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New revelations about first Albertans change understanding of prehistoric civilizations

Refinements in radiocarbon dating shed surprising light on hunters who first populated province

Archaeology professor Brian Kooyman. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

By Heath McCoy
April 8, 2015

Thanks to new innovations in radiocarbon dating, a landmark archeological site in southern Alberta — which was occupied by the province's earliest known inhabitants — has been redefined, the discovery drastically changing scientific understanding of ancient civilizations in North America.

The findings — recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — show that a prehistoric "kill site" where ancient people hunted horses and camels along what is now the St. Mary River is actually about 300 years older than it was originally determined to be. New evidence shows that the site dates back to approximately 13,300 years ago.

This difference in dating is of major significance because it was previously believed that the site, known as Wally’s Beach, near present-day Cardston, was inhabited by members of the Clovis culture, long thought to be the earliest identifiable people in North America.

Evidence of people hunting horses and camels 

"We now know that this site predates the Clovis period," says University of Calgary archeology professor Brian Kooyman, who co-authored the paper. Kooyman was also among the first team of researchers to excavate the site when it was discovered in 1999.

“We always felt that the site had odd features for Clovis,” Kooyman explains. “Clovis used specialized weaponry and they traditionally hunted game such as mammoth and buffalo. But at Wally’s Beach we find simple stone tools and we can see they were hunting horses and camel.” The way the bones are spread out at the site also suggests the animals were probably ambushed one at a time when they ventured down into the river valley to drink and eat plants.

“Horses and camels were common on the landscape, they offered a big package of meat, and they were not dangerous compared with other game, such as mammoth,” adds Kooyman. “They were the perfect game for pre-Clovis cultures.”

The Wally’s Beach archeological site was first discovered in 1999 when an area that was usually submerged by the St. Mary reservoir was left exposed at a time when the water was low. Prairie winds had blown away much of the dirt in the locale, revealing some of the artifacts. Shortly thereafter Kooyman began excavating and studying the site, with a team that included the late University of Calgary geoscience professor Len Hills.

Revised dates the result of improvements in radiocarbon techniques 

Using the radiocarbon dating techniques of the time, they originally determined that the site was 13,000 years old, and thus Clovis in origin. But given the discrepancies they noted at the site, Kooyman and Hills questioned their own reading. With recent advancements in the science of radiocarbon dating, Kooyman and his co-authors on the new study decided the time was right to retest the Wally’s Beach samples.

“The new techniques remove more contamination than before and the result is radiocarbon dating that’s far more accurate than in previous years,” says Kooyman. “We always suspected this Clovis era dating for Wally’s Beach was off, but we just didn’t have the right evidence to prove it. Now we do, and all the pieces are falling into place.”

The Wally’s Beach site offers the best evidence outside of Monte Verde in Chile about the lives of pre-Clovis cultures, says Kooyman. Because the area was a kill site used for hunting and not a campsite, it is suspected that a campsite might be found somewhere close to the area. Future expeditions will be spent searching for nearby campsites.

An exhibit dedicated to the Wally’s Beach archeological site will be featured in Edmonton’s new, revamped Royal Alberta Museum, currently under construction.