Archaeologists unearth one of the oldest settlements in America

Ancient-village-370x260A Heiltsuk village site on B.C.’s mid-coast is three times as old as the Great Pyramid at Giza and among the oldest human settlements in North America, according to researchers at the Hakai Institute.

The excavation on Triquet Island has already produced extremely rare artifacts, including a wooden projectile-launching device called an atlatl, compound fish hooks and a hand drill used for lighting fires, said Alisha Gauvreau, a PhD student at the University of Victoria.

The village has been in use for about 14,000 years, based on analysis of charcoal recovered from a hearth about 2.5 metres below the surface, making it one of the oldest First Nations settlements yet uncovered. Dates from the most recent tests range from 13,613 to 14,086 years ago.

“We were so happy to find something we could date,” she said. What started as a one-metre-by-one-metre “keyhole” into the past, expanded last summer into a three-metre trench with evidence of fire related in age to a nearby cache of stone tools.

“It appears we had people sitting in one area making stone tools beside evidence of a fire pit, what we are calling a bean-shaped hearth,” she said. “The material that we have recovered from that trench has really helped us weave a narrative for the occupation of this site.”

The site is roughly as old as the groundbreaking Manis Mastodon spear tip found on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, a find that pushed estimates of the earliest human occupation on the West Coast back by 800 years to about 13,800 years before the present day.

Gauvreau will present her findings at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archeology on Thursday in Vancouver. The five-day conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre will be attended by 3,000 archeologists from around the world.

Sea levels at Triquet Island have been extraordinarily stable over the millennia, 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 evidence suggests that for 7,000 years of the people’s early history, they hunted and ate large mammals, especially seals and sea lions.

“It’s a lot more work to hunt large animals, but when you get one, you get a lot,” she said. “It’s a high caloric payoff.”

Then around 5,700 years ago, their diet shifted to fin fish. Evidence of shellfish processing is found throughout the village’s history, right up to very recent times.

The beach nearby has been altered with fish traps and stone-walled clam gardens, which are common to marine-subsistence cultures on the West Coast.

A five-metre-deep midden (trash heap) runs 70 m between the beach and the village site.

“I’m really anxious to get into the midden deposits to see if evidence of this dietary change holds up,” said Gauvreau.

Around the same time period, the village appears to have survived two tsunamis, one about 6,700 years ago and a second roughly 5,600 years ago.

Evidence of habitation appears to drop off after the earliest tsunami, which could mean the site went unused for a time and was repopulated by people with different eating habits.

“It’s just one snapshot of a larger site, so it’s hard to tell what was happening,” she said. “But that kind of dietary shift — from predominantly hunting to a reliance on fishing and shellfish — was happening coast-wide.”

Wooden artifacts from Triquet Island are being processed and preserved by the Royal B.C. Museum.

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