- Alberta's Lower Athabasca Basin: Archaeology and Palaeoenvironments ed. by Brian M. Ronaghan
The lower Athabasca Basin lies in that northern fringe of the Great Plains known in Canada as the Boreal Plains: a flat and forested ecozone between the prairies that are familiar to many of us and the somewhat alien Canadian Shield. The Boreal Plains ecozone shares some general elements of geology, landscape history, archaeology, and extinct megafauna with areas to the south and east. [End Page 98]
The first part of the Ronaghan-edited volume, nevertheless, ably relates the lower Athabasca Basin's comparatively unique geomorphic, palaeoenvironmental, and archaeological aspects. Salient among these are the conspicuous role played by catastrophic early Holocene glacial meltwater megafloods in shaping the landscape (at least twice), its absurdly meager Pleistocene fossil record (most of which was, hypothetically, carried away by said megafloods), a unique lithic resource utilized by ancient inhabitants (an unusual sandstone that seems difficult to place in a clear stratigraphic context), and the severe constraint imposed by acidic woodland soils on the preservation of organic materials in archaeological sites (mostly stone artifacts are found, albeit in some striking in situ associations).
Throughout the second, third, and fourth parts of the volume, the authors ably demonstrate that the life-ways of Paleoamericans were molded by the extraordinary landscape left behind after the Laurentide ice sheet retreated. Some 3,400 archaeological sites in the basin evince material cultures that can be placed in a continental context. But just as lithic materials and other aspects of human culture once flowed across the prairie-forest ecotone, so, too, does modern commerce. Underpinning the compelling ancient saga of a landscape and its peoples conveyed by the volume—in a concrete and thought-provoking way—is the checkered modern story of tar sands, which began in the 1970s. The volume ultimately owes its realization to the voluminous archaeological surveys carried out by way of mitigation during the development of the Athabascan tar sands. This realization signifies a more abstract linkage across the Great Plains, in the form of a certain proposed pipeline extension, which intended to carry refined products derived from those tar sands far across the plains of the continental interior.
Numerous scholars authored more than a dozen intensely focused papers, but the volume's introduction and organization, as well as limited-but-effective repetitions of parts of the overall narrative in individual papers—ensure that a cogent story emerges out of a wide-ranging discussion of events spanning 10,000 years (actually, more than 125 million years to this geologically minded purist). The charts, notes, and tables greatly augment the text.
The illustrations and photographs are generally good. Some of the LiDAR-and GIS-based maps would have benefited from adequate scales—or any scale at all—and likewise for the nice images of two important fossils, but these omissions matter little.
Here is an example of the excellent topical publishing tradition apparent in Canadian universities. The Ronaghan-edited volume may appeal to an overwhelmingly academic audience that is mostly resident in North America, but it will certainly do so for decades to come.