September 18th, 2019

Cypress Hills dig site rich in history

By Tim Kalinowski on September 22, 2017.

A general view of the site area during History in the Hills in 2005.--SUBMITTED PHOTO

More than 8,000 years ago, southeast Alberta was in the heart of a vast, arid, desert-like region, and that climate pattern prevailed for hundreds of years. But even then, amidst that arid vastness, there were people here who lived and travelled throughout the region, and kept semi-permanent, seasonal encampments.

The “Stampede site,” near present-day Elkwater in the Cypress Hills is one such place, says University of Calgary archeology professor Gerald Oetelaar, who has studied and dug at the site intermittently the past 17 years.

He has found clear evidence of five verifiable occupation periods over the past eight millennia by these different peoples’ arrowheads and other characteristic projectile points. Those verified occupations include the Bitteroot people (8,000 years ago), the Gowen people (6,000 years ago), the Oxbow people (5,000 years go), the Pelican Lake people (2,500 years ago), and the Old Women’s side-notch people (1,000 years ago).

“Those are the ones where we have diagnostic points and radio carbon dates,” explains Oetelaar. “There may be additional ones we haven’t found yet. And some of ones we have found produced points which don’t fit any of the established types, as we call them. At six metres down we got verified occupation levels that dated to 8,000 years ago. We couldn’t go any deeper because the water table is so high in that area. But I did core down some more and extracted a core with clear evidence of earlier occupations. How far back in time they go? We don’t know at this point.”

Oetelaar says there is really no mystery as to why ancient plains peoples came to occupy the Cypress Hills.

“The Cypress Hills has always seemed to have a particular amount of water through the various past periods because it is a high spot, and air moves over and rises, and there is more water which falls in the Cypress Hills than elsewhere,” explains Oetelaar. “It is also surrounded by a whole series of springs which are usually at the heads of all the little streams which flow off of the hills.”

He says there are sites thousands of years older in western Alberta and southern Saskatchewan that have been identified and studied over the years. But what makes the Stampede site uniquely important for study is the clear stratification levels that date it accurately through time.

“It is a deeply stratified site,” he confirms. “These are relatively uncommon. You are looking at a site which has a series of clearly separated levels going down where there is evidence of human occupation. By working at a site like this you can actually see changes through time in terms of how the people of these periods are adapting to their surroundings.”

One hugely significant moment is clearly marked in the site’s archeology, for example, which likely ended occupation for a number of years, possibly centuries: The eruption of the Crater Lake supervolcano in Oregon about 5,000 years ago which left a 10-cm ash layer behind.

Oetelaar says the archeology seems to show one period of technology ending abruptly at the ash layer and a completely different one coming back after it.

“I believe there is evidence at the Stampede site people were forced to abandon the area as a result of that volcanic eruption,” he says.

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