Over millennia, hunting camps at water-crossings on the range of migratory Barrenland caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) of the Beverly population in north-central Canada experienced repeated use by caribou and Chipewyan hunters dependent upon them. Repeated use of those sites by the Chipewyan and their ancestors, resulted in dense accumulations of bone and artifacts on the campsite floor, forming a palimpsest or compacted layer of artifacts on each of three levels. Over millennia, each palimpsest was buried in turn by windblown sand, which became a camp floor for a new palimpsest which took decades to complete. Sterile sand between each level or palimpsest allowed independent placement of tasks by obscuring earlier visual cues, yet the same tasks were performed in the same spots for centuries. Each palimpsest appears to be unmanageable, mixed, compacted debris from a sequence of repeated tasks, involving mainly the processing of caribou carcasses, and all on one archaeological level or floor. For each palimpsest, spatial charting by customized software allows the artifacts to be separated by a wide range of colours and types of tasks. Most of the separation is due to the many different quartzite hues in KjNb-7 which allow separation of individual knapping stations within each palimpsest. Ethnographic analogies with historic Chipewyan hunters permit assigning and orienting male and female roles to each task. These include core reduction, lance production and repair, butchering, meat roasting, marrow extraction, hide preparation and woodworking. For the past 2650 years at the KjNb-7 water-crossing, specific tasks repeatedly occupied identical spots in each of three centuries-old ancestral Chipewyan levels of the Late, Middle and Early Taltheilei phases. Repetitive caribou herd and Chipewyan band behavior and range reconstruction is of interest to archaeologists because it enhances the study of ancient human behavior in a world where animals exerted fundamental control over cultural expression. The presence of these palimpsests also indicates to biologists that the same general seasonal pattern of migration by caribou on this range has been in place for thousands of years and gives support for the persistence of an overall fixed but annually flexible pattern of traditional migratory behavior over time, even under changing environmental conditions.
In the Northern Hemisphere, Rangifer tarandus (caribou and reindeer) was indubitably linked to human prehistory by being the most important animal harvested by circumpolar subsistence hunters (Gordon, 2005). It was not, however, until the Upper Palaeolithic 25,000 years ago that we know it was communally hunted in organized drives (Gordon, 1988). Over the past 20,000 years, similarly structured hunting methods evolved or were carried across many thousands of miles, as a cultural response to tarandus’ natural curiosity, herding instinct, range attachment with major and minor migration routes, and most significantly, its permanent ties to remote northern tundra calving grounds that are relatively free of man, insect and wolf (Canis lupus) at calving time. Calving grounds are in remote areas well beyond the reach of ancient hunters. Pregnant cows lead the spring migration, leaving the forest and approaching the calving grounds in April, crossing deep drifts and candle ice at a much faster pace than even the ablest hunters. As they do so, they cross an arc of denning female wolves who are themselves pregnant and near term, and relatively harmless. At the calving grounds, insects hatch well after calving. In previous papers I stressed the attachment of a specific herd with a specific hunting band (the Beverly herd and the Chipewyan people), the latter following the former’s movements over the year. By tracking dated archaeological sites containing caribou bone across the range it is possible to also track ancient herd movement and the location of
former calving grounds. That both were conservatively maintained for centuries is of special interest to biologists. Here, I carry this human reaction to herd behavior a step further by showing that the various human tasks concerned with carcass processing even occurred in the same places in sites, year after year, for many decades.
The movements of migratory barren-ground caribou (R. t. groenlandicus) governed the movements and success of early peoples in north-central Canada. The caribou greatly affected the peoples’ material culture and thus their well-being – antler for tool handles, flesh for eating and drying, marrow for that most important northern nourishment of fat, back sinew for thread, bone for awls, needles, beamers and fleshers, and the warmest, most abundant and durable hide for clothing, ropes and tents. Migratory caribou even governed human reproduction by limiting most births to February, March and April1, nine months after the great summer migration when fat ran highest in the diet of women, whose body fat must exceed 18% to conceive and bring a child to term (Frisch, 1988:88-95; Rosetta, 1992:83-88; Gordon, 1996:15-16, 2005). The following reports the separation of palimpsests found in the KjNb-7 (Duc site) hunting camp at a caribou water-crossing (63° 39′ 34” N Lat., 104° 28′ 30″ W Long.) in north-central Canada into gender-based tasks over a 2650-year period through three Chipewyan cultural phases.
1 I thank Sister Rose Arsenault, Oblate Archives, Lac Brochet, Manitoba, for screening 19th century baptismal records showing birth dates.