Study tabulating pre-contact archaeological record in Salish Sea shows long history of activity

Rachelle Stein-Wotten

Sounder News

Wednesday, May 20 2020

A recent study published in the Journal of Northwest Anthropology outlines how the Salish Sea basin has been inhabited consistently since it formed around 14,000 years ago.

Gabriola resident Richard Hutchings of the Institute for Critical Heritage and Tourism and Scott Williams of the Washington State Department of Transportation published “Salish Sea Islands Archaeology and Precontact History” this spring. 

“There has never been a regional study before of this magnitude, so that’s one of the things that makes this [study] unique,” said Richard, who lives on Gabriola. “We didn’t even know how many island sites were around.”

Using data from B.C.’s RAAD (Remote Access to Archaeological Data) and Washington state’s WISAARD databases retrieved in late 2017 and early 2018, Richard and his partner narrowed their scope of study down to islands that were over 2 km long, excluding Vancouver Island, for a total of 85 islands. Over half of these islands are in the Central Salish Sea, including Gabriola. 

The chronological timeframe starts around 17,000 years ago to present day with most archaeological sites tabulated in the study dating from between 1775 CE and 5,000 years ago, which spans the pre-contact/post-contact boundary and the formation of contemporary Salish Sea coastlines. 

Sites from this period include a number of large shell middens, human-made deposits containing shell and other remains.

Among all islands studied, Gabriola ranks fifth for number of pre-contact sites with 98 (Whidbey Island has the most at 189 sites). 

Hutchings said the high ranking could be attributable to Gabriola’s geography as it was rich in resources, including large game and fish; and that more archaeological research has been conducted on islands such as Gabriola and Salt Spring than some lower-ranking islands such as Texada.

“One of the reasons there are lots of archaeological sites on Gabriola is because people have been looking a lot, because there are some very large important sites on the island, but also Gabriola is very unique insofar as it has all these very unique petroglyph sites,” Richard explained.

The oldest documented site on an island in the basin is from Orcas Island in Washington state. The Ayer Pond site is about 13,900 years old. “The site’s age and location show Salish Sea islands were occupied immediately following their formation,” the study says, also noting it represents the earliest evidence of seafaring in the Americas.

Development on more populated islands has led to the discovery of more sites, but it has also meant damage or loss to the archaeological record, that is, Coast Salish peoples’ history. Richard said he is not sure if the findings of the paper would support any efforts of preservation or protection.

“My only point in writing the paper was to look at islands … and theoretically what we can say about them,” he said. 

“The lesson that was learned is the archaeological record parallels the Coast Salish oral historical record so there is evidence of long-term cultural continuity in the Salish Sea basin.”