Weapons of mammoth destruction

Monday, May 9, 2011


Muņiz and his students are dating artifacts using three techniques: Analyzing the flintknapping techniques used to manufacture stone weapons and tools, Radiocarbon dating phytoliths recovered in the soil, Radiocarbon dating two small bits of charcoal

Artifacts Mark Muņiz Jennifer Rovanpera 

Mark Muñiz calls what St. Cloud State University graduate students are unearthing in the remote reaches of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) "National Geographic kind of stuff."

Muñiz, associate professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department, is referring to research at Knife Lake on the U.S.-Canadian border that could prove that some of the earliest cultures in the state date back more than 12,000 years ago.

"We have literally just scratched the surface," Muñiz said of the research that began in 2009 and continued last year but only for a matter of days. The dig's location in the isolated Superior National Forest, and the climate (biting bugs in the summer and snow and cold in the winter) have limited the students' access to the site to a few days each fall.

Knife Lake is a 5,254-acre, 130-foot deep lake in extreme northeastern Minnesota.

Thousands of years ago humans gathered at the siltstone outcroppings along the lakeshore to manufacture stone tools and weapons. Paleoindians at Knife Lake likely used antlers and granite stones to shape siltstone into knives, scrapers, spear points and adzes, a process called flintknapping.

The term Paleoindians describes first peoples who migrated into North America as the last glaciers retreated. Knife Lake was a "cul-de-sac" of human habitation, Muñiz said, with massive glacial Lake Agassiz to the west, the retreating glacier to the north and glacial Lake Duluth to the east.

Because of the highly acidic soil at the Knife Lake sites, animal bones and other organic material decay rapidly.

Muñiz, director of the master's program in Cultural Resource Management Archaeology (CRM), and his students are dating artifacts using three techniques:

  • Analyzing the flintknapping techniques used to manufacture stone weapons and tools
  • Radiocarbon dating phytoliths recovered in the soil
  • Radiocarbon dating two small bits of charcoal

Phytoliths are microscopic minerals absorbed by plants and deposited in the soil after plants die. Phytolith dating can be as accurate as charcoal dating, according to Muñiz, because charcoal can travel by winds or water, but phytoliths generally cannot go as far.

The preliminary findings suggest tools and weapons found at the Knife Lake sites are similar to those found at other Paleoindian sites on the Great Plains and Upper Midwest that date between 11,500 to 12,500 years ago.

Preliminary analysis is underway on a dozen phytolith samples from Knife Lake. Sue Mulholland, a professor at University of Minnesota-Duluth, has determined that:

  • Seven samples show evidence of coming from the Paleoindian period
  • Four samples are of a quality that will yield radiocarbon data

Radiocarbon dating results are expected late 2011, at the earliest. The CRM Archaeology program is seeking a Minnesota Historical Society grant to fund the radiocarbon dating.

Tyler Olsen, a graduate student from Oshkosh, Wis., said he felt exhilarated when he found a five-inch stone likely manufactured to kill a wooly mammoth, Bison Antiquus or caribou that inhabited the area at that time.

Because of what was discovered, Muñiz believes the site was a quarry used again and again for the manufacturing of heavy, bi-faced weapons. Nearby sites, within a "rock's throw," indicate that there were nearby campsites established.

"These sites are combining lots of different research," Muñiz said.

At the Council for Minnesota Archaeology 2011 Conference held at Inver Hills Community College in February, seven students joined Muñiz in presenting information from the Knife Lake digs.

Reaching the site is in itself a major challenge. There is a nine-person limit in that portion of the BWCAW so the group travels in four canoes; one is a three-seater. The canoes are packed with food and tents and a bit of clothing and lots of archaeological equipment, everything from screens to sift material with to shovels, trowels and hand tools.

Everything that is loaded into the canoes has to be paddled and portaged about 15 miles. Muñiz and his team have entered the site from both the east and the west and both are about equal distance.

"Portaging is a lot of work," Muñiz said. "We have to double portage because we can't carry everything in one trip."

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