The Bison at Ayer Pond on Orcas Island is archaeological.

Cranium of 14,000 year old Bison antiquus from Ayer Pond, Orcas Island, Salish Sea. Source: Kenady et al. 2010 (in press)

One of the challenges in archaeology is to take a familiar landscape and, by considering the known data from the paleo sciences, make it strange and unfamiliar and ripe with possibilities for strange and unfamiliar archaeology.  Right here in the southern Salish Sea there is an excellent example of this coming to light.  As the ice retreated at the end of the last glacial period, the Salish Sea saw dramatic changes in sea level (both higher, and lower), in vegetation (tundra, grassland, and forest) and in the animals present on that dynamic landscape.

Location of known Bison antiquus remains in Salish Sea. Source: Wilson et al. 2009.

For years now, we have known that one of the large land mammal species of the Salish Sea around 14,000 years ago was bison — and not just any bison, but Bison antiquus, the extinct giant bison.  A number of remains of this creature have been found, mostly on the Saanich Peninsula and on Orcas Island,  which is one of the largest islands in the Salish Sea, sitting just south of Saturna Island, close to the Canadian Border.  Since these remains mostly clocked in at around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, most archaeologists were interested in them primarily for their coolness factor and not because they seriously thought there might be relevance to early human presence here – these bison pre-date the Clovis Culture which was the consensual evidence for the first peopling of the Americas.  I have previously posted on this with reference to Clovis in Puget Sound, to the controversial Manis Mastodon site, as well as to the nearby Wenas Mammoth and even the Paisley Cave finds in Oregon – evidence is coming together for both a Clovis and a pre-Clovis occupation of the Salish Sea and environs.

Now with a new paper by Kenady et al. in press, these numerous bison finds take on a new importance: one of them is most likely archaeological.

Bison antiquus (right) compared in size to modern Bison (Bison bison). Source:

This paper, which has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in the respected journal Quaternary International, demonstrates one of these Bison antiquus,  from Ayer Pond on Orcas Island is an archaeological site (the paper, reference below, is only available through academic library subscription).  The authors,  Stephan Kenady, Michael Wilson, Randall Schalk and Robert Mierendorf, make a careful and comprehensive inventory of the removals and alterations to the bones of this extinct creature and reach a compelling conclusion that the bison was butchered by humans and the high-value meat elements were removed. The bison has two radiocarbon dates, one of 11,7760 and one of 11,990 years ago, which calibrate to around 13,900 calendar years ago.   The 11,990 date was run at the laboratory at Irvine (UCIAMS), a premiere lab, and uses the most advanced treatments for bone, and has an error estimate of only +/- 25 years.  There seems little room for argument that the bison lived about 800 years before Clovis times.

Location of Ayer Pond relative to other ancient sites in Salish Sea.

Now, where the story gets a little unusual is in the story of the discovery.  In 2003, some workmen were digging a trench with a backhoe at this pond (which is a partially artficial pond created from wetlands) when they noticed these large bones.  Backhoe operators are often keen observers of what comes out of the ground!  Remarkably, the operators and drivers stopped work and excavated the site by hand, without tools, finding and collecting 98 bone elements and fragments, including some very small and delicate ones.  With the property owners not present, the workers were unsure of what to do, so they stored the bones in a cardboard box, uncleaned and untouched for several years until they came to the attention of scientists.  The exception is the skull, which was cleaned and displayed in one of the workers house.

So – the actual excavation of the site was not done by archaeologists, which is sub-optimal.  In this case though, it is not fatal to the site interpretation, both because of the careful recovery,  and because the uncleaned bones had considerable soil, peat, and other sediments adhering which established their stratigraphic context inc comparison to the pond’s stratigraphy.  And while it would have been strongly preferable to document the process of recovery of these bones, the fact is the bones themselves tell the story as much as their relative position or possible associations would have.  While some bones may have been missed, subsequent investigation by archaeologists of the backdirt and area did not find any other bones.  It seems the workers did a thorough and efficient job working with their bare hands.

Bone preservation is excellent and the surfaces of the bone are not eroded or pitted or otherwise obscured.  As the authors explain,  the parts of the skeleton present are limited to the cranium and to the lower ends of the limbs, with only one or two minor exceptions such as a single vertebrae.  This pattern is most consistent with human butchery.

