Researchers with the Hakai Institute are backing up Heiltsuk oral history with western science during a relatively new archeological dig on the remote Triquet Island on B.C.'s Central Coast.
“Heiltsuk oral history talks of a strip of land in that area where the excavation took place. It was a place that never froze during the ice age and it was a place where our ancestors flocked to for survival,” said William Housty, a member of Heiltsuk Nation.
Archeologists working on site have dated it to at least 14,000 years ago, when much of the continent was covered by glacial ice save a relatively small strip of coastland.
“This find is very important because it reaffirms a lot of the history that our people have been talking about for thousands of years,” Housty said.
Sea levels at Triquet Island have been extraordinarily stable over thousands of years, which helped to preserve evidence of continuous use, and dramatic changes in the occupants’ hunting and eating habits. The natural rise and fall of sea levels and of the Earth’s tectonic plates have left ancient villages on other parts of the coast submerged.
The site indicated that the diets of those ancient inhabitants started off with large mammals such as sea lions and seals before shifting to fin fish around 5,700 years ago.
Clam gardens, fish traps and evidence of shellfish processing are evident, as well as a large midden (trash site) running through the beach and the village site.
Alisha Gauvreau, a PhD student at the University of Victoria, has been working on the site and has already unearthed some extremely rare items, such as an ooden projectile-launching device called an atlatl, compound fish hooks and a hand drill used for lighting fires.
Charcol recovered from a hearth 2.6 metres below the ground tested for dates ranging from 13,613 to 14,086 years ago, making it one of the oldest First Nations settlements yet uncovered.
Gauvreau says the site — which is one of the oldest sites of human occupation on the Northwest coast of North America — gives a new meaning to the First Nations concept of time immemorial.
“When First Nations talk about time immemorial, it just goes to show how far back the occupation of this land goes back in deep time,” she to CBC News.
The finding also has broader implications for human history — namely early North Americans travelled the coast.
One theory of how humans entered the Americas is they came from Asia over an Alaskan land bridge through an ice-free corridor east of the Rockies and made their way through what is now eastern and central Canada, she explained.
“The alternative theory, which is supported by our data as well as evidence that has come from stone tools and other carbon dating, is people were capable of travelling by boat. From our site, it is apparent that they were rather adept sea mammal hunters,” she said.
The findings also have significant implications for First Nations when it comes to negotiating land claims and rights and title.
Housty, who sits on the board of directors for the Heiltsuk Resource Management Department, says the scientific validation will help in future negotiations.
“When we do go into negotiations, our oral history is what we go to the table with,” Housty said. “So now we don't just have oral history, we have this archeological information. It's not just arbitrary thing that anyone's making up ... We have a history supported from Western science and archaeology.”
With files from the Times Colonist and CBC News