“Very early”: Scientists date when humans first arrived in Alberta’s Oilsands Region

A new study may finally answer a long-standing mystery. It has pinned down a rough date for the arrival of human beings to Canada’s oilsands region.

In a recently published paper, professor Robin Woywitka of Edmonton’s MacEwan University says a combination of archeology and geology has revealed that people were living around Fort McMurray, Alta., at least 11,000 years ago and perhaps as long ago as 13,000 years ago.

“People lived in Fort McMurray very early,” Woywitka stated.

“Fort McMurray is a hub for many millennia. People have been drawn to it .”

Scientists know that the area has a long human history. An archeological site known the Quarry of the Ancestors has yielded millions of artifacts since it was discovered there in the 1990s.

However, it was difficult to assign dates.

Standard methods like radiocarbon dating have been discontinued. These techniques are destroyed by the acidic soils of the area.

Sometimes scientists use sedimentary layers of the earth to date artifacts. This area is so stable, that sediment has not been found in many other places.

Woywitka tried something different with his coworkers.

They took satellite maps which showed the topography of the area with an accuracy of a few metres. That information was used to locate sites that were most susceptible to sedimentation and they selected five of these locations, one of which is located in the Quarry of the Ancientstors.

The sediments from these sites were date using an infrared-stimulated luminescence technique.

This technique takes advantage of the fact that sand grains contain tiny radioactive particles within their pores. Exposure to sunlight causes these particles to deteriorate at an established rate. The longer the particles are buried the greater the number of them.

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Infrared radiation causes these particles to emit energy. This can be used to determine the date and time of burial for the host sand grains, as well as the stones tools.

In this case, the answer was 12,000 years, give or take a millennium.

“There is more uncertainty in radiocarbon dating than it does, but it’s still better than nothing,” Woywitka stated.

These findings place those first people at the beginning of how this part of the globe became habitable. Within a few centuries of the flood, which flooded glacial Lake Agassiz, an immense inland sea once covering almost half of Manitoba and Ontario’s present day provinces, the first people would have moved to that area.

The date isn’t too long after humans first came to North America, which most archeologists believe happened about 16,000 years ago.

They would not have been able to find a place far away from the dense boreal forests, flooded wetlands and lush prairies that cover most of northern Alberta.

” People are working in a very different environment to what we have today–open and dry, cold.” Woywitka stated. “Probably tundray or grassland .”

They probably hunted bison. Woywitka stated. There’s not much else to be done.

” We don’t know .”

if they were from the south or north.

Scientists are unable to fit artifacts into prehistoric cultures despite their proliferation. Although there are evidences of trade networks between other regions of the continent, little information is available.

One thing is certain.

Woywitka explains that the flooding that destroyed Agassiz revealed both the excellent toolmaking stone which attracted people to the region as well as oilsands that have attracted thousands of residents today.

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“People came 13,000 ago to get that stuff,” he said. We go to Fort McMurray today in search of resources .”

By Bob Weber

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