Prehistoric people hunted caribou on ancient Lake Huron ridge

ALPENA, Mich. — At a time in our region’s history when the climate was much colder and the water level of the Great Lakes much lower, hunters pursued caribou across an exposed strip of land that connected what is now northeast Michigan to southern Ontario.

On the Alpena-Amberley Ridge, a 72-square-mile land mass that essentially separated Lake Huron into two large, post-Ice Age basins, archaeologists have discovered unambiguous evidence that hunters from about 9,000 years ago took part in organized hunts using drive lanes and ambush points. The hunting site on the bottom of Lake Huron identified in this research is regarded as the most complex hunting structure found to date beneath the Great Lakes.

University of Michigan professor of anthropological archaeology John O’Shea said his team has conducted simulation studies based on the layout of the site, located in about 120 feet of water about 35 miles southeast of here. The layout and the artifacts found there have led researchers to determine that these prehistoric caribou hunters from the Late Paleoindian/Early Archaic period varied their tactics based on the time of year and the migratory habits of the caribou.

Caribou, a large, elk-like species of deer that is native to some of the coldest regions on the planet, are well-adapted for the harsh climate they would have found here following the retreat of the glaciers. They survive in the tree-less tundra of northern Europe, Siberia, and North America today by migrating as much as 1,500 miles each year to reach summer feeding grounds and wintering areas where they survive on lichens.

Caribou are an essential food source to many indigenous people of the northern reaches, primarily hunted in North America and herded in northern Europe and Asia, where they are known as reindeer. The evidence found on the floor of Lake Huron shows how prehistoric people of the Great Lakes region used the topography of the landscape and other mechanisms to harvest caribou as herds migrated through the area.

“Late Paleoindian/Early Archaic caribou hunters employed distinctly different seasonal approaches,” Mr. O’Shea said, according to the research. “In autumn, small groups carried out the caribou hunts, and in spring, larger groups of hunters cooperated.”

Mr. O’Shea said that the fall migration of the caribou likely provided the best hunting opportunity, but, some of the structures below Lake Huron’s surface reveal that they were designed for a spring migration as the animals moved across the ridge from what is now Ontario to cooler areas to the north.

“The V-shaped hunting blinds located upslope from one of our study areas are oriented to intercept animals moving to the southeast in the autumn,” Mr. O’Shea said. “This design differs from other hunting structures associated with alternative seasons of migration. Our simulation data indicates that the area was a convergence point along different migration routes, where the landform tended to compress the animals in both the spring and autumn.”

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