ELY, Minn. - The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) attracts thousands and thousands of visitors each year, people drawn by the area's wild beauty and abundant resources.
Apparently, the area had the same effect on some of the state's first visitors as well.
Testing of soil excavated by St. Cloud State University researchers in far northern Minnesota shows a site in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness could have been home to one of the oldest settlements in the state.
More testing needs to be done before any conclusions can be made about the sites on Knife Lake, along the U.S.-Canada border, said Mark Muñiz, associate professor of anthropology at St. Cloud State.
He has led several trips to that area to examine stone toolmaking sites of the Paleo-Indians who inhabited far northern Minnesota as glaciers receded thousands of years ago. The Times traveled with Muñiz's group in 2011 and chronicled their efforts at learning more about the earliest inhabitants of the state.
Muñiz has been testing his theory that those people lived at the edge of the glaciers as they receded, and they could have been there 11,000-12,500 years ago or earlier. Previously held beliefs were that the glaciers left behind so much flooding in northern Minnesota that the earliest humans to inhabit the state did so in the south.
The excavation sites where the soil was collected are sites where people quarried siltstone for toolmaking. Muñiz and his fellow researchers collected the soil from the same depth where remnants of those tools were found.
Test results from soil collected from sites at Knife Lake show evidence of habitation 16,400 years ago, plus or minus 2,000 years, Muñiz said.
"That opens the door wide for it to be one of the oldest sites in Minnesota," Muñiz said.
That collection was done under skies lit only by the moon and stars to protect the samples from exposure to light, which is key to testing soil age. Wearing headlamps that shined red light, they collected two samples of soil that were tested with a method called optically stimulated luminescence.
OSL testing uses ultraviolet light to measure how long the soil has been buried. It helps date the artifacts that are found at the same depth as the buried soil.
One of the tests returned a result that dated the soil at more than 150,000 years old. That result was so far off from what was expected that it is being disregarded, Muñiz said.
The second sample taken came back with a date of 16,400 years ago, plus or minus 2,000 years.
He's applying for another grant to test other soil samples to get more data about the possible age of the soil where the stone tools were made. He's not gotten any evidence that suggests his theory is wrong that the Knife Lake site could be one of the oldest inhabited sites in the state.
That would run contrary to the belief that the area had not yet recovered enough to support plants and animals after being scoured by glaciers. It would also be contrary to the thought that the first people to live in the Arrowhead region arrived hundreds, if not thousands, of years after Paleo-Indians appeared in the southern part of the state.
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