Charlie Lake Cave: A Gully of Buried Treasure 10,500 Years Old
Although the vast majority of archaeologists agree that ‘Paleoindian’ cultures were well-established throughout the Americas dating to the end of the last glacial period (about 12000 BC), when their ancestors first arrived across the Bering Straits, is still debated.
In a cave, north of Fort St. John, British Columbia, important discoveries were made by Dr. Knut Fladmark in 1974, then in the 1980s and again from 1990 to 1991 by Dr. Jon Driver and Dr. Fladmark. From the remains found, archaeologists have a clearer understanding of the people, environmental changes, and the animals that lived in the region, spanning thousands of years.
Preserved at Charlie Lake Cave, also known as Tse'K'wa, was a rare record of artifacts dating from the end of the last ice age to recent times. It is located on the side of a steep hill and while the cave itself is relatively small, the major feature is a deep gully in front of the cave itself. Over the years, the people who temporarily stopped at the cave while on a hunting or fishing trip, used the gully as a ‘waste-pit’ which filled with successive layers of soil. Evidence of people visiting the area over 10,500 years ago, up until the 1940s, has been preserved.
This is a view from the front of the Charlie Lake Cave. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Late Pleistocene and entire Holocene era
Animal bones tell us a lot about historical environments and those from Tse’K’wa are special for a number of reasons, including the fact that this was one of the few sites in northern Canada with a complete record of well-preserved animal bones from the end of the last ice age to modern times and two major environmental periods represented.
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During the late glacial and early post-glacial period, evidence suggests that there was no wetlands near the site. Animals present included an extinct form of bison, a large number of ground squirrels, and a large hare different from the common snowshoe hare found in the region today. Although this period was relatively short-lived, these animals indicate a largely treeless environment.
Common snowshoe hare ( Public Domain )
During the second period, spanning many thousands of years, the landscape was mainly forested and included nearby wetlands. The mammals and birds of the second period are still typical of the region today.
Although human use of the site was minimal until 4500 years ago, a fragment of human jawbone, the oldest human skeletal material discovered in arctic and subarctic North America, was found and dated to more than 7000 years old.
During the second series of excavations in the 1990s, remains of collared lemming (Dicrostonyx torquatus) were found . As the climate changed and forests grew, the small rodents were unable to survive and their populations declined. While they do inhabit the frozen tundra of the arctic, they became extinct in the Peace River region.
The oldest traces of sacred rituals by the ‘Paleoindian’ people in Canada, considered by many as the most culturally significant find at Tse’K’wa, were the two raven burials.
Crow Raven Bird ( Public Domain )
In among the toe bones of the first raven, dating back 9,500 years, was a ‘microblade core’ which is a fine-grained stone that ancient people used to remove small, parallel sided flakes of stone, which could then be slotted into in a variety of handles. This technology is so distinctive that archaeologists make special note when it appears and the fact that the raven was buried with this tool contributes to the theory that the burial was deliberate. A deeper level excavation revealed a second raven skeleton, predating the first by at least 1,000 years and even better preserved.
Wedged-shaped microblade core ( Simon Fraser University )
The widespread extinctions of large mammals at the end of the Pleistocene epoch have often been attributed to humans and yet there is no evidence to support the presence of large populations of humans until thousands of years after the bison population declined. The timing correlates with environmental changes and the onset of the last glacial cycle.
DNA research found that there were two distinct bison populations. One group of bison lived to the south of the ice sheets in the continental USA and very southern parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. The other population lived in unglaciated regions of Yukon, Alaska and northeast Asia. When the bison fossils from across the vast regions were studied, it was found that in every location - except one - the bison were either northern or southern types. The one exception was Tse’K’wa where bison from both the north and south were discovered.
Bison ( Public Domain )
When the western Canadian ice sheets melted and new pastures developed, northern bison began to move south. At the same time, the southern bison began to move north, also following pastures that developed on the recently de-glaciated landscapes. Ultimately, they met in the Peace River region. There is no evidence that they bred with each other and based on the genetics of modern bison in North America, the southern form survived and evolved into the bison we are now familiar with.
This was the first site in Canada in which ‘fluted point’ tools and animal remains – in this case, a well-preserved extinct form of bison – have been found undisturbed, and could be so precisely dated.
The stone artifacts and data found at Tse’K’wa support the notion that the meeting of bison populations must have occurred around the same time the area first occupied by humans. The excavated fluted point is similar to artifacts found further south, those associated with hunting woolly mammoth and other extinct animals, although they date a little earlier than those at Tse’K’wa. The earliest human inhabitants would have followed the herds as they moved north to along the newly created grassland that formed as ice melted and glacial lakes drained away.
Quite a number of large, quartzite chopping tools were found in the same layers as the late ice-age bison bones. Interestingly, none of these tools had been made at the site so they must have been carried, used, and then discarded. There were a few smaller, sharper stone tools, but again little evidence that they had been made there.
Bones excavated from the lowest layers were largely legs and show distinct signs of having been butchered by human, and yet skulls and hooves are missing, which leads to the conclusion that this was not the kill site. Archaeological studies reveal that ice caves in the western United States were used for meat storage, and both the animal bones and the stone tools found were similar to those at Tse’K’wa. One theory proposes that bison meat was stored at the site or within the cave as winter rations.
Tool marks on bison bones ( Simon Fraser University )
There were no indications that this was a long-term campsite - no trace of fire, nor proof for the tasks expected at a place where people lived, such as or preparation of hides. Also no other human burials apart from the one dating back 7000 years, and no wall paintings.
While both caves and ravens are spiritually significant around the world, the connection between ravens and First Nations people is well documented as these remains are often found in places of ceremonial or ritual activity identified with ancestral Native Americans. Caves are often thought of as entrances to the underworld and ravens are viewed as messengers and frequently connected to hunting. As the two ravens’ burial at the cave mouth may have been believed capable of aiding communication between the living and the spirits, Tse’K’wa could have been considered a sacred site.
The land on which the cave is located was purchased by three Treaty 8 First Nations in 2012 with the intent of preserving the site and building a museum, as well as an interpretive center. The three First Nation communities see Tse’K’wa as a cultural and heritage resource for Treaty 8 and the general public.
Top image: Charlie Lake Cave Inside Source: Public Domain
Alaska Highway Heritage, Charlie Lake Cave (Tse’KWa). Available at: http://ouralaskahighway.com/?portfolio_item=tsekwa-charlie-lake-cave
Breffitt, J., Charlie Lake Cave: A very early occupation site in Northern British Columbia . Simon Fraser University. Available at: https://www.sfu.ca/archaeology/museum/exhibits/past-exhibits/charlie-lake-cave.html
Driver, Jonathan C. et al., Stratigraphy, Radio Carbon Dating, and Culture History of Charlie Lake Cave, British Columbia. Arctic, Vol. 49, 1996 P. 265-277. Available at: http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/arctic/Arctic49-3-265.pdf
Driver, Jonathan C., Charlie Lake Cave. Simon Fraser University. Available at: http://www.sfu.museum/journey/an-en/postsecondaire-postsecondary/grotte_du_lac_charlie-charlie_lake_cave
Driver, Jonathan C., Archaeological Work at Tse'K'Wa. Simon Fraser University. Available at: http://summit.sfu.ca/collection/218
Mackie, Q., A Cool new cave site near Tumbler Ridge. Available at: https://qmackie.com/2015/09/24/a-cool-new-cave-site-near-tumbler-ridge/#more-4799