On the Deep Roots of Beaver and Human Relationships in Alberta

This post continues our look at the work of Alberta’s Archaeological Survey. Previously, we explored “10, 000 years of hunting in Alberta”, as shown in the archaeological record and how the horse changed the west. Today we look at that Canadian icon: the Beaver.

There are few animals in the north whose history is so intricately interwoven with people than the beaver. From the early fur trade to modern environmentalism, the beaver has chewed its way into numerous facets of life in Alberta. Paleontology, archaeology, history, and modern politics combine to tell an amazing story of human-beaver relationships in the province.

The earliest beavers lumbered into the province over five million years ago. By two million years ago, the modern beaver (Castor canadensis) was living alongside a colossal cousin that was five to six times larger (Figure 1). The giant beaver (C. ohioensis) weighed up to 160 kilogram and was just under 3 metres long. It went extinct around 10 000 years ago. First Nations’ stories tell of the beaver’s role in creating the world by molding the primordial mud into an island fit for humans. To Alberta’s first people, beavers also furnished important materials for tools, clothing, and food. Archaeology sites across the province have yielded beaver bones where very few other animal remains were found. This indicates that beavers were crucial to human diet, particularly during winter. Beavers were captured with willow bark nets, stone-tipped spears, and sinew snares set along beaver trails and canals.

Figure 1: Beaver scale comparison (by Todd Kristensen).

Figure 1: Beaver scale comparison (by Todd Kristensen).

Three major anatomical traits made the beaver important to various cultures in Alberta through history. Beavers stay warm with large fat deposits and very dense, barbed hair. The former trait explained why beavers were important winter foods while the latter trait fueled the fur trade that shaped our nation. The third important trait is durable teeth that enable beaver’s incessant chewing. When it came time to design wood working tools, prehistoric people enlisted the beaver’s dental assistance. Ancient engravers and chisels were made of beaver teeth lashed to a wooden handle. Beaver tooth engravers were common in the toolbox of early northern people and provide a unique glimpse in to the ingenuity of First Nations.

Figure 4: Beaver hat fashions during the fur trade (by Terry Pamplin and Todd Kristensen).

Figure 4: Beaver hat fashions during the fur trade (by Terry Pamplin and Todd Kristensen).

The strong, oily, and barbed under-hairs of beaver were ideal for making superb quality felt hats that were popular from the late 1500s-1800s (Figure 4). Prior to European contact there were likely over 10 million beaver in Canada. These vast numbers were an economic ‘boon’ for Europeans, but the abundance was short-lived. Beaver populations were reduced by as much as 95% in two centuries. As each new fur trade post was established on Alberta’s lakes and rivers, a zone of beaver depletion rapidly radiated outwards until local numbers dwindled and the traders moved on. Fur trade competition decreased in the 1820s and areas of the Canadian northwest were managed more judiciously so that beaver populations recovered and future crashes were prevented. Despite lower populations, hundreds of thousands of beaver pelts and over 10 tons of castoreum (a highly fragrant secretion produced in beaver castor sacs) were shipped out of the Athabasca and Saskatchewan River Districts in the early 1800s.

Biologists like Dr. Glynnis Hood of the University of Alberta, are researching the ecological impact of the fur trade and modern beaver dams. They’ve found that beavers drastically alter local water levels as well as wetland biodiversity, fire regimes, floods, carbon sequestering, and the filtering of local toxins. Dr. Hood’s research explores how knowledge of the beavers’ aquatic engineering can inform land management decisions. The esteemed human-like propensity for industrious labour earned the beaver the honour of our national animal and it may become a tool to mitigate future climatic oscillations (e.g., droughts and floods). Beaver teeth, winter fat, and dense fur represent biological adaptations that early Albertans exploited to suit their needs; dam building may be the latest trait that Albertans utilize in their ever evolving relationship with beavers.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist & Heinz Pyszczyk, Archaeologist.

UPDATE:  Nature Alberta will publish an expanded version of this article in their quarterly magazine. In fact, “On the Deep Roots of Beaver and Human Relationships in Alberta” is the feature article in the Winter 2014 edition of Nature Alberta Magazine. Congratulations Todd and Heiz.  –Michael Thome, editor.

Here are a few more images that illustrate ideas from the article:

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