Spiral fractures and conchoidal percussion on otherwise unmodifed elements from Ayers Pond. Source: Kenady et al. in press (2010).

None of the bones show evidence of gnawing or other carnivore agency.  In contrast, 34 of the bones or fragments show a total of 61 modifications that are not consistent with carnivore activity, such as spiral fracture, cleaver and chopper marks, and conical percussion fractures.  Some of the cleaving marks extend on multiple bones across joints, suggesting the modification happened with intent on an articulated, probably freshly dead, carcass.  These are typical of the use of stone tools to butcher an animal, and the authors are careful to tie the patterns observed to similar bison butchery sites from more recent times on the Plains and beyond.  In so doing, they situate their research within the bounds of consensual intepretation of butchery patterns for the Clovis and “paleoindian period”, meaning that objection to their analysis may well enforce objection to a vast back-catalogue of early archaeology.  That back-catalogue, being  based on both ancient and more recent sites, and conducted by leading proponents of a “Clovis First” model, is not controversial.

Left and right distal tibias from Ayer Pond. Source: Kenady et al. in press (2010)

For example, the above picture shows the left and right distal tibia (the lower end of the hind lower leg bone) of the Ayer Pond bison.  Note that these two bones have been broken open in identical ways using percussion, resulting in spiral fracture, and show no signs of carnivore activity.  This seems to me to be extremely difficult to attribute to natural agencies.

As importantly as showing the bones at Ayer Pond are consistent with human agency, the authors show they are inconsistent with natural agencies like carnovores or trampling.  It must be remembered that the alternative to human agency is not a structureless and ambiguous bone assemblage.  Rather, the alternative is a highly, yet differently, structured assemblage bearing the characteristic hallmarks of natural agents such as wolves or even the giant short-faced bear, a mega-scavenger known to be in the area at this time.  Since the bones show many signs consistent with human predation and essentially lack any signs consistent with scavenging by animals, both tails of the data spread, positive and negative, need to be considered.  There is no other plausible explanation for the appearance and distribution of these bones.  The likely scenario is a kill and butchery on the frozen surface of paleo-Ayer Pond, followed by rapid sinking of the unwanted portions of the carcass into the wetland, and hence preservation free from scavenging.

So it is a remarkable find and a careful analysis which seems to me to be quite conclusive, despite the unusual recovery process.  Humans were therefore in the Salish Sea by 14,000 years ago and the fact we have not yet found abundant evidence of this is probably mostly due to having looked in the wrong places: a failure of imagination to think of our familiar region at times of different sea levels (see below), as a tundra, as a grassland teeming with giant bison.

Changing sea levels at end of ice age, showing changing configurations of Saanich Peninsula and area. Upper right image is the time of Ayer Pond bison; Orcas Island is partially seen to extreme right in all pictures. Source: James et al. 2009. Click to enlarge.


James, T., E.J. Gowan, I. Hutchinson, J.J. Clague, J.V. Barrie and K.W. Conway 2009.   Sea-level change and paleogeographic reconstructions, southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Quaternary Science Reviews: 28 (13-14): 1200-1216

Kenady, S.M., Wilson, M.C., Schalk, R.F., Mierendorf, R.R.   in press (2010).  Late Pleistocene Butchered Bison antiquus from Ayer Pond, Orcas Island, Pacific Northwest: Age Confirmation and Taphonomy, Quaternary International (2010), doi: 10.1016/j.quaint.2010.04.013

Wilson, Michael C., Stephen M. Kenady and Randall F. Schalk 2009.   Late Pleistocene Bison antiquus from Orcas Island, Washington, and the Biogeographic Importance of an Early Postglacial Land Mammal Dispersal Corridor from the Mainland to Vancouver Island. Quaternary Research 71: 49-61.

43 responses to “The Bison at Ayer Pond on Orcas Island is archaeological.

  1. Thanks to blog reader twoeyes for tipping me off to the new paper by Kenady et al.


  2. Looks interesting, but we’ve been there before. I recall pretty well the exact same arguements being made about the faunal assemblage from the bottom layers of Bluefish Cave and from the Old Crow area. Both of which disappeared from the radar after further study. How many short-faced bear feeding sites have been studied to know what the breakage and removal patterns are like? I’m very wary of the ‘it couldn’t possibly be anything but human’ arguements when it comes to blunt force trauma!

