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Archeology in Banff National Park

by K Gordon Schultz

Archeological Record Reveals People Have Lived in the Canadian Rockies for Thousands of Years

In a very real sense, Banff National Park is one huge museum. Think about it: not only has it been set aside because of its natural beauty and sensitive ecology, but to preserve the history of the region.

Humans have been enjoying the natural beauty and bounty of the land encompassed by Banff National Park and the Canadian Rockies for more than 10,000 years. For millenia people have been living in and traversing the valleys, passes and high alpine areas of Banff National Park — from the First Nations peoples to its current residents today.

There are hundreds of archaeological sites scattered throughout the scenic acres that comprise the park, including 416 aboriginal sites and 309 historic sites (17 sites have both components), according to Parks Canada. Most of these are in the main river valleys, but traces of prehistoric occupation have been found throughout the Park, including the high alpine areas.

What makes a site an archeological site? By definition it is a place where past human activity has left physical traces. These traces can be artifacts, such as arrowheads or other tools; traces left by food processing such as butchered animal bones; or they can be features, such as hearths or historic structures.

Examples of historic sites in Banff National Park include:

Arrowheads left by First Nations People in Banff National Park

  • the remains of the coal mining towns of Anthracite and Bankhead, found along the Lake Minnewanka loop
  • cabins in the back country
  • historic dumps

Prehistoric sites include:

  • campsites
  • butchering sites
  • quarries where native people found raw materials for making stone tools
  • depressions left in the ground from construction of pithouses
  • places where isolated artifacts such as arrowheads or scrapers are found

Sites in the Vermilion Wetlands area have been dated to 10,800 years ago. These are among the oldest sites known in Western Canada, according to Parks Canada. The Bow River Valley, in the area near Banff town, contains sites with dates ranging from this period to the time that Europeans and Canadians began to arrive and irrevocably change the lifestyle of native peoples.

Visiting Historic and Archaeological Sites: Look But You Better Not Touch

Archeology in the Canadian Rockies, Banff National ParkSeriously: act like they are covered in poison ivy. As Parks Canada says, the original context of a site or artifact is vital to understanding its importance. Leave it where you found it; don’t disturb the site. Bring it to the attention of a park warden or other parks staff, and be prepared to tell them where you found it and be as accurate as possible.

Ideally, if you have a camera handy, take a photo of the item or site, showing it in relation to the general area, or mark the location on a map. Every piece of information you can provide will add to the knowledge of Banff‘s archeology and history.

Furthermore, cultural and natural resources are protected by law in the park; please do not disturb them. As well, provincial laws protect archaeological resources. Should you find something outside the park, please notify the Archaeological Survey of Alberta at the Provincial Museum of Alberta.

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