Village Dig Focuses On Ancient Societal Transformation
Aerial view of Dionisio Point. Photo courtesy of Colin Grier, WSU
Chris Arnett (left), Colin Grier and Kelly Derr (right) discuss a find. Photo by Tom Banse
Illustration of the Dionisio Point village as it may have looked 1,500 years ago. Sketch by Neil Miller
GALIANO ISLAND, BC - Archaeologists believe humans arrived in our part of North America roughly 10,000 years ago. Those pioneers lived a nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering. Then starting about 2,000 years ago, Coastal Salish people settled in large, permanent villages.
An excavation led by a Washington State University archaeologist aims to find out why this transformation happened.
The scene has the hallmarks of a classic archaeological dig, except we're not in ancient Greece or Egypt. The skyscrapers of Vancouver, BC twinkle across the water in good weather.
Tall Douglas firs shade the excavation squares and sifting stations. Researchers from WSU and the University of British Columbia kneel in pits, carefully scraping away with trowel or brush.
We're in Dionisio Point Provincial Park. Archaeologist Colin Grier leads a 10-member crew probing what he considers one of the best preserved early village sites of the Coast Salish people.
Grier hopes this place can answer a burning question about what caused previously nomadic bands to advance into a more complex society.
"Why did the transformation happen when it happened? That's probably the most difficult question to answer," Grier says. "When do people start to settle down?"
Often, the rise of village life is associated with the introduction of farming.
"But of course, here no one invented agriculture," Grier says.
Instead the Salish people relied on fish, clams, game and wild plants.
Grad students Chris Arnett and Kelly Derr examine a fragmentary clue. They're on what might have once been the front stoop of a large plank and beam longhouse.
"I think it is a fine stone abrader and a bone point, in situ!" Arnett says.
"As it was dropped 600 years ago or whenever," adds Grier.
Arnett responds, "Yeah, it gives us an idea of how they sharpened bone."
CIV 106 - 206 : Civilisations paléo-indiennes / Amerindians of North America
The archaeologists have identified six big, ancient house ruins forming two adjacent beachfront villages. The largest of the houses could shelter eight to 10 families.
Based on radiocarbon dating, they were occupied around 1,500 years ago.
Grier's team can infer economic changes from the variety of shells and animal and fish bones in the refuse piles outside doorways.
"With a settled village life, you have to bring the food to you, Grier explains. "So the diversity of resources in these village sites is very high."
Evidence of a transition to a more complex society includes trappings of wealth and a social class system.
"A cache of 5,000 slate beads, some labrets, which are actually plugs that get inserted through the lip, that were status markers," Grier says.
Still, there's that nagging question of what caused people to settle down and adopt customs that vaguely resemble some of ours today.
One theory is that population pressure triggered the change. Grier isn't sure that's it, but he's finding potential evidence.
"When settlement gets dense on a landscape, you have to create more food for people to eat. You have to intensify."
"So you have to reorganize a lot of what you do to feed more mouths."
The researchers consult closely with the local Indian tribe. Penelakut tribal member Robert Sam believes ancestors of his lived in the village.
Sam supports the excavation.
"It is really interesting to me to see the work that is being done," Sam says. "It shows more of where we were, all the sites that need to be catalogued for our people, especially our younger generation."
Sam says digging amongst the old longhouses carries low risk of disturbing human remains, something the tribe is sensitive about.
The ancient tribal village is giving up its secrets slowly. Colin Grier has worked here off and on since 1997.
His current National Science Foundation funding covers two more summer seasons after this one.