Marine archaeologist looking for clues of ancient migration in B.C. waters

·2 min read

A marine archaeologist at SFU is launching an ambitious study to find evidence of how people first migrated to North America over 15,000 years ago.

The trick is that what used to be the coastline is now ocean floor.

B.C.’s landscape was wildly different before the Holocene epoch, which began over 11,000 years ago after the Ice Age. There weren’t cedar trees, there were no salmon. In some places the coastline has moved inland by more than 40 kilometers.

“Fifteen-thousand years ago you could walk from Haida Gwaii to what we now call the mainland. Same for Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands,” said Rob Rondeau. “We know this because we’ve found remains of animals like mastodon and mammoths.”

Rondeau has been a marine archaeologist for decades, mostly searching for ship wrecks and other relatively large objects. Now he’s looking for a needle in a 2.5 million square-kilometre haystack of what was Beringia.

Archaeologists have various theories on how people came to North America, the most common is that they migrated westward from Siberia as mammoth and mastodon herds followed the grasslands. From there they either migrated down the coast, or followed the middle of the continent into the interior plains.

Rondeau thinks the coastal route is more likely, and is setting out to find evidence in his three-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded PhD project.

It’s the first time he’s approached this topic, and he’s the only person looking for formerly terrestrial archaeological sites to find out how the First Peoples migrated.

He’s starting by using sonar and other technology to map the shape of the ocean floor. Then he can identify where river valleys and lakes would have been. He’ll combine knowledge gained from archaeological sites in Alaska to identify areas most likely to have been inhabited by humans.

From there, he’ll drill core samples and look for evidence of habitation.

Even if he doesn’t find artifacts, the research will still be useful for what the core samples will be able to tell us about the environment back then, he said. But he’s hoping to come back with at least a stone tool, or a charred bone for evidence.

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Zoë Ducklow, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, North Island Gazette