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A Journey to a New Land

Multimedia Library

Dr. Rolf Mathewes

Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University

Paleoenvironment of Haida Gwaii

At a place called Cape Ball on the east side of Graham Island (which is the largest of the Queen Charlotte Islands) we discovered a sea cliff site that exposed an ancient lake bed which contained lots of plant material and pollen. When we dug to the very bottom of this exposure and obtained some plant materials for radiocarbon dating, we came up with the amazing radiocarbon age of 15,000 years ago or so. And that was very contrary to what everyone knew about the coast between here and Alaska up to that time. Everyone thought the ice age ended about 12,000 radiocarbon years ago. The discovery here, this date of 15,000 years ago, made the Queen Charlottes, or at least part of them, at least 3,000 (maybe more) years older, in terms of being de-glaciated after the Ice Age, than anywhere else on the BC coast. So here we had the first inkling that maybe this is part of the explanation for the unusual plants and animals there. They’ve had at least 3,000 more years to evolve.

But it also gave us the first window on what these early near-glacial landscapes might have looked like. There was no evidence of trees at that time. It was very much more tundra-like. We discovered remains of plants that are now actually missing from the Queen Charlotte Islands or extremely rare, such as some of the dwarf willows, and some Jacob’s ladder, which is a beautiful flowering plant that was only known from one location on Limestone Island in the Queen Charlottes. And these things were turning up virtually wherever we looked in these older sediments at Cape Ball.

So we had an inkling that things have changed dramatically since the early days when basically we had what looked like a non-treed open tundra-like environment on the Queen Charlottes, pretty much as you would expect for the end of an Ice Age. Then we actually recorded the transition to the arrival of the first trees, which were lodgepole pines, followed 1000 years later approximately by spruce and then, later yet, hemlock. And this transition turns out to be a very important aspect for later theories on coastal migrations of people, because the best date we have for the first appearance of trees on the island is 12,500 radiocarbon years ago, when we find needles, pollen and wood of lodgepole pine and thereafter a number of other trees. Before that time, we have this very open landscape which looks much more like the treeless Aleutian Islands of today off the coast of Alaska and other coastal tundras much further to the north. So we have an analog at that time for what this early environment might have been like from the Queen Charlotte Islands all the way up to Alaska and perhaps to the Bering Strait where environments like this are still present today.