The lost world of North America? A Great Lakes Doggerland? Ancient hunting grounds beneath Lake Huron? Yes, people once roamed a land now submerged 120 feet under Lake Huron. The latest discovery (ref 1) that confirms this Atlantian-like history comes in the from of a description of linear arranged rocks covering an area of 50 feet wide and more than 300 feet long. These linear chains of rocks make a V-shaped pattern with a large circular area at the end. In some places rocks had been stacked to form what appears to be hunting blinds. Scattered among the rocks and buried under layers of sediment were stone tool chips (ie. pieces of rock resulting from the production of stone tools) indicative of butchery practice. The arrangement of the rocks and the presence of these tool fragments are unmistakable evidence of past human occupation. In fact this site has been described as a seasonal caribou hunting structure complete with hunting blinds fashioned from stacked stones.
But a hunting structure 120 feet below Lake Huron?! What’s up with that? When did people roam this now submerged land? How did they get there? How could this land have been dry in the past? How could anyone read the headline: Ancient Caribou Hunting Structure Found Below Lake Huron” and not ask these questions?
I’ll attempt to answer some of those questions and explore some implications of this site on our understanding of the peopling of North America.
Dry land below Lake Huron?
First, let’s tackle the question of how the floor of what is Lake Huron today could have been dry land in the past. Take a look at a map of the bathymetry of Lake Huron to the right. While some of Lake Huron is very deep there are portions that are quite shallow. Notably there is a thin ridge that leads from eastern Michigan to Ontario across Lake Huron that is no more than 200 feet below the current surface.
Extensive research on the origin and evolution of the Great Lakes through the last ice age had concluded, well before this study, that as the massive ice sheets that once covered the entire Great Lakes region pulled back (melted) into Canada they left Lake Huron much lower than it is today. In fact it was as much as 300 feet lower than its present elevation. How could this be since we think of Lake Huron as feeding into Lake Erie and then out through the Niagara River into Lake Ontario? Surely Lake Huron could not be that low or all the water from the other lakes would drain into it!
This where the geological evolution of the lakes becomes a bit complicated. First, at the time Lake Erie was not attached to Lake Huron and Lake Huron drained out toward the Atlantic Ocean through the Ottawa River which used to connect Lake Huron to the St. Lawrence River. This lower elevation northern route to drain the Great Lakes meant that Lake Huron could maintain a much lower lake stand compared to Lake Erie. As a result this ridge that is now “drowned” was once a ridge of dry land connecting what is now Michigan and Ontario. This ridge split Lake Huron into two separate lakes.
You might be wondering though; If the Ottawa River used to connect Lake Huron to the St.Lawrence River at a much lower elevation how could the lake have ever become higher and detached from the Ottawa River and come to drain into Lake Erie which was higher in elevation? Most of the answer revolves around something called isostatic rebound. The ice covering this region during the last ice age was 5 to 10 thousand feet thick! The very weight of this ice caused the continental crust to sink. When the ice melted that massive weight was removed from the land. As a result, the ground literally rose again to it present elevation. Not only that but it is still rebounding such that even today some areas around the Great Lakes are rising in elevation more than 15 inches per 100 years. That elevation change would have occurred much more rapidly immediately after the ice melted. The result is that the entire land rose up around the lake changing the river outlets and causing water to rise in Lake Huron until it eventually connected with and began to flow into Lake Erie.
So there was a period of time just after the retreat of the great ice sheets but before isostatic rebound would be partially responsible for cutting off the northern drainage route that this ridge of land would have been exposed. This exposure could have been as long as a few thousand years but possibly as short as 500 to 1000 years. (ref 2)
How long ago did people hunt here?
This particular hunting structure found under Lake Huron has been dated to around 9000 years ago based on radiocarbon dating of wood found buried at the site. This date fits very well with the extensive research that has established the history of the lakes and their elevations. That research predicted that Lake Huron would be low enough that this would have been dry land for long enough to have establish a sub-arctic ecology. Bogs, spruce trees and arctic plants are found in layers of sediments at this location confirming this to be time in which caribou could be expected to be roaming this land.
A North American Doggerland?
Doggerland is the name of the land that once existed between Great Britain, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway that likely was populated by herds of animals and people before rising sea levels flooded the region and made Great Britain an island. (I have written about Doggerland recently: Fishing for Fossils in the North Sea: The Lost World of Doggerland). Now we are talking about some of the Great Lakes having been much lower around the same time exposing large areas of land which were occupied by the first inhabitants of North America. Both of these lands were the result of an ice age so the parallels strong but there are differences. In the case of Doggerland low sea levels exposed this land. Lake Huron developed toward the end of the last ice age and resulted from changing patterns in drainage routes. Still, both were exposed lands available for human occupation for a short period of time (few thousand years) that are no longer available today and both were “drowned” around the same time.
