When the tide is out, the table is set.—Tlingit proverb
Archeology ~ Volume 64 Number 5, September/October 2011
A reevaluation of evidence along North America’s western coast shows how its earliest inhabitants managed the sea’s resources
by Jude IsabellaAt Gibsons Beach stone walls forming circles and other shapes serve as evidence that early peoples cultivated the intertidal zones to build clam gardens and fish traps.(Photo: Jude Isabella)
"The tide is going out at Gibsons Beach, in the Strait of Georgia on Canada’s west coast. When the tide is low, it’s easy to spot rock walls in the intertidal zone, the area of shore land that’s exposed during low tide and hidden when the tide is in. A person can look at this beach for years and never understand that apparently random scatterings of piled rocks were actually carefully constructed to catch food from the sea. One formation, a circular shape almost 100 feet in diameter, is a clam garden, a flattened area that pools water and creates a habitat for clams to grow. Nearby, also in the intertidal zone, is a chevron-shaped collection of stones that opens into the sea and funnels fish toward the shore, a fish trap.
Dana Lepofsky, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, believes these gardens and traps, found up and down the coast, could be up to 2,000 years old. They were used by the indigenous population and serve as artifacts that dispute what the archaeological record has to this point claimed was the area’s primary staple: salmon...“It’s hard to believe that Native Americans, who were keen observers of the natural world, didn’t figure out management techniques,” says Jon Erlandson, an archaeologist at the University of Oregon. He and his team collected reams of data from a large range of sites and species and concluded that, for example, a noticeable jump in the size of mussel shells didn’t appear to be simply the result of natural fluctuations in local environments. “Native peoples were generally in it for the long haul and developed more sustainable practices over time,” he explains...In almost every estuary that’s been scoured in the region, archaeologists have turned up evidence of wooden or stone fish traps. They’ve also uncovered clam gardens, which were an unknown technology to archaeologists until a geomorphologist on an aerial survey of the coast in 1995 identified the rock formations as made by humans..."