A never-before-seen archaeological find in Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan unlocks fascinating information about the Northern Plains Indigenous Peoples who gathered on the land for over 6,400 years.
The find was announced by Dr Ernie Walker, chief archaeologist and park co-founder. Bison activity has also been credited for uncovering four petroglyphs and the tool used to carve them.
“The discovery of these petroglyphs is a testament to just how sacred and important this land is,” says Darlene Brander, CEO Wanuskewin Heritage Park. “The individual who made these petroglyphs was actually carving their legacy into the rock many years ago.”
In 2019, bison were reintroduced to their traditional lands, now Wanuskewin Heritage Park, after more than 150 years as part of a $40-million revitalization that included conservation efforts to repopulate bison numbers across North America. In 2020, bison activity – including “wallowing,” where bison roll in the grass and create dust pits – uncovered a patch of a submerged boulder. Dr. Walker realized the find was a petroglyph, an image carved or abraded in rock. While Dr. Walker and his team were excavating around the petroglyph, they found the stone knife that was used to carve the drawings, in precise trajectory to an ancient bison jump.
Following the initial find highlighted by the bison, Dr. Walker and his team uncovered three more petroglyphs in varying shapes, sizes and designs, including one bearing the scratched marks of a Ribstone, which is found in Hoofprint Tradition rock art, and associated with bison and bison hunts. These petroglyphs are estimated to date back anywhere between 300 and 1,800 years, though taken in context with historic events they are likely 1,000 years old. It is extremely rare to find four carved boulders together, and even more rare to locate the carving tool used to make
them. A truly remarkable story, however, is the bison. Had they not been reintroduced to their traditional land – after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1870s – this important scientific discovery would have remained hidden.
The first stone found, a Bison Ribstone, is currently on display within the Interpretive centre. Wanuskewin is a National Historic Site and currently listed among Canada’s tentative UNESCO Heritage List, with a pending UNESCO application. The heritage park is situated on the historic lands of the Dakota First Nation, adjacent to the South Saskatchewan River. The Park has been a gathering place for Indigenous Peoples for centuries, and in recent decades has revealed several archaeological deposits, including bison jumps, which are cliff formations used by Indigenous Peoples to hunt plains bison; ancient campsites; tipi rings; and the northernmost medicine wheel in the world.
“We have been so fortunate over the years to have had these wondrous stories emerge that we are able to share with the community,” says Brander. “Today it is our duty to share this story as our call to reconciliation by shining a light on the distinct and beautiful cultures of the Northern Plains People.”
Under the leadership of Dr. Walker and his fellow researchers, the site is distinguished as Canada’s longest running archaeological dig, and has produced nearly 200,000 artefacts, including teeth, bones, tools, pottery, shells, charcoal, and seeds. Many of these finds predate even the ruins of Rome and the pyramids of Egypt. As a non-profit, Wanuskewin relies on public and private donations to ensure its invaluable work in preserving and celebrating the Northern Plains Indigenous culture continues.
The park is open year-round for visitors and offers seven kilometres of walking trails, a tipi village, a restaurant serving food inspired by the land, and programming that educates guests about the Indigenous Peoples who have called this area home for centuries. In Spring, 2022, along with being able to visit the site where the boulders were discovered, visitors will be able to see the baby bison, the first generation of a new herd of direct descendants from the original
two herds – Grasslands National Park (Canada) and Yellowstone National Park (U.S.), which have not been seen in the area for over 150 years.