Evidence of prehistoric caribou hunters found below Lake Huron

Research continues this summer on a series of targets on the Alpena-Amberley Ridge in the lake.

Diver and MSU alum Tyler Schultz and 'Jake' the ROV collect samples in central Lake Huron. Photo: John O’Shea | University of Michigan Museum of Anthropologial Archaeology

Diver and MSU alum Tyler Schultz and 'Jake' the ROV collect samples in central Lake Huron. Photo: John O’Shea | University of Michigan Museum of Anthropologial Archaeology

In 2009 a paper was published in the National Academy of Sciences on “Evidence of Early Hunters below the Great Lakes” by researchers John O’Shea (curator of Great Lakes Archaeology at the University Of Michigan Museum Of Anthropological Archaeology) and Guy Meadows (Director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University.) These researchers found evidence of human activity on the Alpena-Amberley Ridge in Lake Huron. This ridge during an extreme low-water phase would have provided a land causeway across the middle of modern Lake Huron linking northern Michigan with central Ontario.

The post-glacial history of the Great Lakes is characterized by a series of high and low water periods. The most extreme low-water period is referred to as the Lake Stanley stage in Lake Huron which occurred 7,000 to 11,500 years ago with lake levels 230 to 328 feet below modern lake levels. During this time period the Lake Huron basin contained two lakes separated by a ridge or causeway extending northwest to southeast across the basin from the area of Presque Isle, Mich., to Point Clark in Ontario, now known as the Alpena-Amberley Ridge.

Human occupation in the upper Great Lakes is associated with the drop in water level to the Lake Stanley stage and they inhabited an environment that was colder and drier than present with spruce-dominated forests. The researchers found that the problem in investigating these earlier time periods is that intact sites of early human occupation are extremely rare and the critical evidence exists beneath Lake Huron. Thus the researchers’ utilized surface-towed side scan sonar and remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) to determine whether human occupation sites were present on the Alpena-Amberley Ridge beneath Lake Huron.

The survey indicated evidence for the existence of hunting structures and human activity associated with the ridge and demonstrated a series of features that were consistent in form, construction, and placement with known caribou hunting structures. Stone constructions, such as caribou drive lanes, hunting blinds, and habitation sites of the kind seen in sub-arctic regions appear to be preserved on the lake bottom.

More recent research published in 2016 in Geoarchaeology by Elizabeth Sonnenburg (Stantec Consulting Ltd.) and John O’Shea who used ROV and diver surveys to get a closer look at the structures, investigate lake bottom conditions and visibility, and map the structures at close range. In addition sediment samples were collected for paleoenvironmental analysis. From this research a series of indicators, including distinct microfossil assemblages (such as species only found in sphagnum moss and boggy arctic ponds), rooted trees (tamarack and spruce), and charcoal (8,000–9,000 years old) revealed a series of microenvironments that are consistent with a subarctic climate.

Research that was led by O’Shea and published in a 2014 National Academy of Sciences paper revealed a newly discovered caribou drive lane which was the most complex hunting structure found to date beneath the Great Lakes. The drive lane site and its artifacts provided insight into the social and seasonal organization of prehistoric caribou hunting. When combined with environmental and simulation studies it was found that different seasonal strategies were used by early hunters on the Alpena-Amberley Ridge. Autumn hunting was carried out by small groups and spring hunts were conducted by larger groups of cooperating hunters.

This summer O’Shea will be leading a research project utilizing a submarine to ground-truth (determine facts by examining the ground for targets revealed by remote sensing) a series of targets, such as those described here, to further confirm their cultural origin and age.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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