Excavations at the Mink Island site, XMK-164., Katmai, Alaska. Source: ADN.com
Some news just puts the fear of Cod into you. For example, there’s an interesting study from earlier this year which suggests that rising sea levels in the Alaskan middle Holocene (in the study: roughly 7,000 to 4,000 years ago) released methyl mercury compounds into the nearshore environment (Open Source paper by Maribeth Murray et al., 2015). These then accumulated in fish, specifically Pacific Cod, Gadus macrocephalus, and presumably also in other species which predate upon these cod, such as humans. It’s an interesting preliminary study, but before you think, “Oh My Gadus, Ancient Alaskans were Mad Hatters running amok with mercury-induced neuropathy”, there are some important details to consider.
Posted in alaska, Archaeology
Tagged aboriginal fisheries, alaska, climate change, cod, fish, health, Hg, historical ecology, Katmai, mercury, methyl mercury, pacific cod
Herring “spawn drying in the sun near Sitka Alaska”, ca. 1900. Source: Sealaska Heritage Institute, Richard Wood Collection. http://goo.gl/y8NF2h
Herring are taking Northwest Coast archaeology by storm. A series of key insights and publications has pulled these little fish into the heart of our reconstructions of subsistence – across the entire coast, and into its deepest history. It’s an interesting development which highlights once again how prone archaeologists can be to a myopic faith in our received models: salmon and cedar speak the loudest and it turns out we needed an aid in hearing herring.
Herring were valued in two very different ways: as delicious food in their own right, and for their eggs, which they would spawn in prodigious numbers in the nearshore, often on kelp or on conifer branches, which could even be placed in the water by people for this purpose. The spawn fishery would leave little or no durable archaeological evidence, and perhaps has been correspondingly underestimated by local researchers. Eating the fish themselves has left a widespread, robust record, yet one which has also been underestimated. All this by way of introducing the picture above, which I haven’t seen reproduced elsewhere, showing gobs of dried herring spawn near Sitka, Alaska. It’s from the excellent online photo archives of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Each of those clumps is like a rich, nutrient-dense, yet storable, delicious marine omelet.
The emerging archaeology of herring is too big a topic for a mere blog to cover, but click onwards for a couple more comments and links.
So, still rustling around the weird world of weirs. The online Alaskan archives have quite a few interesting examples – and, kind of remarkably, a video showing the construction of a weir near Atka, which is on the Aleutian Islands. The trap in the video is pretty similar to a couple of other Aleutian ones in the collection, which I’ll talk about below. It’s really cool to not only see a more-or-less traditional trap being built (look at the rocks being casually dropped down by the wooden fence!) but the photos also show weirs actually in use. There’s probably a lot to learn from these pictures – as any introductory textbook in archaeology will tell you, the more we know about the behavioural context of a given site type, the more we can reliably infer the cultural context when presented only with the archaeological remains.
Posted in alaska, Archaeology, archives, First Nations, Northwest Interior, Northwest Coast, Technology
Tagged aboriginal fisheries, alaska, fish, fish traps, fish weirs, salmon, weirs, Yukon
Building Koeye Weir. Photo by Grant Callegari via indiegogo.
There’s a pretty amazing new construction on the on the Koeye River (pronounced roughly “kwaay”) on the central coast of B.C. (map). A team has built a traditional style wooden-weir across the river, and are using it for fishery management – trapping, counting, measuring, and gently releasing salmon at the end (and start) of their life cycle. The construction has been documented at the willatlas.com blog, including some amazing photos, and there are posts on the Hakai Beach Institute blog as well. Even better, there is a short documentary. This is actually is a teaser for a longer documentary, which is in the fund-raising stage, and I don’t mind using this blog as a platform to bring this really great project to people’s attention. You can see their fundraising page here.
Posted in anthropology, Archaeology, First Nations, Northwest Coast, Technology
Tagged aboriginal fisheries, fish traps, fish weirs, fishing, Heiltsuk, Koeye River, salmon, traditional use, weirs
Measurement of vertebral height. Source: Huber et al. 2011
Salmon are a crucial cultural keystone species across most of the Northwest, of very high importance to many coastal and interior cultural groups for thousands of years. Many archaeological sites are chock full of salmon bones, and the oldest of these are around 10,000 years old. As a cultural story, the importance of salmon is obvious. Increasingly though, the archaeological data are also invoked to tell the history of salmon themselves. The very long-term view of the archaeological record provides knowledge of their ranges, their relative abundance, their life histories, etc. These data can then be harnessed as part of conservation and fisheries management of these threatened species of fish.
Each species offers different things to people: some run early, some late; some are more fatty, some leaner; some run in huge compact numbers, others tend to dribble by; some can be caught in large numbers in the open ocean, others can only be caught efficiently in streams. There’s just one problem with using salmon bones in archaeology: until recently, you really couldn’t tell one species of salmon from another based only on their bones.
Eulachon. Source: Sitnews.net
I often use eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus, a small, anadramous smelt) as an example of “archaeologically-invisible” food. They are also known as “candlefish”, on account of being so oily that a wick jammed down their throat will burn like a candle.
These small fish run by the millions up rivers to spawn, where they could be intercepted. Traditionally, many or most eulachon would be processed into eulachon oil, or grease: a highly nutritious, calorie-dense substance that preserved very well and could also be used to preserve other foods such as berries. The means of processing was to put them into a large container, perhaps an old canoe, known colloquially as a “stink box”, let them “rest” there for a week, and then heat them up, enabling the oil to rise and then be skimmed off, or pressed out. The residue (bones, guts, brains, etc.) would then be returned to the river and few or no bones would make it away from the processing site. In this way, eulachon provided a staple food, a nutritional supplement, a means of preservation, and an extremely valuable trade item – when Alexander Mackenzie arrived near Bella Coola in 1793, “Over Land, From Canada”, he did so on one of the well-worn grease trails that linked coast to interior. Since the fish arrive in the early Spring, they were hailed as starvation busters in lean years. Nonetheless, archaeologically they are almost invisible, relative to their importance.
Haisla eulachon catch from the Kemano River. Source: living landscapes.
It is therefore sobering to read that U.S. President Obama has listed the Columbia River eulachon as an endangered species: eulachon are becoming almost invisible relative to the real world now, it seems.
Posted in anthropology, First Nations, history, Northwest Coast, Oregon
Tagged aboriginal fisheries, anthropology, eulachon, First Nations, fishery management, fishing, history, Nass River, Northwest Coast, Nuxalk, oolichan, oolikan, Oregon, smelt, traditional use