British Columbia's coast (Canada): Sifting Evidence with BC's Ancient Civilization Sleuths

For people roaming 10,000 years ago, the Central Coast was a great place to settle down, as excited researchers are proving.

Jude Isabella

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Archaeologists on the Central Coast investigate an artifact. Photo by Jude Isabella.

The landscape looks like a giant's bonsai garden. Gnarled trees twist out of the boggy ground; a shallow pond sits in what's left behind of the giant's footprint. The image grows more fantastical when a group of men glide into the picture hauling a canoe, another two trudge through carrying plywood, and a third lopes by shouldering a ladder.

Archaeology on British Columbia's coast is never dull. In this instance, the group is following Duncan McLaren, a University of Victoria (UVic) archaeologist preoccupied with the past of this remote and soggy place, costly to reach and formidable to researchers used to milder landscapes. But it's also a rich place, where the buried past presses close to the surface, evidence of a people's home since the end of the last glacial period over 11,000 calendar years ago.

The discipline of archaeology has traditionally viewed the islands and fjords of the Central Coast as a corridor to somewhere else, imagining it as the route out of Asia to the Americas, speeding travelers on their way to what would become California, Texas, and southern Chile -- a faceless service area on the turnpike heading south.

McLaren belongs to a group of scientists with a different perspective. Their question is not the familiar "Where did people come from and where did they go?" Rather, it's, "How did the people live here so well?"

In contrast to other parts of the continent, which witnessed numerous advances, retreats and replacements of populations, the line from earliest settlers to present-day First Nations in the Pacific Northwest is likely unbroken.

Through oral histories it's fair to assume that until the 19th century, no later arrivals pushed aside or replaced the first peoples. Yes, some New World colonizers moved on, to people North and South America, but others stayed. Over time the climate changed, the landscape changed, and the people changed, but home has been home since the glaciers receded.

Who came first?

A few days earlier I'd driven from Victoria to Port Hardy with two archaeologists -- a casual six-hour lecture from two professors brimming with knowledge and ideas.

Daryl Fedje, not quite 60, retires from Parks Canada this year. He and UVic professor Quentin Mackie, about ten years Fedje's junior, talk shop the entire trip. Somewhere around the turnoff for the Buckley Bay ferry, they mull over potential dig sites in the area, bison bones, short-faced bears, and caves. Physical opposites -- they joke about their Mutt and Jeff appearance -- Fedje and Mackie are on their way to the Hakai Beach Institute on Calvert Island to join McLaren's archaeology team for a week.

The pair are well known for their work on Haida Gwaii, pushing back the dates of the first human settlement of North America. McLaren's work builds on that, peeling back the coastal landscape in a search for the material culture left by the first people to work this land and sea for sustenance at the dawn of the Holocene, the warming period that began about 12,000 years before present (BP).

Over the course of Earth's history, ice sheets have periodically ground across and weighed down continents. Since the start of the Pleistocene 2.5 million years ago -- roughly the same time that our earliest hominim ancestors evolved -- Earth has had several episodes of glacial advance and retreat. Humans have adapted to each change.

During a warming period (an interglacial) ice melts, land bounces back from the weight of ice, sometimes three kilometres thick, and sea levels rise or fall depending on location, re-sculpting coastlines over thousands of years before they stabilize. The wandering seacoasts that result drown some ancient shorelines and leave others high and dry, frustrating the search for evidence of human presence.