800-year-old moccasin connects Dene migrants to the American southwest

New research on a trove of 13th century moccasins is shedding light on how the Dene language may have spread across North America. 

The distinctly subarctic Dene moccasins were discovered in the Promontory Caves in Utah nearly 100 years ago. They’re believed to be evidence that some Dene people left northwestern North America and successfully resettled in what is now the American southwest. 

Dry conditions in the cave preserved what would usually be perishable goods, including about 350 moccasins and thousands of animal bones.

Most of the moccasins were made from locally gathered materials, but recent chemical analysis found one outlier: an ankle tie that came from a bison believed to have lived 700 to 800 kilometres further south. 

This is the most complete moccasin of some 250 found in a cave in southern Utah. Its bison fur lining and ankle wrap is still attached. (Submitted by Jessica Metcalfe)

Jessica Metcalfe, an assistant professor of anthropology at Lakehead University, used data based on the archeological remains of other ancient bison to determine that the animal lived off plants that would have only grown in a much warmer climate. Further chemical analysis ruled out the idea that the bison wandered north, or that the leather was obtained through trade. 

She believes the leather shows that the people who lived in the cave were travelling long distances and returning, “probably for the purpose of scouting.” 

Metcalfe says this is “the first time past human migrations have been reconstructed using chemical traces in footwear.” 

Her analysis, published earlier this month in the journal American Antiquity, puts the subarctic Dene group closer to the homelands of the Navajo and Apache than has previously been documented. 

Shared history

Dene languages, also known as the Athapaskan languages, are one of the most widespread Indigenous languages in North America, but there is little in the archeological record that explains how the languages spread, and why there are two distinct groupings nearly two-thousand kilometers apart. 

Raymond Yakeleya is a Dene filmmaker and storyteller based in Edmonton. In 2019, he took part in a Dene reunification conference in Calgary to try to better understand the shared connections. 

“It’s been kind of like a big search and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet other people who’ve been on the same search as myself and we try to understand what our own elders went through to get us here,” Yakeleya said. 

“One of the biggest questions that the white man has always had is how did North America get settled, right? And it was settled by us and so that’s why I’m saying that we’re the ones that have the answers.”

Jack Ives is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alberta and one of the authors of the paper. He’s studied the caves as a waypoint for the Dene people who eventually became the Navajo and Apache people. 

Jack Ives has studied the people who lived in the Promontory Caves looking for clues to connect the Dene language speakers. (University of Alberta)

He says the find is a clue establishing an important point of possible pre-colonial contact between the two groups, as well as just human behaviour that makes sense for any migrants. 

“When people decide to live in a different place, they usually have some information or knowledge about it, and they may hear that from others or from relatives who’ve already migrated there. But the other human behaviour that goes with that is scouting,” he said.

Ives said many archeological facts can tell us about Indigenous life in the past, but few speak to identity quite so closely as the clothing and footwear preserved in the caves. 

“You can see the imprint of a person’s foot on them,” he said. “Some of them are tiny children’s moccasins; they would fit in your palm. And, you know, as a human being, you sense another human being when you’re near these things. So they’re quite powerful.”

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