    The arrows indicating chop or cut marks do look fascinating; did they not have a conventional or SEM microscope image with a close-up??? I want to see the cross-section of the apparent cut lines, or microstriations, or most helpfully, microscopic bits of stone left in the cut itself. If they have pre-cleaning data to show that these marks were not left by the backhoe (very doubtful) or hand tools like shovels (much more probable) used during the recovery, the remarkable quality of preservation could make these very convincing. Sounds like it might be worthwhile doing some additional excavation in the vicinity to find any flakes or tools left in the same strata, or have they already done a lot of that?


    • Hi Morley,

      If they do have those kinds of images, they don’t present them. Of the various indicators of butchering they discuss, four are “deep V-shaped cut marks”, by deep they mean more than 2 mm deep. While not many, they note that this is typical for comparative butchered specimens. They discuss and reject the machine excavation and the shovel explanation: no tools were used by the workers when recovering the bones and the excavator bucket did not have teeth. Further, as they note, the surface of the bones is consistent in terms of the degree of weathering and there are no recent-looking alterations at all, even obvious ones.

      So – I agree more could be learned from SEM images, but the cut marks are only part of the story. And is asking for fragments of stone tools in the cut marks a reasonable requirement that would be demanded of any such site? I am not sure. There is a history of holding putatuve pre-Clovis sites to a higher standard on the basis that they are by definition “impossible”, remove that definition and perhaps this site meets a normal standard of archaeological rigour.

      I don’t know a real lot about Bluefish caves; my impression is site formation processes there were much more complex than the single-event Orcas case and therefore an ambiguous bone assemblage would inherently be more arguable.


      • Bluefish Caves was Scotty MacNeish and Yves *** from National Museum I think; the papers on the Old Crow were an entirely different site(s), also National Museum though. And I think they were both large assemblages with selective pieces pulled out. I do agree that the Orcas one is much better (I don’t buy the fact that a smooth-faced backhoe bucket will not cause marks on large bone compared to a toothed one though! That is a poor arguement to make.)


    • Oh, and yes they did some more trenching which confirmed the stratigraphy and tied some adherences on the bones to specific strata. In so doing, they identified the bison lay beneath Mazama ash (not surprising); they also found several dacite flakes in uncontrolled context 9their intent was to discover stratigraphy with a backhoe, they weren’t screening) as well as a heath above the ash. This is reminiscent of the North Saanich bison, 11,750 BP, which has an archaeological site near the surface (which may not be recorded).

      Oh — and on the scavenging thing, there was actually one recent metal-tool mark on the bones so they know that they look like, and I think it is implausible that, even not being that familiar with short-faced bear scavenging sites, that there would be no tooth marks or that this pattern could result – like I said, it’s not that the alternative to butchery is a generic “something else”. The alternative to butchery should include a highly structured set of taphonomic alterations in its own right, regardless if from wolves or from short-faced bears. We can’t only subtract evidence that exists to make a case for carnivore scavenging, we would need to add positive information for carnivore scavenging if that indeed is what was being proposed.


      • I’m not holding them to a higher standard; I would want any putative archaeological remains of any age that were purely based on taphonomy to have the tool marks examined minutely. Especially if it was putative site holding up someone’s house building, for instance. I’ve seen tiny stone flakes embedded in antler and bone cut marks myself; and I recall one of the early slotted antler or bone points from the north (On-you-knees??) that had a tiny piece of microblade stuck in the slot that was only found after some microscopy was done. It happens often enough its worth while looking. I’d like to read the full article; I presume they refer to studies of wolf scavenging, etc, and that the refs are solid. I’m very cautious based on whats been shown. As I alluded to, the Old Crow pleistocene fauna with spiral fractures and the ‘flaked bone’ was long argued to be a purely human way to break bone, and it was eventually all attributed to scavengers.

        For that matter, I recall the horror I felt when looking at the National Geographic photographs of the wooden artifacts from Monte Verde; there were no close-ups of tool marks or shaping and the overviews, even on a fold-out page, weren’t obviously cultural to me; and I’ve seen a fair number of wet sites with some pretty hard-to-spot artifacts. These vaguely shaped pieces of wood were the rock-solid (pun intended) evidence that spelled the end of Clovis first?? The illustrations of the features of the collapsed huts and hearths were equally uninspiring. They didn’t show the knotted twine, for instance. I’ve never been able to see the full published reports, so I presume that the material is better described there. That site has been ‘vetted’ and pronounced good by previous doubters.

