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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

No. 404: Lake Minnewanka: Post-Glacial Environment

The Ice Age was ending when native people first camped at Lake Minnewanka near Banff over ten thousand years ago.

Not only was the climate much cooler and drier, even the animals they hunted were different.

That's one of many things archaeologist Alison Landals has discovered from bones found in ancient fire pits at Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park.

Of course at that time period it's hard for bone to preserve for 10,400 years, but we have been lucky enough to find some bone. We found bone of an extinct species of bison that was different from modern bison - much bigger horns. And we found what's really interesting is the bones of an extinct species of mountain sheep. And these mountain sheep looked like our mountain sheep today, but they were much larger, and the bones that we found are about 25 per cent larger than a modern-day mountain sheep.

The encampments at Lake Minnewanka are at least twice as old as the pyramids in Egypt. To find a site this old in Alberta is very rare, and scientifically important.

Well, there's lots of different ways to look at the site's significance, but, really, when you look at native people, they were the first people in Alberta. And when they came here, it was a very harsh, very different environment. And they had to learn the environment; they had to figure out where to live, and how to live, how to get by, where the sources of good rock were, where they could hunt animals. And so it was really an amazing story, the whole idea of people learning how to use this new world that they were given.

For many years, scientists have assumed prehistoric people migrated from Asia, across the Bering land bridge, and moving down an ice-free corridor through Alberta to the rest of North and South America.

But that ice-free corridor may not have existed, so the discovery of ancient Clovis spearheads at Lake Minnewanka may help solve the mystery of how native people first came to America.

There's a lot of controversy right now as to whether they came from the north, like from the Bering Sea area and down the ice-free corridor, or whether perhaps they came some other way - coastal routes have been suggested, and there's starting to be some evidence of that. And, of course, with these Clovis sites, these ancient sites, there's very early dates in Texas, and we haven't been able to come up with dates that old in Canada yet. And so the question has started to arise as to whether the Canadian sites are perhaps later, and that they're moving north as the glaciers retreat, having already entered North America from some other route. And so it's just really quite a big controversy in archaeology right now.

The race now is to retrieve as much evidence as possible before the ancient site on the shores of Lake Minnewanka completely erodes away.

On the Heritage Trail,

I'm Cheryl Croucher.

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