Tim Heaton at work in OYK cave. Screenshot from video.
On July 4, 1996, paleontologist Tim Heaton was busy at his last day of fieldwork at On-Your-Knees Cave on northern Prince of Wales Island, Southeast Alaska (map). At this and other caves Heaton had recovered a remarkable array of fauna from both before, during, and after the last glacial maximum, including a variety of black and brown bear bones. Until this point, he had not found any human remains, but that changed with the discovery of a human mandible and the subsequent discoveries of other scattered, chewed remains. In due course, an archaeological site was also found at the entrance to the cave, dating to about 10,300 calender years ago, the same as the human remains. Excavation at this site was led by E. James (Jim) Dixon, whose footsteps I often feel like I am stumbling along in. In one layer in the site, they actually found one of the missing teeth from the mandible, showing the extent to which the bones had been scattered, and, sinisterly, chewed, presumably by bears. The most likely interpretation is that the site represents a bear hunting camp at the entrance to the cave, and that on at least one occasion, the bears got the upper hand.
Anyway, the remains of this young man have revealed important details of the life of early people on the Northwest Coast, and the study also exemplifies how strong relationships, respect, and adherence to protocol can allow for scientific and cultural priorities to unfold together. It’s therefore quite exciting to find a 30 minute video detailing the process of research at On-Your-Knees Cave: “Kuwoot yas.ein: His Spirit is Looking Out from the Cave“.
Gaadu Din 2 is an archaeological site in a small limestone cave in Haida Gwaii. It is a narrow, sinuous cave which probably was used on occasion by denning bears during the Younger Dryas cold period at the end of the Pleistocene:. Currently it is at about 100 metres above sea level and 500 metres from the shore, but when occupied it was as much as 200 metres above the then-lower sea levels and up to 5 km from the shore. The logistics of bringing excavation equipment to this mountainside location are significant, as is the care required by Parks Canada’s rigorous standards for the proper treatment and rehabilitation of karst post-project.
Among the interesting features of this cave is its very flat floor and very dry interior. Thus, while narrow and cramped, it would have also offered some reasonable shelter to humans near the entrance, where there would have been daylight. Based on this and other hints, we conducted a brief excavation at the entrance and quickly established that there had been – on at least four occasions spanning over 1,000 years — a small campfire built, around which people did a small amount of stone tool repair. This was between about 10,800 and 13,000 years ago. Probably this cave was used as a staging post for winter-time bear hunting in the other caves in the area, and bears may have been hunted in this cave itself as well. You can imagine them, the day of the successful hunt, spending the night at this entrance, warming themselves by the fire, telling stories of the day’s dramatic events, and tweaking their toolkit to be ready for the next.
In any case, it is a remarkable thought that on at least four discrete occasions, separated by centuries, people came to this cave and built a fire in the same place as their ancestors had done. It was a privilege to sit where they sat and, together with Haida archaeologists descended from these hunters, to recover the clues they left behind, which may well form the oldest known archaeological site in Canada. There is no space here to relate all we know from these caves but suffice it to say for now that these are heritage sites that reveal not only hunting practices but the spirituality which surrounds those hunting practices and continues to inform and imbue Haida respect for bears to this day.
It is fortunate that these caves lie within Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, but many similar caves in BC, with similar materials undoubtedly within them, do not share this protection and are commonly destroyed. This is because there is both insufficient protection for karst as a special landform with unique ecological attributes, and a general lack of appreciation within the archaeological community about the potential that such caves hold for archaeological sites of the highest possible significance.
Posted in Archaeology, Cultural Resource Management, fieldwork, Haida Gwaii, Northwest Coast
Tagged annotation, bears, caves, Gaadu Din, Haida, Haida Gwaii, hunting, Karst
Gaadu Din 2007
In 2007 we returned to Gaadu Din 1, a cave on the east side of Huxley Island (map) in Haida Gwaii. In the front is Jenny (Jinky, Sniffer, Killer), while behind left to right you see her fellow UVIC graduate students Brendan (Binky, Loafer, Skipper, Dumper) and Adrian (Goat-Boy), while to the right is Jordan (Haida Watchman – which is not a nickname!). The cave entrance can be glimpsed between Brendan and Adrian. Gaadu Din has revealed an incredible record of terminal Pleistocene fauna and artifacts, showing Ancestral Haida winter-time bear hunting as early as 10,600 14C years ago (13,000 calendar years ago). Among the fauna are black bear, which still live on Haida Gwaii, but also brown (grizzly) bear and coast deer, neither of which were known to be native to these islands (deer are common on Haida Gwaii, but these are historically introduced). The deer in Gaadu Din all date to a narrow time window just prior to the onset of the Younger Dryas cold period, and presumably could not survive those harsh, snowy conditions, and had no way of repopulating the now-remote archipelago after modern climatic conditions arose.