by Dorthea Calverley
Archeologists of the National Museum of Canada are trying to reconstruct the history of Canada before the white men came. They want to know where the Indians came from, and what kind of culture they brought with them. Most scientists agree that most Indians came from Asia, because the races of northeastern Siberian and the American Indians are physically very similar, and the language of the Chinese and Athapaskan Indians are perhaps distantly related. Besides, many customs and myths are similar on both sides of Bering Strait as well as many tools and artifacts are the same. For many years these were circumstantial evidence only of an Asian origin.
The first definite evidence of migration between Asia and North America was found in 1945. It was logical to assume that any people moving from Asia to North America would have to pass through the Northwestern part of Canada on their way south. Until 1945, the hope of finding large sites of prehistoric camps was seemingly hopeless because of the distances, the mountains, the numberless lakes, and enormous muskegs.
That year, some archeologists digging for Eskimo remains on Norton Sound, Alaska — southeast of Bering Strait — found a great number of tiny, but far from simple tools, very similar to tools the Russians had found in Siberia. These tools were dated from 5000 to 10,000 years old.
The National Museum of Canada was encouraged to carry on a project Dr. Douglas Leechman had initiated to search for possible sites in the Northwest and Yukon territories. For six years only hints of migrations were found here and there.
Dr. R.S. MacNeish, in 1954, was head of the survey from the delta of the Mackenzie River to the Alaska border, where certain rivers provided passes between the Yukon and Mackenzie river drainage systems. His party had a good response from local Eskimos, who told them about or guided them to many places where they had seen arrowheads, spear points and sod house remains.
In the last week of August they had established a friendship with a 75 year old Eskimo named Old Roland. When he finally remembered a place up the Firth River on a stream called Flint Creek, the party hired him as a guide. Dr. MacNeish observed that they would probably have to take it easy, as such a trip would be hard on such an old man. As it turned out, the men had a hard time keeping up with Old Roland. They did find some bones and mounds, but they were of recent origin. The scientists were about to go home disappointed when Old Roland suggested that a small hill he knew about, not far off their route, was a probable place for a camp site on a lookout point for caribou. The detour to a small plateau turned out to be exhausting. As Dr. MacNeish flopped down to rest and loosen his sopping-wet moccasins, his astonished gaze fell on a number of flint chips and parts of tools that looked most un-Eskimo like. The tools were very like those which had been found in Siberia. Dr. MacNeish was excited, but the others dismissed them merely as evidence of old Eskimo myths that say that the first people of the Arctic were midgets or little people.
The next summer was spent excavating the site. Imagine the unexpected discovery of nine different cultures, one of top of the other! The ancient city of Troy, so famous in archeology had only seven!
The lowest stratum yielded ten crude choppers and scrapers which were stated to be “an old as any culture complex found so far in the New World”. Both geology and paleontology confirm the decisions. The find lies in a sand layer underneath gray clays that were laid down by the ocean when the water level was over 200 feet higher than at present. In the sandy layer was also a fragment of bone from a buffalo that was much larger than any others known by the National Museum. It was surmised to be form “some giant extinct bison”.
The second or next higher culture supplied a combination of tools, half of them of a kind common to many ancient people from many places. About a quarter of the artifacts were spear points very like those found in the Great American Plains. Some of these Points are found with the fossils of extinct animals that have been carbon-dated between 6000 and 10,000 years ago.
The remainder of the tools were described as “highly specialized slotting gouges and prismatic blades that are typical of early Siberian cultures”. They are called burins. The scientists used the Eskimo word Eng-ig-stciak which means ‘youthful hill’, as the name by which to refer to this earliest culture.
The tools are so small that over three hundred of them, wrapped in tinfoil, were carried in a cigarette carton yet the probable use of each was clearly suggested by its shape. Imagine the refined hand-and-eye skill required to shape and use them! The men who did it could not have been low-browed, semi-human creatures, idly playing with a pebble. If as Dr. John Borowski states, in effect over and over again in his Ascent of Man, “Civilization begins when the hand of man changed something for his own purpose,” then these artisans were far along the road, perhaps as far distant in craftsmanship as a jeweler is from a blacksmith.
