Archaeology

Bisons Help Find Rare Petroglyphs at First Nations Site in Canada

Rare rock art was discovered by an indigenous archaeologist ‘with help from bison,’ at Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon in Canada. According to a report in Smithsonian Magazine , the park’s founder and co-discoverer of the four sacred stones, Ernie Walker, said their discovery is so “exceptionally important” that the site will now be considered by UNESCO for World Heritage status.

The group of engraved rocks represents tangible evidence of a First Nations culture that coexisted with huge herds of plain bison in North America before the arrival of the first European explorers in the 16th century. In the 1970s, Ernie Walker worked near Saskatoon while studying archaeology, and in the early 80s he signed a lease with the City of Saskatoon for what would become the Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Now, following a First Nation prophecy, Walker is sharing his ancient secrets with the world.

The herd's hooves uncovered four ancient petroglyphs. (Wanuskewin Heritage Park)

The herd’s hooves uncovered four ancient petroglyphs. ( Wanuskewin Heritage Park )

The Four Stones of Destiny

A CBC article explains that between 1982 and 1983 Walker, who is now a qualified forensic anthropologist, discovered a bison jump, which is a cliff formation used to hunt and kill plains bison, along with bones and artifacts. The site was named ‘Newo Asiniak,’ which in Cree means ‘four stones.’ This name was found to be somewhat prophetic in 2020 when ‘four petroglyphs’ were discovered on ‘four stones,’ at the now named Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

While a whopping 545-kilogram (1,200 pound) stone is yet to be excavated, the other three have already been studied. Known as the ‘ribstone,’ one stone weighing 225-kilograms (500-pounds), features a petroglyph of a bison’s rib. Another nine-kilogram (20-pound) stone features abstract grid patterns, and the third stone weighs 340 kilograms (750 pounds) with further geometric forms. Walker says the shapes represent “that other dimension” and that they’re “a glimpse into somebody’s hopes and dreams.”

The 225-kilogram ribstone, a petroglyph carved in the form of a bison's rib. (Wanuskewin Heritage Park)

The 225-kilogram ribstone, a petroglyph carved in the form of a bison’s rib. ( Wanuskewin Heritage Park )

The Ancient Spirit that Couldn’t Stay with the Rock

Rock art in this region is most often dated to having been carved between 300 years and 1,800 years ago, and it is expected this site was fully functional around 1000 AD. And, if the discovery of the four stones were not enough archaeology for one lifetime, an ancient stone knife was found next to the four stones which Walker says is a Stone Age “business card.”

A stone knife was found next to the stones. (Wanuskewin Heritage Park)

A stone knife was found next to the stones. ( Wanuskewin Heritage Park )

Walker claims that in August 2020 he was keeping a herd of bison in a paddock, where their hooves turned up the soil revealing the first of the four stones. He noticed carved shapes resembling a bison’s ribs and “a little horned figure” which he described as a “spirit figure with a triangular head with horns and an oblong body and a tail.” Walker said the spirit appeared to be designed so that it appeared to be emerging from a crack in the rock.

Modern Bison Fulfil an Old-World Prophecy

Besides bison jumps, Walker has also excavated ‘massive campsites’ at the location and has discovered evidence suggesting the site was a major indigenous gathering spot at least 6,000 years ago. And bringing in a twist of the supernatural to the story, Walker said bison were reintroduced to the land in 2019, and that the petroglyphs wouldn’t have been discovered without them. Walker claims that in the 1980s, Hillaird McNab, an elder from George Gordon First Nation, told him that the site was “destined to be a park.”

Elder Akanya Naji, from the Dakota Nation of Wahpeton, agrees with McNab and told Smithsonian that the land was “a gathering, healing and ceremonial place.” He said he is not in the least bit surprised with the discovery of the four rare petroglyphs. Naji says the elders of the Wahpeton Dakota Nation have for a long time “prophesized” that Canada’s First Nation people would see a turn in fortune when the plains bison returned to their ancestral lands. Nobody could ever have imagined the fulfilment of this prophecy would now be heralded by Wanuskewin becoming a UNESCO heritage site.

Top Image: This composite photograph shows the bison herd with one of the newly discovered petroglyphs overlaid on the sky. Source: Wanuskewin Heritage Park

By Ashley Cowie


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