Archaeological sites in alpine environments

This past summer, while camping in Wells Gray Provincial Park, I came across a broken stone projectile point in the alpine tundra. There it was, lying on the surface, tucked slightly into the mosses. I described this find to a colleague, who told me they had found another broken projectile point nearby. Busy spot, I thought, but what were people doing way up in the alpine?

As with much of B.C., archeological sites tend to be where archeologists look for them. Most archeological assessments are development-driven and it’s less common that large-scale archeological survey and assessment targets high alpine environments. High-elevation archeology has been the subject of at least three masters studies in B.C., all of which go into greater detail than presented in this column.


A Simon Fraser University study was conducted from 1986 to 1988 in alpine settings near Pavilion, on the east side of the Fraser River, within the traditional territories of the Ts’kw’aylaxw and Xaxli’p bands (Alexander, 1989). During this study, five archeological sites were identified in the alpine. These sites included a scatter of stone artifacts, a burial cairn and three sites with loosely stacked rock features that were identified by local First Nations informants as hunting blinds. Informants described how deer would be driven up gullies, where hunters waited behind hunting blinds. Ethnographic research conducted as part of the Pavilion-area study was consistent with the number and types of archeological sites identified in alpine settings.

The seasonal round of activities described by First Nations informants, and identified in the archeological record, indicates people accessed both animal and plant resources in the alpine periodically through the summer months. People would set up larger base camps in sub-alpine settings and travel into the alpine for shorter, specific hunting or gathering trips.This pattern is reflected in the archeological record by a greater number and diversity of archeological sites in montane parkland and montane forested settings, including sites with cultural depressions (roasting pits) and dense artifact scatters.

There are many other archeological sites recorded in Wells Gray Provincial Park, most during an inventory and assessment conducted in the late 1980s. Four of these sites were found in alpine settings near my find spot. Three of these sites are scatters of stone artifacts and one is a possible petroglyph. The artifact scatters are small and likely represent locations where hunters camped, waited for game or killed and butchered animals.

The setting where I found the broken projectile point is covered by small alpine lakes and, probably more importantly, dozens of marmot burrows. I can’t be sure people were specifically targeting marmots, but they are abundant in that setting. Evidence of plant-gathering activities is difficult to find. Most often, these activities did not include the manufacture or maintenance of stone tools at gathering sites, thus, no physical remains are left for archeologists to find.

I had the privilege of conducting a combined archeological inventory and traditional use study in alpine settings in northern B.C. several years ago. Like the Pavilion study described above, it was fascinating to see how stories shared by elders provided context and interpretation to the archeology we identified.

Past instalments of this column have taught us about the variety of archeological sites across the Southern Interior of B.C. Based on the number of sites on mountaintops, it looks as though archeology occurs up and down our part of the province, too.