Skip to page content

A Journey to a New Land

Eagle and Raven
Multimedia Library

Peter Locher

Department of Archaeology, Simon Fraser University

Evidence for Coastal Route

I'm quite sure that people used a coastal migration route to initially come into the Americas. I'm saying that because originally people thought that the coast was completely covered with a huge massive ice field and that the ice completely reached and even entered the Pacific Ocean. However, in the last twenty years or so, lots of new research has shown that it was not quite so. We have found that there are several areas along the coast that were basically ice free during the whole ice age. These small areas, we call them refugia, were suitable for some plant and animal life and would therefore also have been suitable for humans to use for hunting or to get a simple subsistence.

There were some of these refuge areas on Haida Gwaii (or the Queen Charlottes as we also call them) and the islands off the coast of southern Alaska, and research into these areas shows that animals such as seals were present there during the whole ice age. Also, bears seem to have been present during the whole of the ice age. There are some researchers, like Timothy Heaton in the United States, who did some genetic research on bear bones that were found in these refuge areas. It shows that these bears have the same genetic makeup as the bears that still live on those islands, but they have a completely different genetic makeup than the bears that live on the mainland, on the continent.

Again, that shows us that the island bears basically survived throughout the whole ice age from a previous population that lived in the area, whereas the bears on the mainland were replaced during the ice age and they had to migrate into the area again from the south or the north after the end of the ice age. So we have two different distinct genetic populations of bears there today -that's one line of evidence. But also we know that the coastal areas were ice free much earlier than originally thought, so some areas were ice free by 14,000- 13,000 years before the present time.

Also, at that time, of course, the sea levels were lower on the outer coast so it was quite a different landscape that people would have encountered at that time. The coastal shelves for example, in many areas were exposed, so there were big, flat, extensive coastal areas, now under water, that at that time were exposed and covered by grasses and bushes and vegetation. Such areas would have been suitable for grass-grazing animals such as bison, woolly mammoth, and musk oxen. That kind of animal would have found a very good habitat out there on the coast, about 13,000 years before present. And we do, as a matter of fact, find bison bones on Vancouver Island and on the Gulf Islands, and we also find mammoth bones on Vancouver Island. Mastodon remains have been found on the Olympic Peninsula, just south of Vancouver Island, so we know that these animals were in the area and would have been a source of food for early people moving along the coast here.