Uncovering Innu history

Derek Montague
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More than 40,000 artifacts discovered at Muskrat Falls

For thousands of years, the Innu people have used the Muskrat Falls area as a seasonal encampment, a tradition illustrated by about 40,000 artifacts found in the Muskrat Falls area over the past couple of years.

The artifacts range from 3,500 years old to 150 years old. During a recent presentation in Sheshatshiu, senior archeologist Fred Schwarz showed some of the most impressive pieces found in the  area.

Although most of the 40,000 artifacts found are stone chips, Schwarz said he was in awe of the craftsmanship found in some of the stone tools. On rare occasions, the archeology team would come across artifacts that were perfectly intact, such as a stone knifepoint or a scraping tool.

All the different artifacts, combined with other features such as fire pit sites, provide a picture of how the Innu used Muskrat Falls hundreds and thousands of years ago.

“It’s all about the context that the artifacts were found in,” Schwarz said.

“What we’re attempting to do is remove the cultural materials from these sites, in such a way that we can reconstruct through photographs … and 3D models, the camp sites. So we have to record every rock that we find.”

Among the items found during the archeological digs, there was some surprising finds that may shed new light on how the Innu once lived in the pre-contact era. One of the big surprises was the discovering of pottery pieces.

“One of the things that is potentially interesting for us is the presence of First Nation pottery. It is very rare in Labrador in pre-contact sites,” said Schwarz. “It is not unknown — pottery has been found in other sites. But it is generally very rare … mobile hunting and gathering people generally try to avoid using heavy pottery.”

Schwarz and his team found some interesting stone features in the area, which has led Schwarz to form a theory that some canoe building took place in the Muskrat Falls area.

“The context of the stone features that we find … we appear to have some evidence for canoe building, at least two of the sites that we excavated to date,” Schwarz said. “And that’s interesting, I think, to see how canoe building is built into the seasonal round of people living in Labrador thousands of years ago.”

As expected, one of the main rock types used for the Innu tools in quartzite, which is common in the upper Lake Melville region.

“But there’s also some materials that are a bit more exotic. We find some glossy, colourful stone … called Saunders chert.  We find implements of Ramah chert, which comes from the Torngat coast,” Schwarz said.

The project is part of the Muskrat Falls Historic Resources Recovery program, which aims to recover the artifacts before the Muskrat Falls project makes it impossible to do so, and began in the 1990s.

“We knew from the history of the area, from the traditional knowledge that we had gained from the elders, that there is a high historic resources potential in the area,” explained Nalcor environmental assessment lead Marion Organ.

The archeological team  includes several members of the Innu community.

The Labradorian

Organizations: Muskrat Falls Historic Resources Recovery

Geographic location: Muskrat Falls, Labrador, Lake Melville

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