At the End of the Day: Bringing the Prehistory of Alberta’s Oil Sands Region to Public Attention

Bitumen is a thick, tar-like form of petroleum found in sand deposits buried at various depths over a large area of boreal forest in northern Alberta, Canada. Although the substance was long known to Indigenous inhabitants and came to the attention of European explorers and fur traders as early as the 1770s, commercial development of Alberta’s oil sands became economically viable only relatively recently, with significant extraction and processing beginning in the late 1990s. As is well known, this development has engendered widespread controversy on environmental grounds, in an ongoing tension between ecological considerations and the human demand for energy.

What is less known is the level of research and regulation that accompanies approval and monitoring of these developments, including archaeological assessment and mitigation procedures, as well as a wide range of environmental studies. As information has accumulated, an exceptional record of prehistoric human land use has emerged that reflects the most intensive use of a boreal forest landscape yet identified in Canada. Affiliated geological studies have been able to link this prehistoric use with a catastrophic postglacial outwash event that took place some 11,000 years ago, which scoured what is now the Lower Athabasca River valley, thereby making surface mining of bitumen possible. This event also created a landscape that was substantially better drained than surrounding terrain and exposed deposits of stone suitable for tool manufacture. Environmental studies show that the most intensive period of human use of this area occurred in conjunction with the warm, dry conditions of the early postglacial period.

During the early stages of my archaeological career, I led studies that assisted in identifying the nature and extent of the archaeological evidence of this land use pattern. At the same time, earth scientists interested in glacial retreat and postglacial ecologies began to form a clearer picture of postglacial landscape transformation and vegetation change in the region. Later, as a staff member of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, I oversaw large-scale excavations and avoidance measures that proceeded the approval of oil sands projects and that helped to define the character and chronology of prehistoric land use. I also participated in regulatory review processes that shed light on the multidimensional cumulative effects of oil sands development.

Archaeological sites recorded to date in the surface-minable oil sands area

Virtually all of the information gathered over the past several decades exists in diaspora, scattered throughout unpublished compliance reports and assorted articles in scientific journals. As the details of the interconnection between landforms, resources, vegetation, climate, and prehistoric human use in this region coalesced, I became convinced that the remarkable story of oil sands prehistory needed to be brought to the attention of a wider audience. So I contacted colleagues working in the human and natural history of the region with a view to putting together a volume that would synthesize the research conducted to date. My goal was to produce a book that, while rigorously scientific, could be read by members of the public who have an interest in archaeology and/or in the Alberta oil sands region. The result, Alberta’s Lower Athabasca Basin: Archaeology and Palaeoenvironments, recently appeared from Athabasca University Press, an academic publisher committed to open access dissemination, as well as to editorial engagement. This effort represents what could be seen as the final stage of archaeological endeavour—the ultimate outcome of many days of archaeology.

This volume will, I hope, reinforce more broadly the value of archaeological conservation in concert with development. While we must acknowledge that many of the sites that have contributed to this story have been or will be destroyed in the course of development, one must also recognize that, without the conservation requirements implemented under provincial government regulation, very little of this enhanced understanding of Alberta’s past would have come to light. Furthermore, the permanent preservation of several of the most significant of these sites, along with conservation of the collections recovered in the numerous studies completed to date, will serve as sources of fruitful future study.