Tse’K’Wa (Charlie Lake Cave)

Receive updates for this collection

Tse’K’wa, formerly known as Charlie Lake Cave, has been visited by people for more than 12,000 years, and this site now preserves a record of human activity that starts with some of the first people to live in the Peace River region, when the last ice age was coming to an end, and concludes with the construction of the Alaska Highway in the 1940’s.

The archaeological research at the site has been published in many places that are not easily accessible to members of the general public. For the modern First Nations people whose ancestors lived at Tse’K’Wa this is particularly problematic. Working in collaboration with the Treaty 8 Tribal Association (B.C.), who recently purchased the land on which Tse’K’Wa is located, we intend to make the results accessible and understandable to the general reader. Thanks to the good will of many publishers, we are able to reproduce articles in digital and print form, and to preface each publication with a short summary.

Archaeological excavations at Tse’K’Wa were undertaken by Simon Fraser University in 1983 (director: Knut Fladmark) and 1990 and 1991 (co-directors: Knut Fladmark and Jon Driver). Research on materials recovered during these excavations has continued to the present day.

Users of these publications should be aware that information and interpretations have changed over time. For example, we have acquired more radiocarbon dates through the years, we changed our interpretation of the stratigraphy after the 1991 season, and we have analyzed more and more material as the years have gone by.

Jon Driver, Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University

Paleoecological and Archaeological Implications of the Charlie Lake Cave Fauna, British Columbia, 10,500 to 9,500 B.P.

Peer reviewed: 
Yes, item is peer reviewed.
Date created: 
2001
Abstract: 

Article Summary by Jonathan C. Driver, May 2015

            This paper was written as a contribution to a volume of collected essays that honoured R. Dale Guthrie – a well-known paleontologist who specialized in ice age animals. It is the first report on animal bones that were recovered from the lower layers of the site during 1990 and 1991.

            Because of Dr. Guthrie’s numerous contributions to understanding the ice age environments of North America, I tried to link animal bone assemblages at Tse’K’wa to information about regional environments in the Peace River area at the end of the last ice age.

            The paper provides a complete list of all the birds and mammals identified, as well as evidence for environmental change from open to forested landscapes. This information is then set in the regional information about the end of the last ice age, emphasizing geology and palynology (the study of ancient pollen).

            The second part of the paper discusses  human activities at the site, with a focus on the use of bison.  There is good evidence that people were hunting and butchering bison, but accounting for the lack of some parts of the bison skeleton is difficult.

Document type: 
Article
File(s): 

Rise and Fall of the Beringian Steppe Bison

Peer reviewed: 
Yes, item is peer reviewed.
Date created: 
2008
Abstract: 

The widespread extinctions of large mammals at the end of the Pleistocene epoch have often been attributed to the depredations of humans; here we present genetic evidence that questions this assumption. We used ancient DNA and Bayesian techniques to reconstruct a detailed genetic history of bison throughout the late Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. Our analyses depict a large diverse population living throughout Beringia until around 37,000 years before the present, when the population’s genetic diversity began to decline dramatically. The timing of this decline correlates with environmental changes associated with the onset of the last glacial cycle, whereas archaeological evidence does not support the presence of large populations of humans in Eastern Beringia until more than 15,000 years later.

 

Article Summary by Jonathan C. Driver, May 2015

 

This article explores the movement of North American bison and the special significance of Tse’K’wa in this research, shedding insight into how the first Paleoindian peoples of Canada arrived at the land. One of the fascinating aspects about archaeology today is the speed with which new scientific techniques are developed and applied to archaeological materials. This paper demonstrates why it is so important to keep material safely stored after it has been excavated – because you never know when it will be valuable to a future researcher or when it can yield new information about the past.