        Piltdown was accepted by the general discipline for decades too – and that was an intentionally bad fake.


      • Morley – hi, yeah, fair enough. I’d like this site to be rock-solid too, but I fall on the side of believing the taphonomy. I mean, when we say “only taphonomy” in this case we are meaning some pretty distinctive patterns of bone breakage and alteration. I’d like to know if in the Bluefish Cave example you point to, were the allegedly archaeological spiral fracture pieces (some of them also said to have use wear if I recall) pulled out of an assemblage of thousands of pieces of ambiguous material? Because that certainly is not the case at Orcas: a very limited depositional context, a single death assemblage, very little potential for post-depositional alteration, itself.

        So, I accept your point in general, but each case must be an independent claim and the Orcas Island case differs in important respects from many other similar cases.

        Remember that Monte Verde has stone tools and so forth as well, it wasn’t all ambiguous knots and stuff. I do agree that taking 20 years to publish the final site report (Dillehay et al 2007 1997 Smithsonian volume 2, I mean) didn’t help, and yet from my perspective as an amateur sociologists of the discipline, I’d want to get it exactly right and tied up as tight as possible before laying it all on the line because the Clovis-First pack were highly organized and important gatekeepers of the discipline, funding, etc. Once the final report happened, then consensus was reached almost immediately.

        I mean, even we are with-holding very suggestive, potentially sensational material from our work up coast largely because we think that while it would withstand normal scrutiny, in common with a of lot archaeology it might not withstand extraordinary scrutiny, and we don’t want to detract from the other findings which are more or less inarguable. When we get it past the point of being arguable, then we’ll go with it – but I think if held to a normal standard we’d have it out 3 years ago.


  3. one additional reference for this post:

    Croes, D. R., S. Williams, L. Ross, M. Collard, C. Dennler and B. Vargo
    2008 The projectile point sequences in the Puget Sound Region. In Projectile Point Sequences in Northwestern North America, edited by R. Carslon and M. Magne, pp. 105–130. Simon Fraser University Archaeology Press, Burnaby.


  4. Robert Hackman

    As one who is not familiar with the professional anthropologists active in the area, I’m wondering whether scientists at institutions such as the University of British Columbia and the University of Washington are involved in studying these or related finds and the questions they raise.


    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your comment.

      For these specimens, no. Wilson is at Douglas College near Vancouver; the other authors are currently consultants. Each has a long and strong record in the Northwest.

      It is a small community of archaeologists and paleontologists out here, and they are spread thinly across a large landscape with an exciting late Holocene archaeological record. There are geologists, notably John Clague at SFU, who work on the post-glacial history of the Salish Sea, but currently so far as I know there is no academic archaeologist from any institution who is focusing on this problem right here — nor has there ever been, really, unless you go back to Carl Borden ca. 1959. It’s all been about exploring the archaeology of “complex hunter gatherers”.

      My own experience here might be instructive – I’ve been working on Haida Gwaii, 500 miles to the north, where a strong foundation on early Holocene was laid by SFU archaeologist Knut Fladmark. Subsequently, Parks Canada archaeologists, especially Daryl Fedje, did a huge site inventory and dating program, and also did a high-resolution sea level history. At that point, I was lucky enough to get involved and together with Fedje and a large team of enthusiastic graduate students and Haida archaeologists we have found several sites dating back to 13,000 BP or even a little older.

      I would characterize the Salish Sea region as being about where Haida Gwaii was ten years ago in terms of knowledge about the terminal Pleistocene. This suggests to me that it is now ripe for the picking, and we will soon see numerous sites come to light as people learn where to look, how to look, and most importantly, gain optimism about there being a Pleistocene record here and hence going out and getting the substantial funding needed to research this. With the pulling aside of the Clovis curtain, then the old problem of not wanting to buck the prevailing wisdom and gate-keeping of the Clovis-Firsters should make this easier.

      I’m actually starting a Salish Sea project this summer and eventually, once a platform is established in surrounding communities, think that directing effort to this kind of time period will be fruitful.

