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Digging for 14,000 Years

Visit an Archaeological Dig at One of the Oldest-Known Settlements in North America

It’s 14,000 years ago, and enormous ice sheets cover most of what is now called Canada, except for portions of the Pacific coast.

An archaeological site in coastal British Columbia gives us a glimpse into this world and reaffirms the oral history (núyṃ) of the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) people who still live here.

Scroll through an excavation on Triquet Island—layer by layer—and uncover one of the oldest repeatedly occupied settlements in North America.

Map of BC showing Triquet Island Triquet Island

The Excavation

An expert team of archaeologists and Haíɫzaqv community members spent weeks sifting more than five cubic meters of excavated material. That’s equivalent to examining half of a cement mixing truck of soil, sand, clay, and rocks—all by hand. The team separated artifacts, animal bones, and other evidence of human habitation and meticulously recorded the exact sediment layer where each item originated.

This is called stratigraphy. The word stratigraphy comes from a combination of Latin and Greek words meaning “description of a layer.” The stratigraphy uncovered at a site is a mix of both natural and cultural accumulations laid down in layers like a birthday cake with older layers typically lower down.

(Un)stable Sea Levels

If you could travel back in time 14,000 years, you wouldn’t recognize the shape of British Columbia’s coastline. Vancouver is under a glacier. A vast dry plain covers what is now underwater in the Hecate Strait between Haida Gwaii and the mainland. Sea levels rise and fall as glaciers grow and shrink and as tectonic plates shift. The area around Triquet Island is an exception. Through a serendipitous combination of factors, sea levels in this area stay relatively stable, which creates a unique opportunity for archaeologists.

The Shifting Story of Bones

Deeper, older layers contain mostly bones from sea mammals, such as seals and sea lions. In contrast, the shallower layers reveal people’s shift toward a fishier diet. In more recent times, herring, salmon, rockfish, and lingcod played a more prominent role as technologies and culture changed.

Volcano Glass Trade

Obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, was a precious material. Obsidian cutting instruments can be sharper than a surgeon’s blade. But you need a volcano to make obsidian and the closest source to Triquet Island is at Anahim Peak more than 200 kilometers away. Enter trade. To get obsidian, coastal peoples traded resources that interior peoples could not access, such as the valuable fish oil from a silvery smelt called eulachon.

The Bottom?

The landscape in these early years was tundra-like. Although no artifacts are found below the anvil stone, smaller test cores reveal layers of older clay. Analysis from Hakai Institute geoscientists shows that Triquet Island was glacier-free around 16,800 years ago. Even older settlement sites in the region are therefore not out of the realm of possibility. The archaeology story continues.

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Dṇ́y̓ás (Cedar Phase)
(~5,500—400 years ago)
C̓íc̓xvp̓át (Shells Phase)
(~8,000—5,500 years ago)
Gáḷgḷ̓a (Beach Phase)
(~14,000—8,000 years ago)