chapter  12
17 Pages

The imbrication of human and animal paths: an Arctic case study

WithPeter Whitridge

Humans endlessly make and follow trails. Laetoli – the oldest hominin trackway – is striking evidence of the character of an emerging bipedal adaptation, but also of path making and path following; the site is interpreted as the prints produced by a few Australopithecus afarensis walking in fresh volcanic ash, at least one of whom likely stepped in the prints made by another (Leakey and Hay 1979). The site also preserves trackways left by numerous other animals – from elephants to birds – which reminds us that the fossil record of tracks actually extends back half a billion years, to the impressions left by Ediacaran fauna on the floors of Precambrian seas (Liu et al. 2010). Although the contemporary world, dissected and built over with tens of millions of miles of human roads and paths, might represent a sensible perspective from which to view the archaeological record of route making, and is the one usually adopted by archaeologists equipped with contemporary geomatic technologies (hence a focus in the literature on roads rather than trails), the animal world provides another, equally appropriate, point of view. We are, after all, animals. Adopting an animal-oriented perspective, the novelty of human pathmaking

immediately becomes suspect. Many animals produce trails, and deliberately utilize trails produced by other species, and although animal trail blazing may not, typically, be a self-conscious activity, neither is much traditional human trail making. Humans choose the most efficient paths through a landscape, subject to our spatial goals, which means that, like other animals, we readily follow preexisting trails. Since humans typically only enter landscapes that are already inhabited by the game we pursue, we are trail followers before we are trail blazers. A zoocentric archaeology of paths thus seems worth exploring, and particularly apt in the Arctic. For its enormous size, the North American Arctic has few developed paths and fewer roads, but is nonetheless thoroughly dissected by animal travel routes, some deeply

incised by millennia of use, and many also travelled by human hunters. Human spatial practices are still caught up in the larger and more ancient web of animal spatial practices from which they emerged over five million years ago. Following brief discussions of human and animal travel, the overlapping trail networks of precontact northern Labrador are considered more closely. Ultimately, the traces of animal and human use in the Nunatsiavut landscape prove impossible to disentangle. Not only that, but the material and the immaterial also seem to be knotted together. Travel routes are sung, dreamt, cited, imagined, and remembered as much as they are trod.