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Integrating Archaeological and Indigenous Data Sources to Explore the Peopling of the North American Continent Along the Ice-Free Corridor


Project start
Project end
Type of project
Project theme
Society, economy and culture
Project topic
Culture & history

Project details

Science / project summary

The colonization of North America tens of thousands of years ago is a milestone in the story of human dispersal and migration. As it occurred during a time of dramatic climate change, it also represents an unparalleled laboratory to study the impact of environmental change on human groups, as well as the ecological role of people on species extinctions and ecosystem sustainability. In addition to its value for scientists, the peopling of North America figures prominently in the worldview of Native Americans and holds important implications for issues related to identity, cultural heritage, and territory rights. The project will take place in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, at the southern end of the ice-free corridor between glaciers, from where the first Americans may have spread out from Alaska to the rest of the continent. Well-preserved archaeological sites of this period are extremely rare due to deglaciation processes that either destroyed or deeply buried evidence of early colonization. Because of this knowledge gap, it is difficult to ascertain the dispersal and land use dynamics of early settlers. This project will focus on the excavation of the Billy Big Spring Site that presents a unique, well-preserved stratigraphy containing archaeological occupations dated to the Late Glacial period ~13,000 years ago to shed light on some of these questions. This project integrates archaeological research with Native American genetic data and oral history to explore the settlement of North America during the end of the last Ice Age. The Billy Big Spring Site constitutes a strong analytical case for addressing the timing and modes of inland colonization of the continent through the exploration of connections between early northern occupations from Alaska to Montana, and early human occupations in the region and beyond. Large-scale archaeological investigations at Billy Big Springs will provide a detailed view of landscape preferences of early North American peoples that likely informed land and resource use through time. The project will (1) survey and excavate an early archaeological located just south of the ice-free corridor to develop a predictive model of early colonization of the region; (2) integrate Native American oral history into archaeological research related to the peopling of North America; (3) train tribal members in the study and management of their cultural heritage; (4) translate scientific findings for Native American groups; and (5) develop school curricula for the benefit of Blackfoot, Alaskan, and other Native communities. The project is a collaboration between a public university and a Native American tribe, which will contribute to standards for ethical and community-based archaeology related to the early peopling of North America, providing an excellent opportunity to broaden participation from underrepresented groups in archaeology.