Rocks tell story of early inhabitantsA Minnesota archaeologist may have found proof of human life in the Superior National Forest more than 10,000 years ago.
By: Tammy Francois, Lake County News Chronicle
A Minnesota archaeologist may have found proof of human life in the Superior National Forest more than 10,000 years ago.
The Minnesota Historical Society has announced the recipients of its most recent round of Historical and Cultural Heritage Grants from the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. St. Cloud State University received $2,240 to pay for the dating of artifacts that could change our understanding of when the first inhabitants lived, hunted and made tools in Northern Minnesota.
In 2009, a team of archaeologists and students, including Dr. Mark Muniz of SCSU, who secured the MHS grant, ventured into a remote area of northeastern Lake County near Knife Lake, 15 miles from the nearest road. Before 2005, the area, now called the Lillian Joyce Quarry site, was inaccessible and virtually invisible. In 1999, a storm downed hundreds of trees and Superior National Forest officials conducted a prescribed burn of the area in 2005.
So what did they find under the blowdown area?
“Faces of high-quality metamorphosed Knife Lake Siltstone that exhibited ample evidence of quarry activity,” wrote Lee Johnson, Superior National Forest archaeologist, in the 2010 Minnesota Archaeologist Society Newsletter. “The survey also resulted in the identification of numerous workshop areas scattered throughout the study area, some of which are located up to a ¼ mile from present day shorelines.”
In simpler terms, that means evidence of ancient human inhabitation and work areas.
“Some sites had been found in Canada, so we expected to find a site [on the U.S side of the lake], but we didn’t expect it to be so well-preserved. We had the opportunity to do a walk-over survey and see evidence of people being there, which is very rare,” Johnson, who oversees 2.5 million acres of Superior National Forest, told the News-Chronicle.
“I have travelled and done archaeological work all over. This is one-of-a-kind as far as an archaeological site goes. There probably isn’t another one like it in the U.S,” he added.
In 2010, charcoal samples were collected from the site. Muniz will use the MHS grant funding to send them to a lab for dating. He said he hopes to have the results back some time before next summer.
The technique that dates the charcoal, called AMS, should return results that are accurate to within 100 years, Johnson said. If Muniz’s hypothesis proves correct, Paleo-Indians were present in this area of Minnesota between 11-12,000 years ago, long before widely accepted timelines of habitation. To this point, it has been thought that the environment could not support human life so soon after the recession of glaciers, the researchers say.
Samples of stone tools and stone fragments show that flintknapping techniques were used by inhabitants of the area to fashion needed implements from the 2.3 billion year old siltstone. Some of these artifacts were found in place as though the craftsman (or woman) had just stepped away for a caribou sandwich.
“These sites were very well-preserved and we’re now looking for a habitation site near the quarry site,” Johnson said. He estimates that only about 10 percent of the site has been explored. A team will return to Lillian Joyce Quarry this fall.
Now, archaeologists are racing against time and nature. The prescribed burns exposed the immense outcroppings of siltstone and the worksites used by early inhabitants, but since then vegetation has started reclaiming the land.
“The door is closing for walk-over surveys, but other modes such as shovel testing and excavation can be used,” Johnson said.
He emphasized, however, that it’s important to maintain a low-impact approach to wilderness archaeology.
“We do not want to excavate every part of the site,” he said.
While the public and the archaeological community will be kept informed of new developments, the preservation and integrity of the site is also a top priority.
“These sites provide us with a fascinating window into the history of human use of the Boundary Waters over the past 10,000 years. However, archaeological materials are a nonrenewable resource and must be protected. Once an artifact is removed from its context within a site, we lose much of the valuable information it can provide us about who was using the site, when, and for what [purpose],” Johnson said.
In an e-mail instructing would-be visitors to historic and cultural sites, Johnson said, “Respect cultural resources as you would natural resources. If you come across an archaeological site do not remove or disturb artifacts. Excavating, defacing, or removing an archaeological resource from federal lands without a permit is a crime, punishable by fines or imprisonment. Write down a description of what you found, including the location, and report it to Forest Service personnel. Photos, sketches, maps, or GPS information are all useful information to include when describing archaeological finds.”