I’ve just dipped into an interesting paper (PDF) by Sarah Campbell and Virginia Butler, which explores 7,500 years of relationship between First Nations and Pacific Salmon. While, as ever, the archaeological evidence is discontinuous and somewhat patchy, the authors reach profound conclusions that go far beyond the usual archaeological focus on the past, as if the past still exists other than in the present.
The Northwest Coast was estimated to have the second highest indigenous population density in North America (after California) at European contact, with population estimates ranging from 102,100 to 210,100 (Ubelaker 2006). Haggan et al. (2006) propose an annual average per person consumption rate of 230 kg/yr based on two 19th- century estimates. At this rate, 200,000 people would annually consume 46,000 metric tons (50,706 tons) of salmon, comparable in magnitude to the average yearly commercial catch between 1901 and 2000 (Jones 2002). (emphasis added)
Riffing on the archaeological data they assemble, which I won’t review here, the authors paint a picture of a broad-spectrum resource adaptation, with salmon as an important food, but not the only food. I think we are finally starting to get a handle on the intensity of resource management that was practiced along the Northwest Coast, resulting in a long-term, sustainable, hyper-abundant environment which did not just happen to be optimal for humans, but was to some extent a result of human agency. With an investment in the multidimensional resources of the environment, First Nations supported a large population through an ethos of stewardship that was regulated by the supernatural, by kinship, and respect:
Flexible resource use, including human use of a range of local resources, many of which are linked in a food web with salmon, likely contributed to resilience. Most important were the beliefs and social institutions (including ownership, regulation, rituals, and monitoring) that placed restraints on salmon use as a common pool resource. In contrast, only a small fraction of our modern society relies economically on or has direct interaction with the fish, which limits our concern and willingness to fundamentally change behaviours that contribute to habitat degradation and loss, the main challenges facing salmon populations today.
They then continue,
As historic and contemporary records illustrate, indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest engaged in complex rituals that reflected and contributed to core beliefs related to native animals and plants, and the landscape in which people lived. Traditions and institutions of First Nations peoples and Native Americans incorporated explicit monitoring of resource use and proprietorship, which helped convert open-access resources into common-pool ones. In our modern world, the newly formed rituals and beliefs and local community monitoring efforts that emerge from the much greater public engagement we advocate may not be sufficient to restore salmon populations in themselves, but the past tells us social connections are necessary. We need to continue to support scientific studies, and find ways to improve habitats overall, but in the meantime, also put more resources into activities that promote development of social beliefs and traditions about the value of salmon and their ecosystems to our everyday lives.
In other words, if you stop building your environment after 7,500 years, it may collapse. If you treat the web of life as a series of disconnected packages to open, it will unravel. It’s good to see archaeologists reach out and create strong connections to the social and ecological circumstances of today. Their paper is actually one of many non-archaeological papers in a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Society, all the papers in which appear to be downloadable free of charge.
Sarah K. Campbell and Virginia L. Butler 2010.
Archaeological Evidence for Resilience of Pacific Northwest Salmon Populations and the Socioecological System over the last ~7,500 years. (Synthesis, part of a Special Feature on Pathways to Resilient Salmon Ecosystems) Ecology and Society 15 (1):17.