First the man must find a flake of flint, and must make or find a hard chisel-shaped tool to hold in his hand. Then he must study the flake to decide where to strike it, one single, well-directed blow against its lower axis causing a small cookie to be knocked off one corner of the flake. He now has a slotting gouge or burin with which he can cut a slot or narrow groove in a bone. Prismatic microblades require even more specialized workmanship. A core of flint must be shaped so that it has a series of grooves down one of its longer sides. Then a single blow is struck against the core just above the junction of the grooves. In this way a prismatic or pointed blade flakes off from the core. It has a flat underside, a single ridge down its centre and two sharp edges down its sides. Unless he had grooved the core first, it is unlikely that early man would have any tool to level such tiny edges, as we do with a file or a knife or scissors sharpener. The tiny flakes made by these long-ago people are still razor-sharp.
It is believed that these flakes were set into grooves cut by burins into a shaft of bone, which unfortunately does not survive unless fossilized. The resulting tool could easily be visualized as a saw-toothed, probably used as a spear-point.
The third culture in the next higher layer was called New Mountain by its discoverer, MacNeish. Burins were still present, but showed evidence of some sharpening. But also appearing were small arrow points, and half-moon shaped flakes, suitable to be set into grooves in bone to make cutting edges rather like a tiny wavy-edged bread-knife.
It takes years of apprenticeship with the aid of modern metal instruments for a white man to make such highly functional, yet so tiny pieces of craftsmanship, not to speak of highly developed hands and the intelligence to conceive such ideas. Whoever these mythical midgets were, so dimly remembered by the Eskimos, they were not low on the scale of civilization. Where are their descendants now? In the moss of the Arctic muskegs, which “pickles” and preserves human and animal remains indefinitely, will archeologists ever find their bodies or skeletons? It is not impossible.
In the next culture, the same sort of tools was unearthed, but there was also evidence of pottery. These people had already come a long way in the art, because the product bore decoration. The method of making the pots was clear. First, a rough bowl-shaped mound of clay was fashioned to be held upside down on one hand. This writer’s own experience in making pottery suggests that the mold must have been dried and then greased so that the new dish would slip off. Then clay of a proper consistency was kneaded to a smooth, plastic mass, placed on the mold, and beaten down to a smooth shell of uniform thickness with a paddle. The paddle that shaped these bowls was wrapped with cord, which would leave an imprint of each blow in the soft clay. Now, slipped off the mold, dried thoroughly and fired in the red coals of a fire for a long time, the bowl would be hard and water-resistant. If the dung of animals were added to the fire, as Mexicans do to this day, it would also be somewhat glazed.
In the stratum containing records of the next culture, the pottery was more refined. The prints of the cords had been smoothed with a wet hand, and then some sort of comb-like object was pressed into the wet surface of the pot. This made a series of small rectangular depressions which are called, in archeological language, “dentate stamps” – the word dentate coming from the Latin for “tooth.”
These two kinds of pottery had not previously been found in the Arctic. But such remains had been found in southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. It also occurs in Northeastern Siberia. These sites were about 4000 miles apart. Now, this site on a little hill on the Firth River which empties near Herschel Island, exactly half way between Siberia and the Arctic is said by MacNeish to “support the hypothesis of pottery out of Asia.”
The next layer representing another culture shows that after the pot was made, it was wiped with something that left parallel decorative grooves, on the outside of the pots. It is somewhat like the work shown on the earliest Eskimo pots. However the tools do not resemble the slate tools associated with Eskimos. The flint tools were suitable for hunting on land, not in the sea.
In three different areas on the hill were found three different kinds of Eskimo tools. One site had pottery remains dated at about 2000 years old. The earliest Eskimo remains have tools suitable for hunting sea mammals. Other finds seemed to be much more recent.
It fires the imagination to think that one small hill should have persisted in defiance of overflooding seas, and grinding glaciers for 5,000 to 10,000 years. More amazing that nine successive waves of man lived and worked on that little hill and that the Eskimo should not only have perpetuated the myth of the “midgets,” but led a modern archeologist to the spot.
Based on an article in Beaver Magazine by Dr. MacNeish in the summer issue 1954.