It’s a story that has been passed down from generation to generation among the Heiltsuk Nation. Indeed, it forms part of the oral history of the Canadian people. Yet the narrative it portrays has challenged widespread conceptions about human migration in North America. And now, incredibly, archaeologists have found stunning evidence to prove it.
Some 14,000 years ago, the North American continent was in the grip of an ice age. As a result, glaciers covered most of the land. Scientists have long believed that it was during this period that the first humans crossed into North America, traveling on foot across a land bridge between what is now Alaska and eastern Russia before moving further south via inland routes. However, a new discovery in northwestern Canada has challenged that belief.
The story the Heiltsuk people told concerned a strip of land along the west coast of Canada. In contrast to accepted scientific wisdom, their traditions claim that this piece of land didn’t freeze during the ice age. Consequently, they say, it was here that their ancestors took shelter from the freezing conditions. And as a result of these Heiltsuk beliefs, archaeologists recently turned their attention to an island called Triquet in British Columbia.
The team that made the incredible find consisted of researchers from a number of different institutions. These included local First Nations groups as well as the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute. Together, the team members headed to Triquet Island to ascertain whether the Heiltsuk’s stories were rooted in fact.
To begin with, the expedition had to dig down through layers of soil and peat. Then, after cutting through several feet of earth, the researchers came upon a “paleosol.” This is a thin layer of fossil soil, and its discovery intrigued the archaeologists. However, it wasn’t the earth itself that was of interest but, rather, what the soil contained.
Within the paleosol, the researchers subsequently discovered the remains of an ancient hearth-like structure. What’s more, inside that hearth there were minuscule flecks of charcoal. Painstakingly, using tweezers, the team extracted these tiny pieces of burnt wood. When the fragments had finally been pulled out, they were then taken off to be carbon dated, and the results of these tests were astounding.
When the results came back, they confirmed the oral history of the Heiltsuk Nation. The settlement had been established around 14,000 years ago. The spit of land that the First Nation people had been telling stories about for so long had been found, and there were further revelations to come.
Alongside the charcoal fragments, the archaeologists found a number of other incredible items. For example, there were fish hooks and tools, while nearby the researchers discovered spears that would have been used to hunt marine mammals. There was also a hand drill, which could well have been utilized to start the fire that produced the charcoal.
To put the discovery into some historical context, the settlement found on Triquet Island is thousands of years older than the great Egyptian pyramids. It predates the Roman empire as well. In fact, it was around when animals such as mammoths still walked the Earth. And now it’s reshaping how scientists think humans first arrived in North America.
Until recently, the dominant theory was that after crossing on foot from what we now call Siberia, these early humans made their way south on foot along a route to the east of the Rockies. However, doubts have arisen regarding this hypothesis. For example, scientists have questioned whether there would have been enough resources for our ancestors to survive such an inland journey. And, indeed, the find on Triquet Island suggests another explanation.
It had long been held that the coast would have been uninhabitable during this period. But the evidence uncovered on Triquet Island seems to have shattered that belief. It does even more than that, though. In fact, it suggests that the earliest human migration into North America wasn’t made by land – but that our ancestors instead used the sea to make their first forays into the continent.
And thanks to the items found at Triquet, archaeologists now have evidence to support that idea. It seems that the ancestors of the Heiltsuk Nation could have been capable of moving along the coast of the land bridge into North America. What’s more, from there it appears that they continued to move deeper into the continent along the coast, rather than by land.
It was the spears that gave archaeologists this insight, as the weapons were clearly used to hunt large marine mammals. As a result, the researchers could conclude that these people must have been capable of taking to the waves. Other discoveries at the site have added even more credence to this theory. For example, one of the key pieces of evidence revolved around the diet of the Triquet habitants.
Indeed, further tests conducted on materials found during the dig indicate that for the first 7,000 years of human habitation, the diet on Triquet consisted primarily of seals and sea lions. This further supported the belief that the inhabitants of the island were capable seafarers. And through this insight, combined with the carbon dating, a new picture of early migration to North America started to appear.
Moreover, one additional piece of evidence really added credence to this new theory. It didn’t relate to the people living on Triquet Island, though. Instead, it was about the island itself. Researchers uncovered an important fact about Triquet that pointed to it having been habitable even when the rest of the continent was encased in ice.
The evidence they uncovered showed that the sea level at Triquet had been constant for more than 15,000 years. This degree of stability would, of course, have been vital in terms of making the island habitable for humans. Furthermore, it tallies well with the stories of the Heiltsuk Nation – and indeed, that’s perhaps the most important part of this story.
You see, the confirmation of the Heiltsuk’s oral history could have a major impact on the lives of the descendants of the inhabitants of Triquet Island. The First Nation people still struggle with land rights claims. However, now their oral history is backed up with archaeological evidence, which could make a huge difference.
“So now we don’t just have oral history, we have this archaeological information,” William Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation, told CBC News. “It’s not just an arbitrary thing that anyone’s making up… We have a history supported from Western science and archaeology.”
And while the discoveries at Triquet Island are changing the way that scientists think about the distant history of the human race, it’s likely that they’re going to have another effect as well. They demonstrate that oral history can be just as strongly rooted in fact as any other type of record, and that could be key to the future of the Heiltsuk Nation.
Ultimately, this is a discovery that has ramifications both for our study of the past and for the lives of people in the future. On a small piece of land on the west coast of Canada, archaeologists are rewriting the history of our species. And it’s all thanks to an oral tradition that proved to be absolutely true.