 

Quite a few years after the excavations at Tse’K’wa were finished I was approached by Alan Cooper and Beth Shapiro of Oxford University about the possibility of sampling early bison bones from the site, to see if they still had DNA preserved. Beth was writing her doctoral thesis on the evolution of bison, and she was being supervised by Alan, a highly accomplished researcher into ancient DNA. It turned out that the Tse’K’wa bison were well preserved, and Beth was able to extract DNA and include it in the study of hundreds of samples from North America and Asia. As an added bonus, Beth and Alan arranged for radiocarbon dates to be run on every bone they studied.This added to our understanding of the age of the site's earliest material.

 

Beth summarized her doctoral research in this paper, published in the very prestigious journal “Science”. The many contributors to her research were listed as co-authors, recognizing that each of us had contributed in a small way to the research, by sharing samples and ideas.  While the paper mainly deals with Beth’s conclusions about the evolutionary history of bison, for those interested in Tse’K’wa and the history of the early peoples of Canada, there was a fascinating tidbit of information contained in the Tse’K’wa bison DNA – they were from two quite distinct populations.

 

To understand the significance of this, we must first consider the impact of the extensive ice sheets that formed across Canada about 20,000 years ago. The ice sheets separated North American bison into two populations. One group of bison herds lived to the south of the ice sheets, in what is today, the continental USA and very southern parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. The other population lived in unglaciated regions of, what is today, Yukon, Alaska and northeast Asia. These two populations can be distinguished by minor differences in their DNA. When Beth studied the bison fossils from across the vast region of their ice-age distribution she 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 found.

 

The explanation for this seems fairly straightforward. When the western Canadian ice sheets melted and new pastures were developed, northern bison began to move south through the Yukon and into northern and central BC and Alberta. At the same time, the southern bison began to move north, also following pastures that developed on the recently de-glaciated  landcapes.  Finally, the northern and southern populations 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 it appears that the southern form survived and evolved into the bison we are familiar with today.

 

The Tse’K’wa data suggest the meeting of bison populations must have occurred around the same time the site was first occupied by humans, as it is very unlikely that two genetically distinct populations of bison could have lived in the same environment without interbreeding or one of them becoming extinct. This means the establishment of a viable migration route for animals (and people) from Alaska through Yukon, B.C., Alberta and into continental USA must have happened after the dates of the earliest human presence in the continental USA and South America. Therefore, the first people to enter North America could not have migrated through an ice-free corridor along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Assuming they entered the Americas during the last ice age, then the most likely route would be down the coast of Alaska and British Columbia. Interestingly, this hypothesis was proposed by the director of the 1983 Tse’K’wa excavations, Knut Fladmark, in a paper published in 1979!

 

The Tse’K’wa stone artifacts lend support to this scenario. The earliest spear point at the site – the “fluted point” – is stylistically very similar to artifacts found in the south, which date a little earlier than those at Tse’K’wa. This supports the notion that the earliest inhabitants of the site were part of a human population that began to move north (perhaps out of southern Alberta and northern Montana)  following the bison herds as they moved north to exploit the newly created grassland environments that formed as ice melted and glacial lakes drained away.

Document type: 
Article
File(s): 

The Paleoindian Bison Assemblage from Charlie Lake Cave, British Columbia

Peer reviewed: 
Yes, item is peer reviewed.
Date created: 
2008
Abstract: 

A small assemblage of bison bones from the Palaeoindian (10,700 to 9500 BP) components at Charlie Lake Cave, British Columbia is dominated by elements from the middle and lower limbs. The skeletal element frequencies are not typical of a kill site. The lithic assemblage, the lack of evidence for burning, and the ratio of long bone shaft fragments to epiphyses suggest that the assemblage was not produced at a residential site nor at a specialized processing area. We propose that the assemblage resulted from storage of frozen bison limbs in a series of meat caches, probably located in a small cave that would have been difficult for scavengers to enter.

 

Article Summary by Jonathan C. Driver, May 2015

 

This paper discusses the bison bones from the lower layers, with a focus on the human behaviour that resulted in them being deposited at the site. Excavations at Tse’K’wa uncovered about 100 late ice age bison bones from the lowest layers. These were certainly brought there by people, because they show signs of having been butchered. Some bones have shallow cut marks (made by stone knives) on their surface. Others have been smashed open to obtain the fatty marrow inside them. (While we tend to avoid it these days, fat is essential for a healthy diet for people who rely heavily on meat. Bone marrow is an excellent source of fat).