Don’t forget that the most popular theory for the original peopling of the Americas is that lower sea levels during the last ice age resulted in a land bridge between Alaska and the Siberian peninsula. The fact that peoples have occupied Lake Huron, the land around Florida (see figure to the right) that is now flooded and other locations off the current coast of North America attests to just how long a period that these lands were available for habitation. This is true especially given that all these populations originated from just a few individuals that came across that land bridge that itself wasn’t available until sea level was lowered. Once entering North American these immigrants then had to migrate across an entire continent and establish populations in many diverse habitats prior to these lands becoming inundated by rising sea levels.
Implications of underwater occupation sites for our understanding of human history
For some people the historical sequence that I have outlined above could be quite troubling. Young earth creationists insist that humans only made their way to North America after the dispersal at Babel. If this occurred some 400 years after a Flood just 4500 years ago this would place man in North America at 4100 years at the very earliest.
The discovery of Doggerland, evidence of human occupation in Great Lake basins, off the coast of Alaska and Florida and many other places in the world form a consistent picture of a world with lower sea levels. People were present in all parts of this world establishing communities in locations that, according to young earth creationists, could have only existed for a very short period of time. The rocks under the water of Lake Huron suggest a well-developed culture and significant planning. To put this much effort into producing an elaborate trap for migrating caribou people must have lived near this thin land bridge for many years observing the yearly migrations of caribou before they realized that this particular location was worth the time and effort to construct this rock formation. The rock formation may have continued to have been improved over the years so it is not unreasonable to believe this site represents several hundred years of continual use and development.
All of this time the lake levels would have to have remained very low. Additional evidence that this land remained above lake level for a long time comes from layers of bog deposits nearby and evidence that the land was covered by spruce and other sub-arctic plants. Such complex ecologies require hundreds of years to fully develop. Overall the picture if one of a well established relationship of plants, animals and man in this location for some significant amount of time.
Challenges to the Young Earth Creation Model of human dispersal:
How the Americas came to be inhabited has been a topic of much discussion among anthropologists. Dates of the arrival of the first migrants to the new world range from 15-18 thousand years (most common) to possibly 30 thousand years ago. For some people the historical sequence that I have outlined here could be quite troubling. Young earth creationists insist that humans only made their way to North America after the dispersal at Babel. If this occurred some 150 to 400 years after a Flood just 4500 years ago this would place man in North America somewhere around 4300 years ago at the very earliest.
YECs (young earth creationists) do acknowledge the evidence of a massive ice sheet and ice age (though only a single ice age) and invoke this ice age, and the much lower sea levels associated with it, to explain how people and other animals could have migrated across the Earth. In the YEC scenario people entered North America 4250 years ago migrated throughout the Americas establishing communities in places that are now offshore in Florida and under what is now Lake Huron.
In the YEC view of the Ice Age, this massive mile thick ice sheet developed and slide down over the Great Lakes region and then melted/retreated within the span of just 250 years. (see figure below from Answers in Genesis showing the timeline).
In this timeline Lake Huron was covered with ice, then was exposed, drained as the glaciers pulled back but then would have filled soon after the ice age was over. It seems that this land bridge could only have been available for habitation and use by caribou for just a few years or possibly up to 100 years. But as I pointed out before, bogs, spruce forests, caribou migrations all suggest a well-developed ecological system not an ephemeral system. Where glaciers are retreating today they leave behind a scoured landscape that doesn’t simply develop into an entire ecosystem within tens of years or even a hundred years.
In the YEC timeline people would have had to set out from Babel 4250 years ago made it to North America only a few years later and then migrated and established hundreds of communities from Florida to the Great Lakes to South America within a hundred years during the height of the ice age while the oceans were 400 feet lower than they are today. Such rapid migration while only maintaining stone tools and little other technology strains all reason especially when one has to consider that massive population growth had to be occurring at the very same time. The compression of all human migration and the establishment of hundreds of unique cultures in North and South America has no support from any any physical or genetic evidence.
Rather than find these discoveries perplexing or disturbing I find myself just fascinated by the intricate history of human beings. These people lived in challenging times but then again, I could say that we also live in challenging times.
Ref 1: O’Shea et al. 2014. A 9000-year-old caribou hunting structure beneath Lake Huron. PNAS. Online: www.pnas.org/cgi/dio/10.1073/pnas.1404404111
Ref 2 : Lewis et al. 1994. Lakes of the Huron Basin: Their record of runoff from the Laurentide ice sheet. Quaternary Science Reviews Vol 13: 891-922.