Archeology

The mystery of an old child

Suzanne Zwarun September 3 1979
Archeology

The mystery of an old child

Suzanne Zwarun September 3 1979

The mystery of an old child

Archeology

Suzanne Zwarun

Last month the grass on Woodpecker Island Bluff had baked to a brown, woolly fuzz in the dry heat that had persisted in southern Alberta since spring. A heart-stopping distance below the bluff ran the muddy Oldman River, sluggish and shallow. The rattlesnakes came out often to warm themselves in the sun. The archeologists, plastered precariously on the face of the 70-foot cliff, were mindful of avoiding both the snakes and the mid-afternoon heat. It was appropriate that the men searching for evidence of the dawn of man in North America should start their days shortly after dawn. But even with an early start, the painstaking sifting of sand was uncomfortable, tiring, and ... so far, fruitless.

It has been almost two decades since

Dr. Archie Stalker stumbled across the bones that have since plagued his life. A geologist, Stalker was supervising a routine geological survey north of Taber, Alberta, when a field assistant spotted a handful of bones sticking out of a sandy bank above the Oldman River. Assuming the skeleton scraps belonged to some small animal, Stalker bagged them and dispatched them to Ottawa for testing, to verify his geological findings. But at the National Museum of Man, paleontologist Wann Langston took one look and recognized the skull and bits of shoulder bone as human. The skull turned out to be that of a nine-month-old child. But it was the age of the bones that was astounding. The child died at least 22,000 years ago—perhaps as long ago as 58,000 BC.

The discovery touched off a controversy that still rages in the scientific

world. In 1961, scientists maintained that man had arrived on the North American continent a mere 12,000 years before. The experts weren’t about to change their opinion on the basis of a geologist’s accidental finding. But Stalker stuck with his bones, although he laments that they have been a nuisance because they disrupt his usual work. Science has since come around to believing that man did make it to America somewhat earlier, but if Taber Child, as Stalker’s skull has become known, died where it was found, under the remains of two ice ages, then prehistory will have to be rewritten on a worldwide basis.

This summer, Stalker was back on the bluff, a part of a seven-person expedition mounted by Dr. R.G. Forbis, acting head of the University of Calgary’s archeological department. Dick Forbis,

like Stalker, has been “poking around in the gully” for almost 20 years, but it took all these years to raise the money and outside interest necessary to mount a serious dig. The orange sands which yielded the skeleton have been buried by the eroding slope in the meantime; 350 tons had to be scraped away with a dragline simply to get at the 109square-yard area under excavation.

Science has tried to dismiss the find because the bones shouldn’t have been where they were. Worse still, critics say, a reputable archeologist didn’t find them by orthodox means. But Forbis and the University of Toronto’s C.S. (Rufus) Churcher, a paleontologist, find the alternative unlikely—that someone brought to this continent a 60,000-yearold skull and buried it on an obscure Alberta riverbank on the off-chance that it would be eventually found.

“I don’t see where else it could have come from but where it was found,” says Forbis. Adds Churcher: “The simplest solution is often the best.” But to prove that a’child’s body simply floated down a river 60,000 years ago—as they firmly believe—they must find more evidence. More of the skeleton would be best but it could be scattered miles upstream. “We’d love a couple of pounds of old bones,” says Churcher, “because that would be enough to radiocarbon

date and study from various chemical and climatic angles.” (Taber Child was too small and too valuable to be destroyed by radiocarbon dating.) Adds field supervisor Mike Wilson: “Even animal bones in the same sands that yielded Taber Child would do but so far none have been found. Lacking bones, the sands themselves could be chemically analysed against the sand cemented to the skull.”

If it looks worse than finding a needle in a haystack, Forbis and his colleagues are unperturbed. “If Taber Child was 2,000 years old, we wouldn’t be doing this,” says Churcher. “It’s a big gamble but if it pays off, it’ll be worth it.” If they can prove their case it means that North American man was further advanced at an earlier time than supposed—to get to southern Alberta, man would have had to reach the clothing and fire stage. “It’s complex but not quite hopeless,” says Churcher. “There’s a lot of sheer, dumb luck involved. The same kind of dumb luck unearthed the 600,000-year-old Taung Child in Africa 55 years ago.”

“There’s really no rush about this,” says Forbis patiently. “If it takes 100 years, it takes 100 years. Each time we have a new idea, we’ll come back and try again.” Churcher predicts even a lifetime of looking. “I can foresee all the funding eventually disappearing, while Dick and Archie Stalker, Mike and I keep coming back, year after year, for another look.”