It’s midnight on the St. Mary River and a middle-aged man is scanning the riverbanks by flashlight, searching for glints of rainbow among the grey shale—ammonites. More than trinkets, these fossils can fetch large sums of money at auction; an ammonite the size of a trash can lid could go for up to $330,000. While legal miners uncover them in daylight along this peaceful prairie river in southwest Alberta, illegal collectors use the cover of darkness to trespass, seeking their treasure.
Ammonites look like giant snails. If the shell is intact, sellers can spend up to 120 hours preparing a specimen for auction. If the shell is broken, the shiny rainbow pieces, bearing the name “ammolite,” can be manufactured into jewellery, a hot item in a globally surging market. Alberta is the richest source in the world—one of the only sources in the world—for the iridescent fossils, but the small army of legal and illegal profit-seekers aren’t the only ones attracted to the St. Mary River. Their eager hands are joined by those of palaeontologists and members of local First Nations reaching for ammonites in the name of science and spirituality. In a land known for cattle and oil, this curious ocean creature has stirred a new debate about who owns the past, and what their stake in it is worth.
Pliny the Elder was the first to write about ammonite fossils. Almost two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher described a rock that resembled the ram horns worn by Egyptian god Ammon; mysteriously, it was supposed to help dreams come true. “Ammonite” has since come to describe a variety of carnivorous curled and straight-shelled marine invertebrates that wriggled their tentacles across ancient oceans between four hundred million and sixty-five million years ago. Ammonites are some of the world’s more common animal fossils—but the vast majority are dull brown or black. The ones with a luxurious rainbow lustre, created by a rare and complex process of pressurized mineral replacement, are mostly found in a ten-square-kilometre patch of Alberta.
In the eighteenth century, the proliferation of ammonites in Europe stimulated some of the first debates about Earth’s antiquity. Until then, the Bible’s account of the planet’s formation was taken as fact, and its age was thought by most to be six thousand years. Ammonites became weapons in the crusade against this literal interpretation. The first drawings of them were published in 1565, and the first fully illustrated book of palaeontology, written around 1770, featured over one hundred ammonite groups.
Philosophers of the day determined that these aquatic creatures had once been living, swimming in oceans that had covered Europe—proof that things were not as they seemed in the Bible. By the time Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace were inking the mid-nineteenth century treatises about evolution that would shape modern science, palaeontologists had already spent centuries readying the world for intellectual breakthroughs by studying ammonites and other fossils. There could be no evolution without time. Ammonites, says Dr. Andrew Caruthers, a palaeontologist at Western Michigan University, were “invaluable pieces of science.”
Caruthers has spent hours carefully prying up rock slabs of ammonite fossils from the field. Back in the lab, he frees them from their shale coffins by gently applying acid or by freezing and thawing them loose. Once extracted, his fossils help illustrate how previous episodes of climate change influenced key ocean organisms. Lately, Caruthers has been studying a recently discovered bed of exceptionally preserved fossils in Alberta, 183 million years old.
While scientific interest in ammonites runs deep, Indigenous interest runs even deeper. In the 1880s, George Grinnell brought his polished Yale PhD to Canada’s prairies, then still largely populated by First Nations with only small towns of settlers. From campfire interviews, he wrote the first detailed records of the Blackfoot Nation’s interest in ammonites, known to them as “Iniskim,” the buffalo stone. “This object is strong medicine,” wrote Grinnell.
Ceremonial leaders prayed to small segments of ammonites that looked like miniature buffalo, or bison, asking spirits to bring animals to cliffs. Blackfoot hunters stampeded herds of up to two hundred buffalo over rocky ledges, providing up to eighty thousand kilograms of edible meat in a single hunt—enough to feed four hundred people for more than three months. This large-scale harvesting of buffalo, often preceded by ceremonies that involved Iniskim, happened hundreds of times over thousands of years, according to archaeological records of buffalo jumps in southern Alberta. Oral histories describe how generations of Blackfoot have gently rubbed buffalo fat across sacred Iniksim to feed spirits.
