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Tse’K’wa cave field school underway

The scientific potential of the Tse'K'wa cave is only just starting to be recognized said Simon Fraser University professor Dr. Jon Driver, returning for the first new research dig in 30 years.

A new dig at the Tse’K’wa cave in Charlie Lake continues this month, with University of Northern B.C. students and community members from local First Nations already discovering flakes of stone tools through their field school.

It’s the first time in over 30 years that any archaeological research has been conducted at the historic site, picking up where Simon Fraser University professor and bone expert Dr. Jon Driver left off in the 1990s at the beginning of his career.  

Driver says they’ve only scratched the surface of the cave’s scientific potential and was pleased to see the site in the hands of Doig River, Prophet River and West Moberly First Nations, who purchased it in 2012. Plans are underway to open a cultural centre to tell their ancestors’ story.

“What I find so great is that the site’s protected, the three nations got together, they bought the land, they now own the site that’s incredibly important for their history, and they control what goes on here,” he said. “And so this can be a centrepiece for talking about their traditional knowledge, their culture, their history, and passing that on not just for their communities, but also for the broader public.”

“You’ve got one of the most critically important scientific sites in Canada here, it’s incredible. I think that will sink in as the interpretative side of this develops,” said Driver.

He added that the anthropological relevance of the site extends beyond First Nations, with 12,000 years of human history to learn from.

“This is the only place in Canada, where you can start at the ice age and go up to the modern day, it’s a complete history of the animals that lived here and the people that lived, and their interactions,” said Driver.

Prophet River First Nations member Tamara St. Pierre took part in shovel tests said she felt like her ancestors were there, giving their blessing to the new dig.

“When we did the opening ceremony with a prayer and drumming, we saw an eagle fly by, I feel that was our ancestors giving us their blessing – they want us to find stuff here,” said St. Pierre, who works in land and water resource management.

Born and raised in Northern BC, third-year UNBC student Taylor Orton says the field school is the opportunity of a lifetime. She’s double majoring in anthropology and First Nations studies.  

“I want to be an archaeologist, that’s my career goal. So as soon I heard about the field school opportunity, I was definitely onboard to do it,” she said. “It’s really cool to be able to work with a community member, and to get Tamara’s perspective on this. I’m not indigenous at all, so it’s really cool to be working with someone who’s so connected to the land.”

Driver also said that technology has improved drastically over the past 30 years, with DNA sequencing only in its infancy during the original dig, but has since become a standard practice. Bones of fish and other animals found at the cave are able to be sequenced on demand, offering new insights about the cave and the first peoples who lived there.

“The more scientific work we apply to the materials that we’ve already excavated, the more we’re going to find out,” Driver said, noting chemical analysis of fish bones is already underway.

Tse’K’wa was once surrounded by grasslands after the receding of a glacial lake. Bison, wild hares, ground squirrels, and other animals moved in, but left for the plains of Alberta once the boreal forest formed.

“All the fur-bearing animals they trapped are all down there – fisher, wolverine, otter, muskrat, beaver, they’re all there, being hunted and trapped,” Driver said. “And the big game animals they traditionally hunted – deer, elk, moose, bison, they’re all down there.” 

Dick Gilbert, the archaeologist who first surveyed the cave in the 1970s, said the story goes beyond just the movement of animals, theorizing that a trade route could have existed among First Nations for obsidian to make tools, extending from the Peace into the Stikine Region of Northwestern B.C.

“The concept of trade and movement across the landscape, and knowing and being able to trade with your neighbours, trusting them that could to come to your camp is difficult, but not impossible to interpret from the archaeological record,” said Gilbert.

Flakes of obsidian have been found at the site, with Gilbert noting that only people could have brought it here, as it does not occur naturally in the Peace Region.

“It didn’t just miraculously get here. As the crow flies it’s only about 900 kilometres, it would be something to go up there and interact with the people who believe it’s theirs. It’s far more likely that there were trade networks,” said Gilbert.

Both Driver and Gilbert agreed that the abundance of animals would have been ideal for supplying them with valuable trade items such as fur, a necessity for the cold climate.  

Gilbert said he’s always looked back fondly at his time uncovering the cave, hired to conduct archaeological surveys in 1974 for the Site C dam. First Nation members first told him about Tse’K’wa, he said.

“It’s not my story, but if I can do something that can assist you in making sense of something, or solidifying a site like this, twelve and-a-half thousand years of uncontested data – nobody can come along and tell you that you weren’t here,” he said. “People were here, and that’s one of the biggest things archaeology can contribute to. We’re digging their history and pre-history.”

Tom Summer, Alaska Highway News, Local Journalism Initiative.

Got a story or opinion? Email Tom at

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