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A Journey to a New Land

First people
Post secondary Level Resources

Archaeology on the Pacific Northwest Coast

Finding early archaeological sites on the Pacific Northwest coast is difficult, and none have yet been found that are early enough to account for the first settlement of the Americas. However, it is possible to draw on the archaeological data from later sites for clues about a possible early occupation of the coast.

Radiocarbon dating has confirmed a human occupation at On Your Knees Cave (PET 408) on Prince of Wales Island off the southern Alaska coast by 9800 years BP. Tools made from obsidian were found at the site, and researchers traced the obsidian to sources on the British Columbia mainland and southeast Alaska. This suggests that by 9800 years BP, people living on the coast were capable of traveling considerable distances, and perhaps had been in the region long enough to establish long-distance trade networks.

The Namu site on the central coast of British Columbia was occupied by about 9,700 years BP. The types of tools found at Namu are similar to those found at Nenana Complex sites in Alaska, indicating that the descendants of the people who made those tools in Alaska may have moved down the coast, bringing their tool technologies with them.

The Richardson Island and Kilgii Gwaay sites provide evidence that people were occupying the islands of Haida Gwaii by at least 9,300 years BP. They were harvesting marine resources, and almost certainly using boats for inter-island travel. These sites have yielded a wealth of artifacts and animal remains that suggest a long-term, well established occupation of the islands. Although there is no evidence of an earlier settlement of Haida Gwaii, it seems unlikely that these sites represent the first human occupation of the islands.

Further down the West Coast, archaeologist Rudy Riemer has uncovered a rockshelter site dated to over 9000 years ago. While, not early enough to be direct evidence of a west coast migration, the site shows that populations were widespread along this area of Pacific Northwest by this time. Artifacts from this site have been chemically analyzed to originate from sources of stone material in the upper Squamish River valley and the high elevation areas of the Coast Mountain range.

In the Olympic Penisula region, the Manis site contains early evidence of big-game hunting on the west coast. From a level dated to 12000 years ago, a mastodon bone was recovered with the broken tip of a bone point lodged in it, clearly demonstrating the hunting of megafuana on the west coast. Other evidence from a cave in Oregon may show early human occupation, but not in the form of artifacts or hunting. Instead researchers have uncovered a few examples of fossilized fecal matter, called coprolites, in the lowest levels of Paisley Cave. DNA research on these coprolites suggests that they are human, though other researchers have questioned this analysis, due to the resemblance of these samples to other large herbivore feces and the recovery of canine DNA from the same samples; leading to questions of contamination.

The evidence from these and other coastal sites provides indirect evidence that human populations were present along the Pacific coast at an early time. However, no definitive archaeological evidence has yet been found on the coast that is early enough to account for the presence of Clovis people in the North American mid-continent by 11,500 years BP.

If people moved down the West Coast, and then into the interior from there, where and when did this inward movement occur? Is there any archaeology suggesting that populations on the coast began moving inland?

A few sites from the interior areas of Washington State, Oregon and Idaho may demonstrate this. Stemmed projectile points are found in a site along the Snake River in Washington State, with dates ranging from 8,800 to 10,800 years ago. Another site in south-central Oregon, Fort Rock Cave, contained a layer of gravel that had two obsidian points within it. Dates from this layer are as old as 13,000 years BP. Wilson Butte Cave from Idaho also contains human made artifacts dating to between 14,500 and 13,000 years ago. Perhaps these sites are examples of early people moving in-land; however the small number of sites uncovered so far makes it hard to determine definitively whether the early settlers came from the coast, or from the east.

One of the ways archaeologists are trying to determine the origin of these early people is to look at the types of environmental adaptations they have. Clues from the types of stone materials people using in their tool kits and types of settlements they inhabited may allow archaeologists to determine whether or not the first people arrived on the coast, or via an inland route.

Pacific Northwest Coast Site Map

Pacific Northwest Coast Site Map
© Daryl Fedje
Used with permission.

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


QuickTime videos:

Dr. Barbara Winter

Dr. Barbara Winter
SFU Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Daryl Fedje

Daryl Fedje
Parks Canada