In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana is hired to retrieve the cremated remains of the 16th century Manchu chieftain Nurhaci, which have been encased in a jade urn. As Jack Ives, Landrex Distinguished Professor and Executive Director of the Institute of Prairie Archaeology would have us know, the actual story of Nurhaci (and his ancestors) is so remarkable, “he outdoes anything Indiana Jones took on,” including founding the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China (1644 to 1912).
Ives will be presenting “Indiana Jones, The Temple of Doom & the Essence of Nurhaci: The Real Story” at the Telus World of Science’s “Diggin’ Up the Past” event on March 6th. Ives’ interest in Nurhaci is an outgrowth of an earlier research focus in the late Paleolithic history of Northeastern China. “If you go back far enough,” says Ives, “it connects with Alberta and this whole notion of an ice-free corridor. Nurhaci was one of those tribal people from Northeastern China, and this is where we have to look to see the ultimate roots of First Nations and Native American societies.”
The migration of First Nations ancestors from Asia into North America across the Bering land bridge some 25,000 years ago is considered to be one of the greatest stories of human migration in history – a story Ives has spent most of his career uncovering. Critical to his research is the archaeological record and migratory habits of the sub-arctic Dene people of Alberta, but as Ives notes, the fieldwork has its challenges. “The only thing we can look at are projectile points from stone tools, which may not be a very good guide to ethnic identities,” says Ives. The harsh sub-arctic and boreal environment of Alberta has devoured any record of perishables. There is also the ever-present threat that oil sands development poses to the recovery of archaeologically significant artifacts. “No question these sites are being consumed,” says Ives.
Following the trail of Dene migration, Ives’ current lead research project is the Promontory Caves of Utah, a series of sheltered settlements so unlike the glacial environment of early Alberta, large numbers of exceedingly rare artifacts have been preserved. Around 850 AD, the Dene ancestors of the Navajo and Apache – perhaps driven by extreme environmental pressures, began the incredible move from Northern Canada into the American Southwest, settling for a period of time in the Promontory Caves along the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
Earlier excavations in the 1930s had unearthed sub-arctic style moccasins and other rare examples of material culture, but no other archaeological projects had been allowed until 2010, when Ives (along with colleague Joel Janetski, emeritus professor at Brigham Young University) struck up a friendship with the current landowner, who in turn allowed excavations to resume. The discoveries, numbering in the thousands, have cascaded from there. “The effect of one discovery leading into another is such a beautiful pattern – the genetic, linguistic and archaeological data are all telling us essentially the same story.”
And what is that story? It’s about connection.
“One fundamental thing we can do in the university environment is to create an understanding about how deep and rich First Nations pre-history is. So many lives lived in the past – connecting to Northeastern China and Beringia, to Alberta and the American Southwest. There are things that have gone on in the human and natural past that are simply fascinating.”
“I’m in the business of wonder,” laughs Ives, a sentiment that Indiana Jones would no doubt appreciate.