In the 1930s, three Elders from the Siksika Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy in southern Alberta—named Crooked Meat Strings, Peanuts, and Old Bull—told ethnographer Lucien Hanks how their people prayed to Iniskim in sacred bundles, wore them as amulets and used them to predict hunting fortune in tipi rituals. Discoveries of ammonites at old campfires across the North American prairies support this oral history.
Today, Blackfoot collect ammonites for ceremonies like blessing events and wear them as jewellery for good luck. Iniskim, says Blair First Rider, a Cultural Adviser and member of the Blackfoot Confederacy, are still considered sacred and powerful.
Into a world of science and spirituality entered Alberta’s rockhounds. In the 1960s, at a spot where rivers cut into Alberta’s Bearpaw Formation—seventy-five-million year-old layers of shale and sandstone— gemstone collectors made a discovery: a magnificently colourful ammonite. A geologist and a Calgary jewellery store owner worked together to prepare pieces of the rainbow fossil into jewellery. “Ammolite” was first described in a gem trade magazine in 1969 and was accepted as an official gemstone a decade later.
Major tourist industries in the Rockies spurred the next stage. Visitors to Banff National Park, many of them from Asia, sought a made-in-Alberta keepsake, and two rock and gem shop owners in Banff began to finance formal ammolite expeditions. Soon, the fossils became popular as artifacts in the Chinese practice of feng shui—because of their organic origins and shimmering colours, Alberta ammonites are considered auspicious items. Major markets opened up for the sale of intact shells as “fossil investments” stored in bank vaults for future resale, and as curios for wealthy collectors and art admirers.
Now, more than twenty independent miners and mining companies sell ammolite in Alberta for jewellery-making. Business is good: it’s estimated that over a million pieces of ammolite jewellery have been made in Alberta since the eighties, and according to the Canadian Jewellers Association, ammolite has increased in value by 300 percent over the past fifteen years. John Issa of Canada Fossils says that his company prepares around 150 intact ammonites per year; a palm-sized ammonite can take a technician over a week to delicately prepare with tiny drills and polish but can sell for $20,000 if the colours are diverse and bright. Most of the jewellery is sold in Asia and the United States, and to cruise ship patrons in the Caribbean.
In 1989, Alberta passed an entire piece of legislation dedicated to ammonites, granting miners an exemption from the Historic Resources Act—which normally forbids the sale of fossils and artifacts—provided that miners apply for a permit. A decade later, the government passed further legislation, forcing sellers to give government palaeontologists a first chance to review specimens and assess their scientific value—otherwise, the fossils could end up hawked on cruise ships before scientists could salvage the unique information they provided.
Since 2008, Alberta has issued more than three hundred dispositions to process and sell over thirteen thousand slabs of ammolite. Issa, who is also the president of an international association of fossil dealers, asserts that Canada has some of the strictest palaeontology laws in the world. Invested in what he calls the “wider societal value of fossils,” he is more than happy to share unique specimens of ammonites (and other animals, such as a bus-sized mosasaur skeleton) with provincial authorities. Palaeontologists like Andrew Caruthers concede that the permit system does its job, protecting important specimens while releasing fossils that don’t inform science because they have no new information to offer.
But the bureaucratic response to the ammolite rush couldn’t stop a split between legal and illegal collectors. While most miners made their way obediently through Alberta’s regulatory channels, seeking exemptions, others took their activities underground.
Keith Mychaluk, an ammolite researcher and self-described fossil nut raised in Alberta’s badlands, says that gemstone mining has as much to do with marketing and politics as it does with digging holes in the ground. According to Mychaluk, ammonites have become a coveted source of transportable wealth for collectors, similar to opals or jade. Judging by the thousand-year history of commercial mining, when a gemstone attains this status, illegal activity tends to follow.
