Early Indigenous people hunted mammoth in Hamilton area, 'unprecedented' study suggests

New research shows "unprecedented" evidence that about 13,000 years ago, a settlement of Paleo Indigenous people in the Hamilton area hunted and butchered either a mammoth or a mastodon. The discovery is consistent with the oral histories of the Haudenosaunee people.

'This is a discovery of humans butchering mastodon in Ontario,' says archeologist Ron Williamson

A photograph from the late 90s of archaeologists digging on Mount Albion in Hamilton.
Before the Red Hill Valley Parkway was built, archeologists excavated the area and found evidence of a Paleo Indigenous settlement, dating back as far as 13,000 years. (Submitted by Ron Williamson)

The Haudenosaunee people have always told stories about their first ancestors moving into the Red Hill Valley region, said Rick Hill, when the area was a subarctic spruce forest, like the forests just below the Arctic circle of today.

Those ancestors were following the melting glaciers and the megafauna — giant mammals, like mammoths, that no longer exist in this part of the world.

From 1999 to 2004, archaeologist Ron Williamson led a dig of the Red Hill Valley, before the Red Hill Valley Parkway was built, where evidence of a 13,000 year old Paleo Indigenous settlement was found at the top of Mount Albion West. 

Almost 24 years later, tools found during that dig have been tested for blood protein residue, and show the Paleo Indigenous people living in the Mount Albion settlement hunted and butchered mammoth. 

A photo of a trail map for the Red Hill Valley trail on Mount Albion. The sign is red metal and beside it is a hydro tower, which may be near the original dig.
The original dig site is now close to the Red Hill Valley trail, which runs close to the Red Hill Valley Parkway. The hydro tower in the background of this photo may be near the site of the 1998 dig, though there is no signage to commemorate the site. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

After several years of testing, Williamson and his team identified either mastodon or mammoth blood on the tools – a discovery which Williamson called "unprecedented." 

This is a site that demonstrates that as long as it has been possible to live in Ontario, people were here.- Ron Williamson, archaeologist

"We've always known there have been mastodon living in this region," Williamson said. 

"This is a discovery of humans butchering mastodon in Ontario." 

During the initial dig, Hill worked with the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee, where he reviewed items found at the dig in the Red Hill Valley. 

"The theory has been out there a long time that we certainly hunted down mastodons in the past, and then finding this physical evidence of that, it's an archaeologist's delight," Hill said. 

Blood protein residue opens window into the past

According to Williamson's findings, 13,000 years ago there was a settlement of early Indigenous people in the present day Mount Albion West area.

Williamson said at the time, the shores of Lake Ontario would have been several kilometres further away, and the people living in the settlement would have had a high vantage point of the wide valley below. 

He said the settlement "would afford a view to watch caribou herds move back and forth up the valley and intercept them for hunting." 

A photo of the Red Hill Valley in early winter. The trees have no leaves, and in the distance a transport is travelling up the expressway.
Dr. Ron Williamson said the Paleo Indigenous people who lived on what is now Mount Albion would have used the altitude to spot roaming caribou and, as new evidence shows, mastodon or mammoth. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

"We couldn't believe our luck that the blood protein residue had survived this long," Williamson said while announcing the discovery. 

I don't feel we need any kind of authorization of what we believe. I believe that our stories help us understand the nature of the world, and therefore they're already real.- Rick Hill, former archaeological site advisor 

Cam Walker, the chief scientist with Preterlapsed Proteins Perceived, a protein residue lab based out of Wyoming, analyzed the blood protein residue found on the tools. 

Walker said the tools found in the Red Hill Valley excavation were likely preserved because of limited acidity and precipitation in the earth, and because the tools were likely buried soon after they were used. 

Four 13,000 year old tools, made of stone.
The tools found at the Red Hill Valley excavation site had blood protein residue, which may have been sealed into the tool by fat when the mammoth or mastodon was butchered. (Submitted by Ron Williamson)

Walker said the blood protein residue may have been preserved during the butchering process, where the tools were "used to scrape a hide or there's some sort of fatty deposit that comes with it because that tends to seal the edge of the tool."

Williamson said the discovery proves what his Indigenous colleagues and collaborators always said, that their people "have always been here." 

"This is a site that demonstrates that as long as it has been possible to live in Ontario, people were here," Williamson said. 

'Large creatures' in Haudenosaunee oral history

While Hill said there aren't specific oral history stories passed down about mastodons or mammoths, there are several stories about Haudenosaunee ancestors encountering large animals. 

"There's a parallel world to this world where everything is larger," he said. 

"When you go over in there, you know the plants are bigger, the sunlight is brighter, the animals and birds are bigger. And I often wondered if that was almost like a metaphor for going back through time, but what it used to look like."

Hill said that stories like this don't include mastodons or mammoths, but he said they show knowledge of a time when "there were large creatures here in the world, when the world was new."

But Hill said he doesn't want the validity of Haudenosaunee history to be "measured by the physical evidence that is uncovered or not uncovered."

"I don't feel we need any kind of authorization of what we believe. I believe that our stories help us understand the nature of the world, and therefore they're already real. So, it's interesting sometimes when archaeology supports that," he said. 

"We can say that it kind of proves what we said was true, but I don't like putting our culture, our beliefs or traditions into the court of public opinion."