Ken Hudson flew to Ottawa with a chunk of rib bone in his pocket.
He only carried a small fragment, about the size of a marshmallow.
When he first found the bone, it was more than a foot long and buried under 40 inches of soil at his cabin near Fort Smith.
“I had dug a small sewer, just two-foot square in front of the cabin to drain the sink into,” said Hudson. “I hit something, and it felt solid, so it could have been a rock or whatever.
“I dug around a bit and then I pulled it out – a rib bone of a buffalo.”
It would be years before Hudson learned the bone he dug up was somewhere between 800 and 1,050 years old.
He took it to a Fort Smith biologist. He called the deputy environment minister. Nobody had the funding or the drive to send the bone to a lab.
“Finally, I got fed up about nothing being done about it,” said Hudson. “I made a few phone calls and then I cut a piece off it about an inch-and-a-half long and carried it with me to Ottawa.”
Officially, Hudson flew to Ottawa to attend a meeting as president of the Fort Smith Métis Council, a position from which he has since retired. Away from that meeting, he used the trip to shop around for an Ottawa lab willing to carbon-date the bone fragment.
All living things absorb carbon-14, a radioactive carbon molecule. When an organism dies, it stops replenishing carbon-14 and the amount left in its tissues begins to decay. Because we know the rate at which carbon-14 decays, we can guess the age of long-dead organisms using a process called carbon dating.
“Accounting for carbon-14 molecules left in a sample of bone or charcoal or something organic, you can get an estimate of how old it was,” said Glen Mackay, the territorial government’s archaeologist. “It’s reasonably accurate.”
But it isn’t cheap. Hudson learned it would cost him more than $1,000 to get the bone dated. He flew back to the Northwest Territories with the still-undated bone buried in his luggage.
In March this year, Hudson’s luck changed. He called Tony Vermillion at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Vermillion arranged for the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife to take the bone and ship it south for carbon dating.
“My phone rang, and it was Tony. He wanted me to guess how old that bone was. I just said 300 years old,” said Hudson. “He wanted me to guess again.”
‘Not much’ research around Fort Smith
Vermillion told Hudson the bone was somewhere between 800 and 1,050 years old and most likely belonged to a large mammal like a bison or a moose.
That means the bone lined the chest of a living, breathing animal as far back as the year 971.
But what makes the find interesting isn’t so much its age as where it was buried.
Mackay says human history in the Northwest Territories goes back 11,000 or 12,000 years – maybe longer. That’s plenty of time for bones to sink into the soil, most of which wouldn’t be particularly interesting.
But Mackay says there’s been little archeological research near Fort Smith. Hudson’s bone is some of the first evidence he’s seen of bison hunting in the area. But he cautions against too much excitement – the bone could just as easily be evidence of a natural death.
“There’s all kinds of ancient archaeological sites along the waterways – you know, the Salt River, or the Slave River and all of those areas down there. But archaeologists just haven’t done much survey in those areas,” said Mackay.
“Any archaeological evidence or site that we add to the record of that area teaches us something new. There could be quite a bit more material at that site that would tell the broader story of the area.”
Having kept a piece to display, Hudson isn’t worried about what happens to the rest of the bone. He expects it will end up at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.
“I don’t care if they cut it up into 10 different pieces,” he said. “I was only interested in finding out the age of it because I thought it might be important, you know?”
He doesn’t have any future digs planned but does wonder what might still be locked under the Fort Smith soil.
“If you think about it,” Hudson said, “if you could find a buffalo bone at 40 inches and it’s 1,000 years old, it makes sense that if you dug another 40 inches past that, you might find a bone that goes back to Jesus times.”