Ammonites have all the right ingredients. They’re scarce and hard to find, like more famous sought-after stones. “Everyone says ‘I’ll dig a hole and make a million dollars,’” says Mychaluk, “but they’re found in very localized concentrations.” While several sections of the Bearpaw Formation house iridescent ammonites, they’re only commercially minable in deposits that feature shallow ground, exposed by rivers. Once a promising deposit has been located, legal mining is still tricky, requiring heavy machinery as well as a commitment to following the safety, ethical and environmental guidelines necessitated by soft rock excavation and mine reclamation.
When Alberta officially opened its doors to legal mining in 1989, illegal miners followed hot on their heels. Regulations allowed large-scale miners to obtain leases to large tracts of fossil-rich land, thus staking
big claims. But the same rivers that carved open the Bearpaw to expose ammonites also channelled poachers to these mining leases. Most Canadian waterways are federal resources with mandated public access to high waterlines, or the upper limits of a river during flood events. In other words, the Crown owns the land between the highest spot that a flood reaches and the modern water surface, and members of the public are free to visit Crown land. This helps ensure poachers’ access to ammonites and muddies the legal waters, offering illegal miners the option of arguing that the harm or loss they caused was unintentional, especially if the lease was not fenced off. As a result, poachers face meagre infractions when caught: often legal torts (handled in civil court) as opposed to charges, and a small penalty of around $500. Meanwhile, the value of contraband fossils gathered in a single visit can easily exceed $1,000.
Bolder poachers dig small pits, and some have even raided mine offices to steal stored fossils. In several instances, these stolen fossils were then sold back to their initial discoverers, who sometimes buy from independent miners—a practice which may
encourage small-scale illegal mining, but which also improves relationships between large operators and their neighbours. And, in the end, all this is predictable: once society attributes significant financial value to a moveable object with limited outcrops and ready access, it’s only a matter of time before the poachers strike.
The four-way fight over fossils between scientists, miners, poachers and First Nations is complicated by the fact that the groups and jurisdictions sometimes overlap. Bordering the St. Mary River is the Blood Indian Reserve, part of the Kainai Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy—where provincial regulations rightly hold no sway.In recognition of their ancestral harvesting practices, Blackfoot First Nations are exempt from ammonite collecting laws on Crown land and can, of course, collect on reserve.
Moreover, to many members of Kainai Nation, the iridescent ammonites pulled from Alberta shale are Iniskim and, therefore, their collection and distribution cannot be bound by provincial or federal law. There’s another reason the majority of illegal collectors are First Nations: the hottest fossil beds are distant from urban centres and situated adjacent to the Blood reserve, currently home to about thirteen thousand people, according to their website. This raises a question: if a mining company purchases a lease and exposes a resource that First Nations have an ancestral right to harvest, should it be considered poaching to pick it up? The legal answer is yes, but the ethical question remains. (Other non-First Nations poachers illegally trespass onto the Blood Reserve to steal fossils—and informants note that non-First Nations have certainly poached fossils from the off-reserve leases of major mining operations.)
Several First Nations companies have also formed to mine ammonites, a step that required approval from both Elders and reserve boards. Tracy and Beth Day Chief from the Kainai Nation started Buffalo Rock Mining Company in 2003 and currently sell their raw and prepared ammolites at international shows. When Elders came to bless their open pit mine site, Tracy says, they told him,
“This is a good thing for the people, and it’s time for us to take back the rock.” The Iniskim pulled up by backhoes still have a sacred value and special energy, many Blackfoot say, but one that they can share with the world through commercial sales.
The Blackfoot name for the steep cliffs that yield Iniskim translates to “Place-ofthe-Falling-Off-Without-Excuse,” in reference either to the fossils themselves or to the steadily eroding cliffs that house them— or perhaps to both. Every year, freshly exposed ammonites tumble to destruction in the St. Mary River, where people, including poachers, scramble for them. But one thing about ammonites hasn’t changed: Crooked Meat Strings and other Blackfoot Elders noted that Iniskim are only revered if sanctified. A person must infuse it with power for it to be valuable.
Todd Kristensen is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, where he studies the archaeology and history of First Nations landscape adaptations in Western Canada.