4600-year-old Skeleton Discovered in Northern Ontario

A team of archaeologists, working with the Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug First Nation, has discovered a 4,600-year-old burial at the mouth of the Bug River, on the south side of Big Trout Lake in Canada.

Big Trout Lake is located in the far northwest of the province of Ontario. Even today its difficult to access. The provinces road system stops nearly 400 kilometres south of the area, making planes the most practical way to get in and out.

The lake is located on the same latitude as Manchester, but the climate is far colder. In the winter the temperature can go down below -30 degrees Celsius. The area around the lake is heavily forested with evergreen trees. The population encompassed by the Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug First Nation community is estimated to be around 1,200.

Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug chief Donny Morris told me in an interview that a group of fishermen were the first to come across the bones. Water levels were high on the lake last fall causing the shoreline to erode, exposing the burial.

Chief Morris called in local police to investigate. He also contacted Lakehead University archaeology Professor Scott Hamilton. The police determined that the bones were ancient and Professor Hamilton took over the task of determining who this fellow was.

The burial

Hamilton said that its very unusual for aboriginal burials to be studied in Canada as laws and ethics generally prohibit excavation. In Canada, certainly in Ontario, human burial excavations simply dont happen except in salvage circumstances, he said.

This is one of those circumstances.

So what did they find?

The skeleton is of a fully grown adult male, likely in his late 30s or early 40s. Its pretty much intact from the knees and forearms upward, said Hamilton. He was roughly five and a half feet tall with a very, very robust muscular build. Investigators could determine this because parts of the bone, which attach to the muscles, were well developed.

It is not known why he died, however he appears to have been given a formal burial. Theres a flat slab of granite thats associated directly with the bones, said Hamilton. It looks very much like a purposeful grave.

The team is not certain why this slab was buried with him, well be taking a closer look at the stone as part of our analysis to see if we can see any evidence of function, said Hamilton. He added that the team also found red ochre covering the bones. (Its) a very faint red ochre staining in the sediments and on the bones. It would have been applied to the mans body before he was buried.

The use of red ochre is seen in burials all over the world, including prehistoric North America. The color may have held religious significance to the people who buried the man.

Radiocarbon dates indicate that he lived around 4,600 years ago although that number may change slightly as the date is calibrated. To put this in context, the man would have lived in Big Trout Lake at roughly the same time that the Great Pyramids were being built in Egypt.

What did he eat?

The team is performing oxygen and nitrogen isotope tests on the skeleton to determine what kind of diet he consumed. So far tests indicate that in addition to hunting land animals the man loved fish!

Fish is clearly an important part of the diet, we can see that in the nitrogen numbers, said Professor Hamilton. The team also examined the calculus around the teeth and found starch. Clearly plant food was also an important part of his diet, said Hamilton adding, we havent been able to figure out what plants contributed that starch.

How did he live?

This man’s lifestyle would have been very different to those of people living in Ancient Egypt or the Near East at that time. The -30 degree temperature calls for an approach that doesnt involve building pyramids.

These folks are very much adapted to the kinds of resources that one finds in the boreal forest, said Hamilton. These resources are highly seasonal in their availability and the season of comparative plenty is often spring, summer and perhaps early fall.

These seasonal resources include fish spawns, migratory water fowl, caribou migration and even wild rice.

This results in very, very low population density (and) very high population mobility as people are moving over very large territories over the course of the year. This means that the man would have been part of a family-based band. That is a small number of related people who travel together.

The hardest part of the year was, of course, winter. The winter seasons are generally a time of some scarcity and hardship as spatially concentrated food disappears, said Hamilton.

That means that sub-arctic people, in order to survive year in, year out through generations, have to have a seasonal cycle thats highly mobile, he said. They can place themselves on the landscape where they can predict resources will be available and follow the seasonal cycles of availability.

The past is very recent…

Hamiltons research indicates that this lifestyle continued for an exceptionally long period of time. The past is very recent in the far north, he said.

