BY RANDY BOSWELL
The recovery of a mysterious wooden pole at the bottom of Lake Huron is fuelling excitement among U.S. and Canadian researchers that they have found more evidence of a “lost world” of North American caribou hunters from nearly 10,000 years ago.
The scientists believe that these prehistoric Aboriginal People — who would have been among the earliest inhabitants of the continent — had a “kill site” along a ridge straddling the present-day U.S.-Canada border that was eventually submerged by rising waters when the glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age.
Now drowned under about 35 metres of water in Lake Huron, the Alpena-Amberley Ridge is named for the Michigan and Ontario towns that respectively mark the western and eastern ends of the 160-kilometre-long, 16-km-wide feature.
The theory that the ridge was an ancient hunting ground was first announced in 2009 after the discovery of lake-bottom rock features that appeared to have been arranged by human hands to herd migrating caribou into narrow corridors ideal for spear hunting.
These “drive lanes” are still used by some Inuit hunters in Northern Canada to funnel caribou and make hunting them easier.
Other groups of boulders mapped by the Lake Huron researchers are thought to have been “blinds” meant to conceal hunters before they sprang out to attack passing caribou.
The two-metre-long piece of wood, found amid such a rock assemblage during a summer search of Huron’s floor for traces of human activity, was later dated to 8,900 years ago, the researchers revealed last month.
“The first thing you notice is that it appears to have been shaped with a rounded base and a pointed tip,” University of Michigan anthropologist John O’Shea stated in a summary of the team’s research.
“There’s also a bevel on one side that looks unnatural, like it had to have been created. It looks like it might have been used as a tent pole or a pole to hang meat.”
O’Shea’s principal research partner, University of Michigan marine engineer Guy Meadows, told Postmedia News last March that the Lake Huron rock formations constituted “promising” — but not definitive — evidence of an ancient human presence, and that the team was keen to gather more compelling proof.
“We really want to produce an artifact, and not just these rock structures that look very promising,” he said at the time. “But the area is obviously enormous — it’s a proverbial needle-in-a-haystack problem.”
The large, wooden “needle” found last summer is still undergoing tests to determine precisely how it might have been modified by prehistoric hunters.
Meanwhile, other material gathered from the bottom of the lake is being analyzed by experts, including Canadian researcher Lisa Sonnenburg, a McMaster University paleo-ecologist who specializes in studying “microdebitage” — stone flakes left at archeological sites by ancient toolmakers.
Meadows and O’Shea have also teamed with Wayne State University computer scientist Robert Reynolds to create a three-dimensional, virtual model of the ridge — including animated caribou moving along the corridor — to help identify as many “high-probability” targets as possible for the lake-bottom searches for artifacts.
Based on geological data that give a general picture of the topography along the ridge about 10,000 years ago, the simulation is meant to allow the experts to “step into that world” and visualize the paths caribou would likely have taken during their mass migrations, Reynolds said in an interview last year.
The simulation, he said at the time, was designed to help researchers plot the places where ancient hunters would have established staging grounds and positioned themselves around kills sites to maximize their harvesting chances.
During this past summer’s field work, deposits of pine pollen and charcoal were also identified and sampled at the site where the pole was discovered.
“Slowly, the environmental picture is filling in,” O’Shea stated in the research summary. “There was a marsh close by this site. It seems we’re narrowing in on people, but of course forest fires could have created the charcoal as well as cooking fires. So we need to wait for the analyses to be sure about what we’ve got here.”
O’Shea has previously stated that the possible underwater archeological site in Lake Huron is important “because the entire ancient landscape has been preserved and has not been modified by farming, or modern development. That has implications for ecology, archeology and environmental modelling.”