Archaeology Builds Understanding of Human-Environment Interactions and Advances Reconciliation

November 30, 2021

While SFU Archaeology celebrates 50 years of teaching and research atop Burnaby Mountain, Jonathan Driver specializes in understanding the past lives of the people from similar landscapes thousands of years ago.

Animal bones are keys to unlock past lives of our ancestors

Zooarchaeologist, Jonathan Driver, has spent over four decades working to understand the past relationships between people and their environments. Intrigued by the lives of peoples in mountain environments, Driver has chosen Western North America as the area for much of his research.

He uncovers and evaluates biofacts, specifically animal bone fragments. “If you want to understand how our ancestors lived, you have to study animal bones,” says Driver.

Driver identifies the ancient specimens through comparison with modern skeletons, and draws conclusions about past environments, ancient farming practices, hunting methods, the cultural importance of specific species, and more.

For example, while excavating in Northern BC’s Tse’K’wa National Historical Site, Driver and his team uncovered two intact raven skeletons dating to the end of the last ice age, buried by ancestral First Nations people, with artifacts carefully placed at their feet.

“These are the oldest examples of ceremonial burial of birds in the Americas,” says Driver. “They show that the importance of Raven in First Nations cultures extends into the deep past”. 

In a very different setting in southern Colorado Driver and his students showed that farming communities around 1200 A.D. altered the environment, and he documented the transition from hunting wild game to intensive production of domestic turkey. “There is an interesting parallel to modern production of meat” notes Driver. “In Colorado ancestral Native American communities increased maize production to feed domestic animals, just as we do in North America today”.

Driver has made significant contributions to zooarchaeology while seeing first-hand the scientific, technological, and social advancements the department has undergone since it opened its doors 50 years ago.

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is our attitude towards working with First Nations communities,” says Driver. “We no longer just dig up things that we find interesting. We are expected to work in collaboration with the descendant community to ensure our research is bound to their interests.”

Community-led research is improving the practice of Archaeology

Testament to this change lies in the highly collaborative and community driven approaches that Archaeology’s Dana Lepofsky takes to understand social and ecological impacts of human-environment interactions.

Her research combines technical and methodological approaches. It also brings together different archaeological perspectives like zooarchaeology, ethnobotany and incorporates First Nations traditional knowledge. This holistic approach builds understanding of how our ancestors lived but it can also help us understand and mitigate environmental challenges, and protect heritage and identity.  By incorporating western science and traditional knowledge Lepofsky’s research also facilitates social change today with respect to how we value different knowledge systems.

Sharing a curiosity, passion and concern for how coastal First Nations have lived and are living is a great starting place. “From the ground up, my research is a part of a growing conversation,” says Lepofsky. “Either a Nation will come to me and say ‘I would like to work with you’ or, I’ll go to a Nation and say ‘what can we do together, and what can I bring as a western scientist?’”

Archaeology informing present-day stewardship

Part of Lepofsky’s research involves studying ancient berry, clam, and forest gardens which have the ability to inform us on how First Nation communities have managed their resources and fostered food security over long periods of time.

“A big part of traditional knowledge is that it reflects generations and generations of people learning what worked and what didn’t,” says Lepofsky. “Those who have the long-term history and the local knowledge, I think, are better suited to make decisions about things like food security and food sovereignty and managing our precious resources going forward.”

Cultural preservation and education contribute to reconciliation

Lepofsky also works to supports cultural preservation and education by collaborating with BC First Nations on innovative ways of sharing their language, stories, and connections to the land (HUYAT Our Voices, Our Land: She and her team are currently developing educational resources to tell the history and current social-ecological context of Laxgalts’ap, a culturally significant watershed of the Gitga’at people of northern coastal BC.

These archaeologists are improving our understanding of how First Nations in BC lived while paving the way for reconciliation in archaeological research, informing present management decisions and preserving culture and heritage.

This is the third feature in a series celebrating Archaeology’s accomplishments over the past 50 years.