      Ayer Pond has been done almost entirely outside the traditional archaeological channels, yet four peer-reviewed publications have resulted. Imagine what could be done if the resources of the formal research institutions and structures could be unleashed.


  5. I for one have always taken to heart the ‘you only find what you are looking for’ . This arguement was made eloquently by Kitty Bernick after she discovered that dozens of wet sites in the Fraser Valley had actually been found by previous archaeologists, but they all had ignored the evidence as being a fluke, or had stopped due to the inability to excavate below the water table with little further thought. The evidence for organic preservation, wooden tools, wood chips, even basketry was there in photos and fieldnotes and often in dried-up level bags. Not once; not two or three times; but DOZENS of times. I’ve been looking for them for several decades now; and gee, they show up pretty regularly.

    Obviously a paradigm problem.

    We certainly tried on a number of occasions to find late Pleistocene sites in the Victoria area. One was when the peat-filled glacial kettle was drained in order to build the Victoria Approaches #1 highway up in Langford. It was right at the sea level elevation for the late Pleistocene and I thought a prime candidate for another Manis site. We were stymied by the construction excavation techniques used, plus the fact they did the work without telling us it was happening, so we could’t even monitor the spoil that had been trucked out.


    • Good points — and equally, one reason Monte Verde was not accepted for many years was that it did not resemble what most people thought of as a palaeoindian site: dry, continental setting, elaborate projectile points, high-quality stone raw materials, and poor organic preservation. It was pretty much the opposite and hence was impossible for these high plains geoarchaeologists to get their heads around, even if they had thought it was real, which most of them didn’t.

      Similarly, following on from pointers from Norm Easton many years ago now, we are only just treating the intertidal zone as a rich ribbon of very high potential for intact, stratified, cultural deposits. Kilgii Gwaay was an eye opener, being 10,700 years old and intact, in a beach – but here in the Gulf, Parks Canada now has a series of sites with >3,000 BP intact stratigraphy and features coming out of beaches.

      As Norm said, it’s past time to get feet wet and start treating the beach as a place to look for all manner of sites, and not just a place to walk across from the boat in order to get to the terrestrial homeland of archaeology.


  6. Also, speaking of Bluefish Caves, this news report [below] suggests renewed work there in 2008 – that’s all I know. I think it was Jacques Cinq-Mars though, directing that work, he was also heavily involved in much of the prior work as well.

    In my view, Old Crow area could be that old, or not, but it doesn’t have that much bearing on the first peopling of the Americas anyway because conceptually the Yukon was an eastward extension of of Asia on both sides of the Last Glacial Maximum and up to ca. 13,000 years ago or so, when the ice-free corridor finally appeared, probably too late for Clovis. Prior to LGM, the corridor was open, when? 25k? Most likely too early or there really does arise some valid questions about negative evidence south of the ice sheets — where are the 15,000 additional years of sites? Not a scientific argument, but good enough for this blog. And as others have noted, Pleistocene occupation of Australia has proceeded at a leisurely rate of about 1,000 years older every year and currently sites at about 50,000 BP, in a continent that has seen much less archaeology and much less development.

    Anyway, Morlan has a review in 2003 Quaternary Research on flaked bone assemblages and other aspects of the Old Crow area. This bit of flaked mammoth bone with its complex platform is worth a look, and the whole article summarizes nicely part of the state of play with those enigmatic sites, but does not actually give some key numbers, like ratio of modified to unmodified bones! Nonetheless there are some SEM images of cut marks, including one verified as a cut mark by Pat Shipman, on a bison bone dating to 42,000 BP.


  7. Ahem: and who was Norm Easton following up on who had found the intact intertidal deposits at Montague Harbour ? 😉


  8. And Millennia crews have found intact intertidal cultural deposits at Saltspring Island, Portage Inlet, Esquimalt Harbour, Esquimalt Lagoon, Rocky Point, Nitinat Lake, and probably some others I can’t recall off the top of my head. Combined with the Parks Gulf Islands data, its clear that the intertidal and shallow subtidal should be considered having potential for intact terrstrial archaeological deposits. A major part of the serrated points paper that Martina and I wrote is that these points are found at the hunting sites and the villages of those people are mostly now underwater; we certainly haven’t found any middens older than 3,500 or 4,000 years in the Greater Victoria area. I don’t think that everyone doing archaeology in the Salish Sea (you like that term, clearly Q!), academic or CRM based, has got this message yet; but this blog will help!