 

Archaeologists have used evidence from animal bones to interpret the activities that take place at a site. For example, kill sites often contain the parts of an animal (such as the heads and the hooves) that were not taken back to camp; on the other hand,  camp sites are often places where we see intensive processing of bones to extract nutrients, so bones are often found broken into many pieces.

 

This paper is based on the M.A. thesis of Claudine Vallieres, who undertook a detailed study of the bison bones from the early cultural layers at the site.

 

The Tse-K’wa bison are a bit of a puzzle. The bones don’t resemble what is usually found at kill sites, so we know that this isn’t a “buffalo jump”. The almost complete absence of skulls, backbone and ribs, as well as the low numbers of shoulder and hip bones, suggest that people were mainly bringing bison legs to the site. In particular, the middle and lower parts of the leg seem best represented.

 

We considered the possibility that other parts of the body had been brought to the site originally, and that all the weakest bones (such as the backbone and ribs) had been destroyed subsequently by scavenging animals (such as wolves or bears) or by natural weathering. While there are some bones that have been chewed by large carnivores, we would expect that at least some harder parts of the “missing” bones would survive – especially the teeth and some of the more dense bones. There is no evidence that bones were subject to destruction by weathering – they are very well preserved and their surfaces show little sign of being exposed to the elements for any length of time. So we concluded that the pattern we were seeing was not the result of weaker bones being destroyed.

 

We also noted that the evidence from the stone tools was somewhat unusual. We had found quite a number of large, heavy quartzite chopping tools in the same layers as the bison. Interestingly, none of these had been made at the site (there were no stone chips left behind from their manufacture) – so they must have been made elsewhere, brought to the site, used, and then discarded. There were a few smaller, sharper stone tools, but again very little evidence that they had been made there. So people seem to have been bringing bison legs to the site, together with fully finished stone tools, butchering the bison, and then leaving bones and stone tools there.

 

But there was no evidence that this was a campsite. There was no trace of fire and no evidence for the other tasks that one would expect at a place where people lived, such as manufacture of tools or preparation of hides. Looking through the archaeological literature revealed that ice caves in the western United States were used for thousands of years for meat storage, and both the animal bones and the stone tools in those caves were similar to those found at Tse’K’wa. We therefore proposed that at least some of the bison bones had been stored at the site (perhaps in the cave) during the late fall or winter, as an emergency food supply.

Document type: 
Article
File(s): 

The Paleoindian Bison Assemblage from Charlie Lake Cave

Peer reviewed: 
No, item is not peer reviewed.
Date created: 
2004
Abstract: 

The goal of this research is to investigate the subsistence activity - or activities - represented in the Paleoindian bison assemblage from Charlie Lake Cave. To achieve this goal, standard zooarchaeological methods are used, including quantification of skeletal element frequency, identification of bone modifiers, and reassembly of specimens. It is demonstrated that the assemblage was not affected to a significant extent by weathering, density-mediated attrition, or carnivore damage. Instead, the skeletal element frequency recognized in the assemblage is predominantly the result of human action. The patterns observed in the bison assemblage reveal an emphasis on limb bone elements, and an absence of axial elements. It is argued that an emphasis on limb elements would be advantageous for their transportability coupled with high marrow content. Comparisons with neighbouring sites and site-function models demonstrate that Charlie Lake Cave was neither a kill site nor a campsite, although its function as a campsite midden could not be ruled out. Outside of the kill sitefcamp site dichotomy common in Paleoindian archaeology, the assemblage is compared to a number of other site-function models, including hunting party monitoring station, storage facility and ritual location. A combination of these hypotheses, with an emphasis on storage, is put forward as the probable subsistence activities represented in the Paleoindian strata of Charlie Lake Cave.

Document type: 
Thesis
File(s):