“Back in the 20s and before, people at that time were nomadic living in the bush and not staying in one place….”

When Europeans appeared in the 17th century the people continued to live this lifestyle. These northern hunters, trappers and fishers (continued) to supply themselves with food predominately from the land from the product of their hunt from the product of their gathering of wild produce, said Hamilton.

They may be gathering and harvesting those resources with European technology but theyre (still using a) fairly significant amount of traditional technology canoes, snowshoes, footwear, clothing, he said. What we see is this really interesting mix, an admixture, of traditional technology and the incorporation of new technology to practice a traditional life.

This continues into the 20th century. In fact a fascinating story, described on the Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug First Nation website, talks about encountering a hairy being out in the forest:

Back in the 20s and before, people at that time were nomadic living in the bush and not staying in one place. During rainy and snowy weathers, they said there is a being covered with some hair and was mostly constructed with skeleton. (It) used to fly and made (an) awful horrible scream/sound. If you saw it, you would go insane.

Canada didnt really have much of a presence in far northern Ontario until very recently, said Hamilton. In fact many communities, including Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug, did not sign a treaty with Canada until 1929.

In this rather technical treaty they were forced to cede land to the crown:

NOW THEREFORE we, the said Ojibeway, Cree and other Indian inhabitants, in consideration of the provisions of the said foregoing Treaty being extended to us, do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada for His Majesty the King and His Successors forever, all our rights, titles and privileges whatsoever in all that tract of land, and land covered by water in the Province of Ontario, comprising part of the District of Kenora (Patricia Portion) containing one hundred and twenty-eight thousand three hundred and twenty square miles, more or less, being bounded on the South by the Northerly limit of Treaty Number Nine; on the West by Easterly limits of Treaties Numbers Three and Five, and the boundary between the Provinces of Ontario and Manitoba; on the North by the waters of Hudson Bay, and on the East by the waters of James Bay and including all islands, islets and rocks, waters and land covered by water within the said limits, and also all the said Indian rights, titles and privileges whatsoever to all other lands and lands covered by water, wherever situated in the Dominion of Canada.

The crown did, however, promise that a reserve would be set aside for them:

AND HIS MAJESTY through His said Commissioners agrees and undertakes to set side reserves for each band as provided by the said aforementioned Treaty, at such places or locations as may be arranged between the said Commissioners and the Chiefs and headmen of each Band.

Change comes to an ancient lifestyle

Major changes started to occur in Ontarios Far North at around the time the treaty was signed. The ancient practice of people living in small bands declined and communities became larger and less mobile.

The really big changes come about surprisingly recently perhaps as late as the end of the Second World War in many cases, said Professor Hamilton. Despite these changes important elements of this ancient lifestyle live on, including the language. If you go to many of the communities of the far north now, the elders still predominately speak Cree or Ojibway.

Today the Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug First Nation has a nursing station, restaurant, band office, airport and ice skating rink. They even have a website. But despite all the modern conveniences, the people still practice hunting, fishing and trapping.

Old legends also live on, heres another interesting one, available on the Kitchenuhmaykoosik Inninuwug website:

A weird, odd looking foot-long animal (a cross breed of an otter & beaver or muskrat) with a rat tail with white almost a human face was discovered floating on the mainland shore of Kitchenuhmaykoosib drowned. No one knows what it is but our ancestors used to call it the Ugly One. It is rarely seen but when seen especially if it is dead, it’s bad omen and something bad will happen according to our elders and ancestors.

Chief Morris said that soon, after all the archaeological analysis is complete, the 4,600-year-old man will be laid to rest again. Although the world has changed this fellow will, once again, receive the dignity of a proper burial in the land of his descendents.

I asked the chief to describe the ceremony how do you honor a 4,600-year-old man who was buried very simply, with red ochre and a granite slab? Do you buck history and have an elaborate gathering? The chief replied simply, it will probably just be a memorial service.