    • Who was Norm following up on? Seriously, I’d like to know, since I was in diapers around then.

      I hear also that SFU dug over a metre of intact intertidal at Pender Canal, so as usual the evidence is floating around for ages before it gets acted on. Or, as you say, you find what you are looking for – and not the stuff that isn’t on the mental map.

      In this instance, it would help if the Archaeology Branch and the First Nations affirmatively ask/demand for there to be serious shovel testing and augering in the intertidal zone, regardless of apparent potential, until we get this high-potential, high-significance archaeological ribbon nailed down.

      As for Salish Sea, it’s a handy term when not wanting to exclude northern Puget Sound and so forth.


  9. Your wish is my command! To quote Easton 1991: 8 (this is from the Arch Branch on-line library, and some of the OCR includes transcription errors):

    Eldridge’s more recent survey efforts were directed towards detennination of site
    boundaries and assessment of the significance of site content, and the rate of erosion for cultural
    resource management purposes. His report covers each of these concerns in some detail. Of
    particular interest to the present study is the recording of “undisturbed cultural deposits under the
    beach on the seaward side of the eroding midden deposits” (Eldridge 1989:6), in the course of
    site boundary definition. The lowest cultural deposits below the high water line were
    encountered at the eastern end of the site (Auger Test 24, Section 7), about 0.5 metres above
    hydrographic datum. Auger Tests 20 and 21, in Section 6, also revealed subtidal cultural
    deposits, the bottom of which were not determined. Minimally they extended to almost the same
    depth as Test 24. Eldridge (1989:6) notes that the “presence of undisturbed cultural deposits
    below the high tide level supports Mitchell’ s contention that the site area may have subsided
    relative to sea level since earliest occupation.” Among his conclusions is the recognition that
    these deposits are significant in their potential to contribute to our developing knowledge of
    inundated site formation processes, and recommends their controlled test excavation to
    “detennine the amounts, types, and age of cultural materials present, the preservational qualities
    of the deposits, … and the expected rate of destruction from beach dynamics” (Eldridge

    The original report is
    Eldridge, M. 1989
    Montague Harbour Park Archaeological Sites: A Detailed Evaluation. Report to the
    Archaeology and Outdoor Recreation Branch, B.C. Ministry of Municipal Affairs,
    Recreation, and Culture. Permit Report #1989-10.


  10. The original report included some rather spiffy profiles interpolating from the the Mitchell excavations to the intertidal deposits, all to a hydrographic datum and scale; Norm Easton reproduced several of these (with credit) in his later reports.


  11. and Eldridge’s profiles are reproduced again in a recent paper by Colin Grier et al.’s paper:

    Grier, C., P. Dolan, K. Derr and E. McLay
    2009 Assessing Sea Level Changes in the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia Using Archaeological Data from Coastal Spit Locations. Canadian Journal of Archaeology 33(2):254–280.


  12. Nice going on the prescient front, Morley. That’s only 21 years and counting when we should have been doing more with the intertidal!

    Thanks twoeyes. Here is the figure in question from Eldridge via Grier 2009. The strat really does connect or interpolate. Cool.

    I suppose one jurisdictional issue is that private property ends at high tide, so many impact assessments won’t have applied to intertidal, hence testing doesn’t fall within the scope of the project? Academics should be all over this stuff though.


  13. For a number of years now if a project crosses the intertidal zone (docks, cable landings, boat launches, dredging programs, etc) then the Archaeology Branch often, (usually), makes sure that there will be examination *and* testing of the intertidal zone at a reasonable low tide. There is also the trouble that many archaeologists have scant, if any, direct experience with wet deposits and might miss wooden artifacts entirely. It is necessary to also include some kind of washing or wet screening of deposits removed from the intertidal tests.

    I remember agitating for intertidal testing at a marina development in Blue Heron Basin in about 1980 at some public hearings about the marina. I was rewarded with the task of doing it (unpaid) with an employee of the branch. Sadly, we found nothing, though with hindsight we may not have tested enough. That area is all dredged away now. In the 1960’s or early 1970 an intertidal wet site was found near the head of Tsehum Harbour during marina dredging and dealt with somehow by Don Abbott. It never made it into a report, or the minds of local archaeologists, or things might have begun to change sooner.

