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Archaeology in National Marine Conservation Areas of Canada

Between Land and Sea: 13,000 Years of Archaeological Evidence for Habitation in Haida Gwaii

Parks Canada’s archaeological work in Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site is revealing new insights regarding the early occupation of the area by the predecessors of the present-day Haida.

The rich archaeological record in Haida Gwaii stretches back at least 13,000 years, supporting the theory that the area was one of the first stops for populations migrating south from Alaska. Maritime sites include over 600 identified coastal archaeological sites, such as shell middens, that are of great cultural and spiritual significance to the Haida, as well as other post-contact site types such as historic shipwrecks.

In partnership with the Haida Nation, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, and university researchers, Parks Canada archaeologists Daryl Fedje and Nicole Smith are unravelling the past in Gwaii Haanas NMCA Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.

Excavation at Gaadu Din cave Excavation at Gaadu Din cave in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site
© Parks Canada

Much of the early history of Haida Gwaii lies deep below the waters of Hecate Strait as a result of rapid sea level changes that happened between 15,000 and 11,000 years ago. Fedje, Smith, and their collaborators have used sea-level reconstruction to search for archaeological sites ranging from submerged coastal sites to upland caves. Archaeological evidence found in cave sites in southern Haida Gwaii show that people were hunting bears in this area as early as 13,000 years ago, but little else is known about these early inhabitants of Haida Gwaii.

The earliest detailed archaeological evidence is found at sites in the intertidal zone. At Kilgii Gwaay, sea levels flooded an ancient campsite about 10,600 years ago and the site remained underwater until recent times. Because the site was continually covered in sea water, there was unusually good preservation of bone, wooden tools, and basket fragments. The remains of marine animals, including albatross, seals, sea lions, ling cod, rockfish, and halibut, show that by 10,700 years ago people in Haida Gwaii were already maritime experts adept in deepwater fishing. Until just a few decades ago, conventional wisdom held that people in the Americas did not fully develop a pattern of maritime resource use until about 5,000 years ago. These discoveries show that the legendary fishing culture of Haida Gwaii has much older roots than previously believed and supports theories that the earliest settlers in the Americas travelled down the Pacific coast.

Mapping a Fish Weir in Matheson Inlet Mapping a Fish Weir in Matheson Inlet, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site
© Parks Canada

Research at a site on Richardson Island related to rising sea levels and continental rebound revealed stone and bone artifacts excavated from archaeological deposits up to 5 m thick. Most of the artifacts date from about 10,500 to 9,500 years ago, a time when sea levels may have risen by as much as 5 m over the course of a person’s lifetime. These rapid changes would have resulted in a continuous need to move settlements along the coast. In addition, the shifting of the intertidal zone continually exposed new sources of raw materials for making stone tools. Sea levels stabilized about 10,000 years ago and then remained stable for about 4,000 years before starting to gradually lower to current levels.

More recently, the archaeologists have focussed their research on the intertidal zone, where they have been surveying to find archaeological features that are at risk from coastal erosion and rising sea levels, such as ancient village sites, fish weirs, intertidal gardens and lithic scatters. The remains of fish weirs consist of rows of sharpened stakes, which show that the Haida were intensively harvesting salmon at a very early date. The Haida may have also used intertidal gardens to cultivate shellfish. Although no archaeological evidence of plant cultivation in estuaries has yet been found in Haida Gwaii, the archaeologists are intrigued by early ethnographic observations made by Charles Newcombe, who described how the Haida cleared stones off their clover gardens and separated them with fences. Elsewhere on the coast, intertidal gardens were used to cultivate resources such as clams, springbank clover, and pacific silverweed. This exciting research is rewriting the history of First Nations settlement on the Pacific Coast, as it challenges the idea that early coastal populations were exclusively hunters and gatherers.


Council of the Haida Nation 

Gwaii Haanas Marine: Introduction (YouTube Video)

Gwaii Haanas Marine: Journey from Mountain Top to Sea Floor (YouTube Video)

Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site Interim Management Plan and Zoning Plan (PDF, 1.5 MB)

University of Victoria: 10,000 Years Ago in Haida Gwaii 

Simon Fraser University Museum: Finding Ancient Shorelines 

Stories from Gwaii Haanas - Daryl Fedje & Nicole Smith: Finding Ancient Shorelines (YouTube Video)
Part 1 
Part 2 


Daryl W. Fedje and Rolf W. Mathewes. 2005. Haida Gwaii: Human History and Environment from the Time of Loon to the Time of the Iron People. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press

Dennis Horwood. 2009. Haida Gwaii: The Queen Charlotte Islands. Surrey, BC: Heritage House Publishing.