Moccasin mystery: How did centuries-old footwear from Canada end up in the American Southwest?

·5 min read

When archeologist Julian Steward first found what are known as the Promontory Caves on the north shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah in the 1930s, he couldn’t have known that he would be excavating an area that not only contained an incredible amount of organic remains – rare finds in archeology – but also raised a question that would not be answered until 2021.

The world of archaeology now has a better understanding of these caves and the people who used them, and it all came down to a moccasin.

The people who inhabited the Promontory Caves did so approximately 800 years ago.

They left behind them an abundance of materials available for research, but it was their moccasins (among other things) that provided a key clue that they were actually Dene ancestors. The moccasins were in a Subarctic style, consistent with those used by Dene people farther north.

“Steward noticed that the moccasins that were found were in a style that was really different than anything local groups in Northern Utah used for their footwear,” said Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Lakehead University.

They were found in another place though, the Subarctic. In case you’re unfamiliar, Metcalfe specifies that subarctic is “the Yukon and Northern Alberta, all the way over to Northern Ontario.”

The question is, why are these moccasins 1,500 kilometres from where they should be?

It took a little while for technology to catch up of course, so it was almost 100 years later that a re-excavation of the area took place, but when it did, Metcalfe was a part of a research team that offered a chemical answer to that question.

It’s the first time that human migrations have been reconstructed using chemical traces in footwear.

If you have any interest in science, or really, ever watched science-ish fiction on television, you have likely heard the term ‘carbon dating,’ a shortening of the actual term, radiocarbon dating. It is a method that establishes age estimates for carbon-based materials that originated from living organisms.

“It’s used if you are looking to get an idea of ‘when’,” said Metcalfe, “Radiocarbon dating looks at carbon-14, which acts like a clock.”

Carbon-14 degrades over time. If you measure how much is left compared to how much should be there, you get an answer. Not so simple, of course, but that’s the gist.

However, Metcalfe works with something that is also revealed when examining carbon-based material. She examines stable isotope composition; she’s not looking at carbon-14, she’s looking at 12 and 13.

“They don’t decay,” says Metcalfe, “It’s a record that exists in the tissue and doesn’t degrade.”

The archeologists who were engaged in the excavation of the Promontory Cave site, as well as the other members of the research team began radiocarbon dating when they found a very different stable carbon isotope on a piece of moccasin, specifically on the ankle wrap. (The ankle wrap is often reused, while the moccasin bottoms would need to be replaced more often.)

Because Metcalfe is a geochemical archaeologist, she was brought in to help understand this unusual result. Again, stable isotopes are different specifically because they do not decay, they paint a clear picture.

“It’s kind of like a fingerprint,” said Metcalfe, “It’s a record that remains in an animal’s tissue and skin and hair, so we can measure isotopes and get an idea of what the animal is eating, where they’re living.”

Metcalfe was enlisted to use her work measuring stable isotopes in animals and plants, to this piece of moccasin. After a larger study of the vast amount of organic material available, there needed to be a “solid baseline of the local bison, in order to determine how much of a variation of carbon isotope values is expected in this place.” They even did testing to ensure that this wasn’t an anomaly of some kind.

In the end though, and that’s literal as Metcalfe examined bone, skin, hair and feces for the research, the research proved that not only were these people extraordinarily talented large animal hunters, but their understanding of the land was exceptional.

For so much of colonial periods (after the arrival of settlers), the people who speak the Dene language in the American Southwest and those in Canadian Subarctic were seen as ‘geographically separate,’ and thought to have no connections with each other, but Metcalfe’s research suggests that Dene groups travelled great distances to gain and utilize landscape knowledge.

“The carbon isotope value suggests the Promontory people not only had origins in the Subarctic, but they had also travelled to a place hundreds of kilometres to the south or east of the caves in Utah, much further south than Great Salt Lake,” said Metcalfe. “Potentially into the territory occupied by the southwestern Dene (Navajo, Apache). Julian Steward suggested that the Promontory people might be Apachean ancestors, and our results are consistent with that interpretation.”

The research of Dr. Metcalfe and her colleagues, along with genetic, linguistic, and oral history evidence, demonstrates that Dene connections are not a recent phenomenon – long-distance migrations and meetings of Dene peoples have been occurring for many hundreds of years.

Metcalfe also notes that of late, Dene people from northern, southern, and coastal nations have gathered at workshops and conferences held in Tsuut’ina territory (southern Alberta) to share their interconnected languages and cultures.

Metcalfe’s research was recently published in North American archaeology journal, American Antiquity. You can read it here.

Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,