    Morley, add Forrest Island to your list.


  14. I always like to bring up the first professional archaeology done in the province: in an 1898 letter to Franz Boas, Harlan I Smith wrote:

    If we could but see some of the things that have decayed in the [shell midden] mounds we should know more. Today, we dug in a bog, between a shell heap and a mortar in a huge bowlder, about one hundred feet apart, in hopes the bog waters had preserved some things that decay in shell heaps, but we had no success (p 4-5)

    Now if he had lucked out and found a wetsite in 1898, I’m sure they would have been more at the forefront ever since.


  15. Morley – the mortar in a huge boulder sounds cool in its own right, especially with intertidal bedrock mortars/bowls coming to light now. Drucker found a wet site in 1942 or whatever as I think we’ve discussed before, and certainly by the 1960s they were known. And by 1980 there were really no excuses. The case of intact shell midden in the intertidal is a puzzling exemplar of this – known to be possible but not on people’s radar. Maybe we need a big book of BC Field archaeology that outlines all the possible site types and what is known and how to address them and plan for them. A Field Manual for the diverse and often tricky coastal scene.

    Or these days, a web site would fill that niche. It should be aimed at professionals and at First Nations and at citizens and developers as well. In fact, I think something similar to this is indeed being cooked up as I type….

    APM – good example, I remember that wet site at Cedar Grove marina, and another at North Saanich Marina/blue heron basin.

    Oh, and interesting to see Norm Easton was following up on Millennia – but I do think in particular that he helped put watery stuff on the map via his 1985 MA thesis on reef netting (more on that soon), and then his 1992 polemic on the coastal route in Arctic Anthropology still nails the disciplinary reasons for lack of attention to wet things – archaeology is about the EARTH dammit.


  16. Morley — I just found by accident a paper on short-faced bear taphonomy. Here is a picture of a mammoth calcaneous completely bitten through by, they deduce, arctodus. Nothing like this at Ayer’s Pond but obviously it would be nice to see more. That mammoth was pretty chewed up, which they attribute to being possibly dire wolf except for one or two elements they attribute to short faced bear, a mandible of which was found, contemporaneous, so they know it was in the area at the time. The consider Panthera but seem not very convinced. (the arrow shows the bite)


    Volume 38 Issue 3, Pages 482 – 492
    Late Pleistocene giant short-faced bears, mammoths, and large carcass scavenging in the Saltville Valley of Virginia, USA


  17. I had a good talk or two with Michael Wilson at the CAA in Calgary (he’d folowed this discussion). I am much less sceptical of the evidence now, and understand that microscopy is on the way, but its been difficult for a whole bunch of reasons. I really look forward to more. If you are reading this Jim Stafford, I know an identical geological location to the various Orcas and Saanich ones that is on Pender Island it would be worthwhile checking on from time to time to see if bison is turning up!

    Oh, and the evening lecture by Len Hills about the St Mary’s Reservoir artifacts (Clovis to historic), butchered horse, and trackways of everything from camel to horse and ground sloth – absolutely superb!! They even were able to estimate herd age dynamics from the mammoth tracks (there were that many) and conclude the mammoth population was in decline at the time. I think most of this has been published, but I’d not read it in detail, and the printed page is very different from a narrative with big, clear slides! Some very elegant work.


    • Hi Morley, I am reading this and hoping to see some bison bones on here on Pender sooner than later, on my list of “things to find”, um, with embedded paleopoint of course. Are you speaking of an eroding exposure? I have scoped out some ancient kettles and their associated arch sites and hope to encourage the property owners to have some scientific work done for free (that’s the hard part at this point, plus I’m kinda busy). I have spoken with all the old time backhoe operators and have identified a few areas with these massive shell deposits , no big bones have been reported during the diggings of these but I know where they are. One of the high potential areas is being considered as our community farm and we may conduct a freebee AIA…


    • Thanks for the update, Morley. I do wish the Orcas bison had been able to be professionally excavated (and maybe a few flake tools or choppers or something found) but the bone taphonomy does seem to be very strong to me. I’ll look forward to the SEM work and anything else they produce.

      Yes, time to go get some of these early sites – Tatlow Road, or the Pender case you mention, which is probably the same one I’ve heard about – a boggy context with “old looking” projectile points around it? What are those Pender archaeologists doing with all their free time?

