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A Journey to a New Land

Post secondary Level Resources

A Maritime Adaptation

The Ice Age people of North America are often portrayed as big-game hunters, living in the interior of the continent and relying on large land animals for food and shelter. Archaeologists call this a terrestrial adaptation. Proponents of the coastal route hypothesis argue that the first arrivals in the Americas had a maritime adaptation. In other words, they lived by the sea, were able to construct and use boats, and obtained a significant portion of their food from fish, shellfish and other marine resources.

Although no direct archaeological evidence has yet been recovered to irrefutably demonstrate the use of watercraft by early people on the North Pacific coast, there is evidence that boats were used in other areas of the world in much earlier times. The first people in Australia arrived between 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, and migration to these lands could only have been achieved through the use of watercraft. Therefore it is not unreasonable to suggest that humans were capable of making and using boats much later than that, when they traveled out of Siberia to the Americas.

Evidence for a maritime adaptation can be found by at least 20,000 years ago from the west side of the Pacific Ocean. Evidence of ocean going boats from Japan has been uncovered in the northern reaches of the archipelago. Sites from the Korean peninsula also show evidence of a maritime adaptation. The collection of wild salmon in the Pacific Coast of Siberia has been dated to the late Pleistocene, demonstrating that there were people on the west side of Beringia that were familiar with the collection of ocean resources during the last Glacial maximum. Though the evidence is not substantial, the uncovering of evidence for early maritime adaptation presents itself as an exciting area of research for those interested in discovering where the first peoples to touch the Americas originated.

The Kilgii Gwaay and Richardson Island sites in Haida Gwaii also offer indirect evidence of a maritime adaptation. These sites are located on an island archipelago some distance from the British Columbia mainland, so it is almost certain that by at least 9,300 years BP when these sites were occupied, watercraft of some kind were being used along the coast. In addition, the many fish and sea mammal remains found at Kilgii Gwaay indicate that the occupants of the site had the necessary tools and skills to harvest and utilize maritime resources.

Firm evidence that boats were used by the first Americans may be difficult to find. Watercraft would have been built out of such materials as wood, bone and animal skins, and these organic materials are not likely to have survived in the archaeological record.

Ancient Coastlines
Coastal Refugia
Archaeology on the Pacific NW Coast
A Maritime Adaptation


QuickTime videos:

Dr. Richard Shutler

Dr. Richard Shutler
Department of Archaeology
Simon Fraser University

Dr. Barbara Winter

Dr. Barbara Winter
SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology