north and east themselves, or indirectly by trading with Cree and Assiniboine groups. These Aboriginal traders exchanged goods they had acquired from fur trade posts for furs, horses, food and other products. In turn, they then traded furs and other goods at posts for more goods that they could trade later. In this way European goods reached Alberta in unknown quantities for at least half a century before the first European arrived.

Historical archaeology plays a major role in the study of fur trade and mission sites. Extensive digs have been made at many of Alberta’s most significant early historic sites including: Fort Edmonton, Fort George and Buckingham House, near Elk Point, Rocky Mountain House, and Dunvegan on the Peace River. In addition to these digs at major fur trade and mission sites, archaeologists have worked on homesteads, ranches, North West Mounted Police posts, and many industrial sites. The work of archaeologists complements information found in archival records as well as giving us direct information about the material goods used, the location and layout of buildings, diet, disease and a host of other important subjects.


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