Archaeological paydirt

By David Kenney

A University of Calgary archaeological expedition is yielding findings that would make Indiana Jones jealous.

Lead by U of C archaeologist Dr. Brian Kooyman, the Cardston excavation revealed prehistoric man may have hunted pony-sized horses into extinction.

The U of C expedition recently unearthed 11,300 year-old Clovis spearheads bearing protein residue from Equus conversidens, an extinct pony-sized breed of horse. The spearheads were found near the remains of one of the extinct horses. Several of the horse’s vertebrae were smashed suggesting it was preyed on by prehistoric humans.

"The residue is the last thing that fell into place," said Kooyman, noting the group has found skeletal remains of almost a dozen extinct horses along with hundreds of animal tracks. [The accumulated findings] built up so you’ve got a picture."

The excavation site at the dry bed of the St. Mary Reservoir is widely considered a North American archaeological hotbed. Since 1988, the U of C team discovered well-preserved tracks of ancient horses, woolly mammoths and the extinct North American camel. The group also unearthed skeletons of several extinct animal species, including Equus conversidens.

Previously, it was assumed the miniature horses’ extinction was caused by climate and environmental changes. Some archaeologists believe the Clovis people were the first Americans, migrating from Asia between 10,000 and 12,000 B.C. The Clovis were thought to have followed migrating animal herds at the beginning of the end of the ice age.

However, Kooyman’s findings suggest North American migration occurred before the Clovis arrived.

"It’s really important from a number of perspectives," explained Kooyman, noting the find helps archaeologists better understand the Clovis. "Basically the [animal] tracks we have here are unique, there’s nothing like this on the scale."

The animal tracks date back to the Pleistocene Era, a time dominated by ice ages and ranging from 1.8 million to 11,000 years ago.

Kooyman aims to uncover as much information as possible, despite working against conditions such as high winds and the threat of summer rain flooding potentially washing away excavation sites.

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