University of Victoria researchers using a robotic underwater vehicle off of Haida Gwaii’s coast believe they may have found the earliest evidence of human civilization in Canada. The site could date back almost 14,000 years and lies beneath hundreds of metres of water in the ocean around the Haida Gwaii archipelago.
Archaeologist Quentin Mackie from the University of Victoria and his team returned in early September from a research trip to the archipelago, where they used the autonomous underwater vehicle to scan the sea floor in search of evidence of the ancient civilization. “We’re not quite ready to say for sure that we found something,” he said. “We have really interesting-looking targets on the sea floor that, as an archeologist, they look like they could be cultural.”
Mackie has studied Haida Gwaii for 15 years, and he came to believe that the ancient residents would have harvested salmon near the coast of what was then a large single island that stretched well across Hecate Strait toward the mainland. At the time, the sea level was about 100 metres lower than it is today, and the main island of the archipelago was twice as large. “Stone tools or evidence of campfires would not be possible to see on the ocean bottom; they’re too small,” Mackie said. “But we had this idea that if people were harvesting salmon in the rivers… they might have been building fish weirs,” he said.
With the help of Parks Canada and its research vessel, Mackie and his colleagues set out to sea with detailed scans of the sea floor. For ten days and as many as 12 hours a day the torpedo-like AUV used sonar to survey 25 kms of what were once riverbeds. The scans suggest a wall of large stones was placed in a line at a right angle to the stream, a fishing technique used by many other ancient cultures, including those that thrived along BC’s coasts. “That’s pretty much the exact archetype of what we were looking for,” he said. Radiocarbon dating from another archeological site on the island suggests the weir could date back 13,800 years.
Theory matches oral history. Geologists will now study the images to ensure the rocks were not placed there by Mother Earth, then the University of Victoria research team will return next summer to take samples of the sediment near the site and to look for stone tools.
The superintendent of Gwaii Haanas, Ernie Gladstone, said such research helps Parks Canada and the Haida manage the land and sea of the archipelago, which includes the SGang Gwaay UNESCO world heritage. “Mackie’s theory matches up with the oral history of the First Nations,” Gladstone said. “We know that people have lived in the Gwaii Haanas area for many thousands of years. Much of the very early history of Gwaii Haanas and Haida Gwaii lies below the waters of Hecate Strait. If the current exploration site pans out, it’s a testament to the incredible resilience of the Haida. The village that you were born in would be underwater by the time you died. And they’re able to take all this change in stride, and they probably even thrived on that.”