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The Vancouver Sun and archaeology stories

17 February 2010

Two stories from the Vancouver Sun (see www.vancouversun.com and click on archaeology stories). On December 29th 2009 it was revealed that a study has found what people were eating a 100,000 years ago in southern Africa. Dozens of stone tools found during excavation are the earliest evidence, so far, of human reliance on grain (Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary). The diet of early humans was much more diverse than archaeologists have previously realised. Grains were as much part of their diet as roots, tubers, fruit and berries. Not only that, even at this early phase humans were processing food. Some of the tools were used to grind grains and make them fine enough to add to other foodstuffs – and drinks. Mercader found traces of sorghum which is still a primary grain in sub-Sahara Africa where it is used to make flours, drinks, and porridges. These are the kinds of foods that we associate with Holocene farming communities but one is left wondering for how long such a diet preceded evidence of agriculture – and if growing food by communities, or protecting and cultivating wild crops in makeshift gardens in the forest, was perhaps widespread during the Palaeolithic periods. It was certainly the practise in New Guinea – and they are defined as Stone Age people. The problem is that most research has been done in Europe which at the time was too close to the ice sheet. It is a bit like looking for early agriculture in today’s Siberia. The climate was incompatible. It seems that Africa may prove a better region of the world to explore – or the Indian subcontinent.

The second story claims iron was the spur that made the Inuit to sprint across Northern Canada, February 8th 2010. Robert McGhee, a Canadian archaeologist and the author of The Northern World: AD900-1400 a book that is based on recent research that seems to indicate they migrated across the top of North America very quickly. The carrot for doing this, he suggests, was a rich supply of iron from a massive meteorite strike on Greenland’s west coast. The book is a series of essays by one of the world’s leading Arctic archaeologists and Mc Ghee claims the Inuit migrated in a very fast spread to Greenland’s Cape York meteorite deposit around 1250AD. The usual view is that of a slow environmentally driven Inuit expansion beginning around AD1000 (during the Medieval Warm Period). C14 evidence and reassessment of Arctic archaeology indicate the journey, by skin boat and dog sleds, moved directly from Alaska to Greenland within just a few summers – 750 years ago. Not all the Inuit were involved in the migration – but a significant number were. McGhee thinks the Inuit had learned about the iron from contact with the Dorset Culture people who were already using iron and trading in it with the Viking sailors of southern Greenland and Iceland. Hence, not only meteoric iron but metals traded from the Vikings were an ingredient in their expansion, according to the McGhee hypothesis. The Dorset Culture people, on the other hand, disappeared after the Inuit arrived but as they are described as palaeo-Eskimo they probably merged. The theory assumes there was no other incentive around in about 1250AD to make the Inuit shift location so dramatically.

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