June 20th, 2019

Shifting sands of time


By Lethbridge Herald on January 10, 2019.

Volunteer Joel Mcleish stands next to a mammoth trackway last month at an Ice Age archeological site near Wally's Beach on the St. Mary reservoir. Submitted photo courtesy Shayne Tolman

Tim Kalinowski
Lethbridge Herald
tkalinowski@lethbridgeherald.com
Every time the wind blows at Wally’s Beach, new layers of history are revealed or erased in the ever-shifting sands.
Like a mirage, just for an instant the veils of time open and you can get a glimpse of a long lost era in North American history when mammoths, camels, giant bison and scimitar cats walked the edges of the retreating glaciers over 13,000 years ago.
“To me that is critically part of the story — there is just this idea out there of what you personally feel when you come across something like that,” explains Shayne Tolman, the site’s discoverer and protector. “When I first came across the mammoth tracks (in 1997) and realized what they were, it was a windy day. The sand was blowing out there, and all of a sudden here are these plate-sized footprints and unquestionable trackway disappearing into the sand. It just erases time. All of sudden you feel like you are standing there witnessing an event that barely happened a few hours ago with that mammoth disappearing off into a sand cloud. It’s an extraordinary feeling. It is the same with picking up an artifact that is 13,000 years old.”
Wally’s Beach near Spring Coulee is considered one of the most important Ice Age archeological sites in the world for not only preserving the pristine footprints and bones of long extinct animals, but also for giving scientists one of the best pictures of these animals’ behaviours and of the behaviours of the Ice Age hunters who stalked them.
“Every recognizable prehistoric culture that has ever been discovered in Alberta is represented at the (St. Mary) reservoir,” Tolman says. “We have actually found there the skeletal remains of extinct animals that have been butchered by the humans of the time.”
According to Tolman, the key to the preservation of the site is the watery environment. At the earliest dating of the site 13,500 years ago, Wally’s Beach was much like it is today, with a slow moving river running through it surrounded by vast muddy flood plains. This combination of elements led to great conditions for track and artifact preservation, says Tolman, but it is also the reason for the site’s ultimate fragility.
“It is a one-of-a-kind occurrence that you don’t see anywhere else in the world,” Tolman explains.
“You can see tens of thousands of these extinct animals’ tracks. The problem is these tracks are just embedded in the sediment, and now that sediment is exposed it is being stripped away by the wind. We’ll see tracks appear and disappear in a single blow out there.”
Tolman says recreational use of the area, amateur artifact hunters and other human activities also take a huge toll on the integrity of the site.
“One day I was out there with our best set of mammoth tracks that we had ever found, and I heard a roar,” remembers Tolman. “Here comes this big four-wheel drive tractor across the sand. It was just a couple of kids who were curious. They saw me over there, and they were working nearby, so they drove over. They were very apologetic. You can’t fault anybody for that kind of thing, but we just want people to be aware how sensitive this place is, and we ask them to just stay away.”
Despite these ongoing challenges, Tolman says the site continues to provide fascinating new discoveries. Remains of long-extinct animals continue to be uncovered such as giant ancestors to modern bison, caribou and musk oxen. Other animals found include extinct pre-European horses, camels and mammoths. One of Tolman’s personal favourites discovered at the site was a rare species of mammoth-hunting scimitar cat. Wally’s Beach is only the second ever site in Canada where remains of the creature have been found, he says.
“It was no bigger than a lion today, but they probably hunted in packs,” he says. “They had powerful legs for jumping, and it kind of looked more like a hyena in some regards. It is a shorter-toothed cat (than most sabre-tooths), but they would get up on the back of these mammoths and go to work on the cervical or neck vertebrae. Lots of these mammoth neck vertebrae have been found in a cave with scimitar cat remains; with these teeth marks on these cervical vertebrae. It gives us direct evidence these cats were hunting mammoth.”
Tolman hopes those who live in this region of Alberta realize what a miraculous and absolutely rare treasure they have on their hands with Wally’s Beach.
“It’s part of our local prehistoric fabric, and it is part of our identity,” he says. “It’s a non-renewable, historical asset that is disappearing before our very eyes. I think back to the beginning, and I had no real idea of the significance of the things we were finding. But the right people were able to get their hands on the material to study it so we could start to piece this extraordinary history together. It became apparent we had something of incredible scale and importance, and absolutely unique.”
Tolman emphasized the need to protect the rare and sensitive archeological site. Although the site is not posted, it is a protected site. More importantly, the artifacts are the remnants of First Nations.
“These are their stories to tell and as scientists, it is our obligation and ambition to assist them in telling their stories using the best technologies available to unravel the purpose and skills employed to create and use these timeless artifacts.
“We want to stress we area not advocating a collecting effort by the public as it is critical to stay clear of the St. Mary’s river bed when it is exposed when the water recedes. Collecting artifacts is illegal and immoral regarding culturally sensitive sites and beliefs. We regularly observe systematic collecting of artifacts by collectors which has been a contributing factor to the loss of heritage assets that are a critical part of the prehistoric fabric of southern Alberta.”
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