This paper has gotten a lot of attention in the popular media: it has been discussed in stories in Science News, livescience, Huffington Post, and Popular Archaeology, among others. The New York Times generously upgraded the structures from modest hunting blinds, proclaiming the discovery of a “9000-Year-Old Hunting Cabin, Underwater.”
The age estimate of 9000 years is based on several radiocarbon dates on preserved wood and some charcoal associated with a small stone circle. This age – about 7,000 BC – falls squarely in the Early Archaic period. If the 9000 BP age accurately reflects the age of the structures and if the structures actually were used for caribou hunting, we’re talking about the Early Holocene rather than the Late Pleistocene.
To me, the young age of the purported hunting structures is the important part of the story. Herds of caribou migrating to southern Ontario at 7000 BC? While there have been numerous discussions of the potential importance of caribou hunting in this region during the earlier Paleoindian period (ca. 11,200-9500 BC), I don’t recall ever reading a paper about seasonally-scheduled hunting of migratory caribou during the Early Archaic period this far south in the Great Lakes (if you know of one, please share it). The idea that Early Archaic settlement/subsistence in this region was at least partially tuned to the pursuit of migratory herd animals has broad implications for understanding the structure and organization of those societies.
Why haven’t we spent more time thinking about Early Archaic caribou hunting? One reason, perhaps, is the weakness of the direct evidence for the presence of large numbers of caribou in southeastern Ontario and the lower peninsula of Michigan subsequent to 10,000 BP (i.e., ca. 9500 BC). The PNAS paper doesn’t spend a lot effort to build the case that caribou were a potentially significant resource at that late date, simply stating that “The environment . . . would have been ideal for migrating caribou and for their human pursuers” (O’Shea et al. 2014:1). But what direct evidence is there for the presence of caribou in this region at 7000 BC? Not a whole lot that I know of. An earlier paper (O’Shea et al. 2013:37) attributes the scarcity of preserved caribou remains to the presence of acid soils. But caribou remains dating to the earlier Late Pleistocene have been documented in the region, both in cultural contexts at Paleoindian sites and as inclusions in natural deposits, so we know they can survive. In a 1988 paper, Lawrence Jackson cataloged caribou remains from southern Ontario and concluded that the remains of caribou pre-dated 11,000 BC: “No Early Holocene records of caribou are known” (Jackson 1988:35). A later paper by Jackson and McKillop (1991) discussed the possibility of a northern range shift (i.e., out of southern Ontario) of caribou following the Early Paleoindian period. If herds of caribou were pouring across the AAR into southern Ontario well into the Early Archaic period, they do not seem to have left much physical evidence. Or maybe they did and we just haven’t looked in the right places yet. That's a question for someone other than me to attempt to answer. Perhaps there are newer data of which I am not aware.
The picture is a little brighter on the Michigan side, where there is physical evidence of caribou in the lower peninsula well into the Archaic and beyond. Simons (1997) discusses a caribou antler from central Michigan dated to about 4800 BC, and living caribou were present in the upper peninsula of Michigan in the twentieth century.
In order to incorporate the behaviors suggested by the AAR data into our conceptions of Early Archaic societies in this region, I think we’re going to need to know more about the nature of the caribou presence in the region and how that changed through time. And we’re also going to need to tie the AAR sites to a larger social/settlement/subsistence system. The PNAS paper doesn’t spend much ink pondering how scheduled caribou hunting would have fit in with the rest of an Early Archaic settlement/subsistence system in the region: unfortunately, one thing we apparently don’t know yet is exactly who was responsible for building and using these structures. There are several possibilities that have very different implications. The AAR is at the northern periphery of several hafted biface forms that are common in the Midcontinent and could date to around 7000 BC (i.e., Kirk Corner Notched cluster, large lobed points like MacCorkle, small bifurcate points like LeCroy, etc.). Groups using those points are a possibility, but, I think, an unlikely one. Although Hi-Lo has not been directly dated, it is generally considered a Late Paleoindian form that probably pre-dates 9500 BC (and hence is probably too early to be associated with the 7000 BC structures). Plains-related lanceolate/plano point types occur in the upper Great Lakes and were probably in use by groups in the region during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene . . . maybe the structures will be found to be associated with those groups. That’s where I would put my money at this point, anyway. We’ll have to wait until the researchers find some diagnostic artifacts.
We learn new things all the time, and I’ll be watching carefully for further results from this work. I will be very curious to see the data incorporated into and interpreted in light of a broader chronological, biogeographical, and cultural-historical framework. In the meantime, I'll work on my puns so I have a better title for the next Rangifer-related blog post.
Jackson, Lawrence J. 1988. Fossil cervids and fluted point hunters: a review from southern Ontario. Ontario Archaeology 48:27-41.
Jackson, Lawrence, and Heather McKillop. 1991. Approaches to Palaeo-Indian economy: an Ontario and Great Lakes perspective. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 16(1):34.
O'Shea, John, Ashley K. Lemke, Elizabeth Sonnenburg, Robert G. Reynolds, and Brian D. Abbott. 2014. A 9,000-year-old caribou hunting structure beneath Lake Huron. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1404404111.
O'Shea, John, Ashley K. Lemke, and Robert G. Reynolds. 2013. “Nobody knows the way of the caribou”: Rangifer hunting at 45 North Latitude. Quaternary International 297:36-44.
Simons, Donald B. 1997. The Gainey and Butler sites as focal points for caribou and people. In Caribou and Reindeer Hunters of the Northern Hemisphere, edited by Lawrence Jackson and Paul T. Thacker, pp. 105-31. Avebury, Aldershot.