      [edit} I see at least one of them tore himself away from his macrame projects long enough to answer.


  18. Morley and Quentin:

    Please recall as well that Mike Wilson has looked at a LOT of bison bones in his career.

    Regarding Wally’s Beach, it is highly impressive paleontologically but in my view the human connection is still iffy. I’m not convinced of the horse blood on artifacts as published in American Antiquity, the locale is subject to very heavy wind deflation and reservoir erosion, and thus lag deposition. Date the blood, I say.


  19. You’re right, Mad Dog, that Wilson is not some random Fish Guy with a sideline in bison.

    I wish there was more on the open web about Wally’s Beach. There is almost nothing. And paranthetically, it is a bit maddening that, for example, Paul McNeil’s 2009 dissertation on Wally’s Beach can be purchased online from an American company, but is listed but not uploaded at the Canadian Theses portal. Last I checked, U. Calgary was waaaay behind on making theses and dissertations available through dSpace or similar repositories.|McNeil|&spi=-&rp=1&v=1


  20. I’m still a bit sceptical of ancient blood. But the horse pics were very convincing, with flake under the vertebral column (in contact) and a large cobble clearly used to bash apart the column itself lying between/in contact with the displaced parts of column. Aeolian depositional environment, and those rocks didn’t get there by themselves. This feature was excavated by archaeologists, with just the top exposed by wind. Couldn’t be better association I don’t think.


  21. Morley, consider perhaps 12,000 years of erosion and deposition, and more erosion and more deposition, etc, a fluvial environment to boot, but let’s discuss in person sometime and leave this blog for NW Coast.


  22. I see the National Post had a short article on this story a month ago or so, so, just for the record:


    • Quentin, the National Post article was actually published two years ago (March 25, 2008), while the SAA meeting was going on in Vancouver. We presented our results in a symposium there. The article remains surprisingly current but of course a lot has happened since then. It takes a long time for even an accepted journal article to appear in print!


  23. I got a bison skeleton.
    Was under Mt Mazama ash.
    Thats about it.
    Just a skeleton out there, coming visible a little at a time and the exposed bones are not in good shape but the ones still buried are great – we looked at a chart to be sure it was not a cow. Not sure what to do with it .


    • Dan-

      I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to take as many high quality pictures as you can. That is something that would have helped our analysis at Ayer Pond tremendously.

      I have sent an email to Mike Wilson to alert him that you may be in touch. You can also contact me if it is more convenient. In any case I urge you to get some competent help and advice before excavating further.

      Checking in with this blog was a very good first step.


    • Hi Dan, we’d be delighted to hear more about your find. Is it on the coast or in the interior? We are only beginning to learn about geographic variation in bison between the coast and the midcontinent. Our “island bison” seem to have had smaller horns than their cousins on the Great Plains, at the same time. Thus any new pre-Mazama discoveries are potentially very important in helping us to figure out how and why the bison changed in size through time. I look forward to hearing from you.


  24. Dan,

    qmackie is off in the field for a month so won’t be able to write back to you for a while. I would suggest in the meantime that you contact Michael Wilson at Douglas College in Vancouver. He will either be directly interested, or will know who to put you in touch with in your local area – you can be assured that he would be very interested to hear from you. You can find his phone and email on this page:


  25. Quick check-in from Vanderhoof….

    Thanks, APM — that’s good advice.

    Dan – that’s fascinating. Where abouts (generally) are you and was the bison found in a bog? It would be great to know more and if possible get it checked out in case it happens to have also been butchered. Exciting!


  26. A little news snippet on the Ayer Pond bison, showing it being x-rayed, with no real results reported but interesting nonetheless.

    This similar news item has a slideshow of the x-rays:


  27. Mitchel N. Townsend

    What about Hominin Teeth marks? This will help determine and support possible tool marks. Rib Peeling, Molar and Pre-Molar dentition impression Signature Analysis, and Ichnologically (Behavioral) correlation will all help strengthen the analysis and conclusions. Incisor “notches” and Linear scoring are also hominid diagnostic dentition characteristics. I recently wrote a paper which is currently in peer review that discusses this very identification process. I have also recently discovered what may be the very first Pre-Ice Age Cultural Artifact deposition location (Pictographs) in WA State. The art work and tooling is going to re-define the timeline of North American population migration chronology. M Townsend


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