Canadian Archaeologists Are About to Crack Open a 1,600-Year-Old Meal



ALBERTA, CANADA – Last year, archaeologists with the Royal Alberta Museum dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit in southern Alberta, Canada, at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump. This year, they’re going to crack it open and see what’s inside. The pit could provide valuable insight into the cooking methods and diet of ancient native Canadians.

The roasting pit was first found twenty years ago in 1990, but researchers hadn’t gotten around to excavating it just yet. They had simply laid fiberglass-reinforced plaster strips over it, let the plaster harden, and then had dug the pit up, ground and all, and put it on a truck to take it to nearby Edmonton.

“It looks like a 3,000-pound plaster lozenge, not quite two metres in diametre and about half a metre thick,” archaeologist Bob Dawe, the Royal Alberta Museum’s lead archaeologist on the project said.

The oven is still intact and has a surprise waiting inside of it: a perfectly preserved prepared meal. So far, it’s the only known artifact of its kind ever found in the world. The ancient human who built the pit dug it out himself and lined the bottom with rocks.

“Somebody — probably celebrating the success of a hunt — had a big feast afterward and prepared a bison calf and some kind of a dog, maybe part-wolf, in a pit side by side,” Bob Dawe explained. He expects it to take months to fully crack open the pit and see what’s inside. The archaeologists are going to carefully cup off the top, scrape away all of the impacted dirt, and carefully clean and preserve every bone. Later this year, a new museum is opening in downtown Edmonton, and they’re planning on turning the oven into an exhibit.

The archaeologists aren’t quite sure what happened to the guy who started cooking his meal 1,600 years ago. Why would he have just left it in the oven, and how did it get left for so long that the oven became buried beneath layers of sediment? Perhaps there was an attack. Perhaps there was a natural disaster of some kind. It’s too early to tell until more research is done. They’ll have to take a look at the area that the roasting pit was discovered in, as well as take samples and analyze bits of the pit itself.

The bones themselves, once they’re identified and cleaned, will tell us a lot about what ancient Albertans had for dinner. Not only will it give us a clue as to the most popular dishes, but it’ll also give us insight into their usual cooking methods. What they know so far is that whoever made the meal started a wood fire, let it burn down into coals, and then laid a pile of wet brush over the coals. The cook would then put the meat on top of the brush, put another layer of brush over the meat, and then cover the whole thing with dirt. They’d then build a second fire over the top and let the whole thing cook overnight. This ancient method worked very similarly to today’s barbecue.

Of course, it is a little unsettling for most modern people that one of the barbecued animals inside the pit is a dog.

“A lot of dog-lovers are a little concerned that a dog was part of the meal, and as a dog lover myself I find that a little bit bothersome, but people have been using dogs as food in the Americas for 10,000 years and they still use dogs as food all over the world,” Dawe made sure to point out. “I have a dog, and I’m sure my dog would be unhappy to hear that I’m digging up one of his ancestors.”