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The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries

The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries


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For thousands of years, fisheries were crucial to the sustenance of the First Peoples of the Pacific Coast. Yet human impact has left us with a woefully incomplete understanding of their histories prior to the industrial era. Covering Alaska, British Columbia, and Puget Sound, The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries illustrates how the archaeological record reveals new information about ancient ways of life and the histories of key species. Individual chapters cover salmon, as well as a number of lesser-known species abundant in archaeological sites, including pacific cod, herring, rockfish, eulachon, and hake. In turn, this ecological history informs suggestions for sustainable fishing in today’s rapidly changing environment.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602231467
Publisher: University of Alaska Press
Publication date: 11/15/2011
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Madonna L. Moss is professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon. Aubrey Cannon is professor of anthropology at McMaster University in Ontario.

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The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries

University of Alaska Press

Copyright © 2011 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60223-146-7

Chapter One

The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries An Introduction

Madonna L. Moss, Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon Aubrey Cannon, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University

For more than 10,000 years, the First Peoples of the Pacific coast of North America have sustained themselves with a variety of coastal resources, but of these, the remains of fish and shellfish are the most abundant in the region's archaeological sites. Human impacts on fisheries over the last 200 years have left us with a woefully incomplete understanding of the long-term histories of fish species prior to the industrial era. The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries brings together studies from Alaska to British Columbia to Puget Sound in an effort to start to fill this knowledge gap and to expand our understanding of the histories of the region's fishing cultures. The record derives from the ancestors of the Aleut, Alutiiq, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Gitksan, Nisga'a, Witsuwit'en, Heiltsuk, Wuikinuxv, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish First Nations.

Even though fishing is by convention subsumed under the term hunter-gatherer, fishing was of such primary importance to the peoples of the North Pacific region that the less elegant but more accurate term hunter-fisher-gatherer, now in widespread use to describe the Mesolithic peoples of Northwest Europe, is more appropriate. Pacific coast societies practiced many different types of fishing, but social groups also maintained control over fishing territories. They were not just fishers but fisheries resource managers, perfecting systems of ecosystem management tailored to their individual circumstances. They successfully harvested a wide range of species, but their management and control of salmon were of special significance. The peoples of the North Pacific mastered the technologies of fish processing and storage, leading them to accumulate significant surpluses. Although the term food producers is usually applied only to horticultural or agricultural societies, North Pacific coast societies were clearly food producers, and the keys to that food production were fishing and storage technologies and fisheries harvest and management strategies.

Pacific coast societies invested in infrastructure and altered some aspects of their physical environments to promote fisheries production. Perhaps the most significant aspect of their economic systems was the way they managed harvests through systems of territorial ownership and control, restraining uncontrolled resource use through systems of social relations. Tribes, clans, and households were caretakers of particular watersheds, fish streams, and stretches of ocean shoreline. They managed harvests as trustees who had established long-term relationships not only with resource territories but also with the plant and animal persons with whom they shared their worlds. As Richard Atleo (2005:ix) has explained, proper relationships had to be maintained between all life-forms. He uses salmon as an example:

Since the salmon and human have common origins they are brothers and sisters of creation. Since the assumption of all relationships between all life-forms is a common ancestry, protocols become necessary in the exercise of resource management. If the salmon are not properly respected and recognized they cannot properly respect and recognize their human counterparts of creation. This historical process is neither evolutionary nor developmental in the linear sense. Changes are not from simple to complex, as a more modern world-view would have it, but from complex to complex, from equal to equal, from one life-form to another.

This ideology helps explain the ecological prudence of some Pacific coast societies and the restraint with which they historically managed resources. Another aspect of traditional ecological knowledge involved understanding relationships between species within ecosystems. Although this book focuses on the archaeological record of North Pacific fisheries, and cannot fully address worldview and philosophy, the ethic described by Atleo (2005) provides a secure foundation for principles of resource management.

Fishing, Fisheries management, and Fish Processing

Most Pacific coast archaeological sites contain some evidence of fishing. In the typical open shell midden, one may find a harpoon point used on a spear, a fishing gorge, a net weight, or parts of a composite fishhook. Far more abundant will be the remains of the fish themselves, and although salmon are the most widely known, the bones of Pacific cod and other gadids, rockfish, lingcod, greenlings, herring, flatfish, surfperch, and sculpins are common. Halibut, spiny dogfish, skate, eulachon, smelt, ratfish, jack mackerel, tuna, sticklebacks, and pricklebacks are also found (e.g., Cannon 1995; Christensen and Stafford 2005; Crockford 1997; Moss 2004). Fish typically account for the greatest number of bones in the region's archaeological faunal assemblages, usually in the order of 85 to 95 percent. Fishing is represented in town, village, and camp sites across the region.

Isotopic studies of the bones of Shuká Kaa show that this man living more than 11,000 years ago on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska had a diet rich in seafood (Kemp et al. 2007). Although we do not know the precise composition of his diet, it likely included fish. At The Dalles on the Columbia River, vast numbers of salmon were caught by site residents over 9300 cal bp (Butler and O'Connor 2004). From Namu, located on the central coast of British Columbia, Cannon and Yang (2006) studied the ancient DNA of salmon bones to better understand the fishery. They found convincing evidence for the long-term reliance on pink salmon going back 7,000 years. Using other seasonal indications from the site, they build a strong case that at least some Namu residents lived at the site year-round and were dependent on a salmon storage economy. Cannon and Yang also argue that storage and sedentism in this case can be decoupled from other indicators of "cultural complexity," including increasing population density and social inequality. Following up on earlier work (Cannon 1991, 1995, 1998), they found additional support for a disruption in the pink salmon fishery about 4,000 years ago that led site residents to compensate for shortfalls with more marginal resources such as ratfish. The cause of this disruption is unknown, but it helps demonstrate how historical contingencies can affect local archaeological records, which are sometimes misread as indicators of long-term evolutionary change. This research does not mean that economies based on salmon as storage staples were established everywhere on the Pacific coast 7,000 or more years ago, but it does shake up the widely held assumption that storage technologies were a late development (e.g., Matson 1992).

Since the mid-1980s, considerable data have been accumulating from sites found in the water-saturated environments of the intertidal zone, where wood and fiber artifacts and features preserve. These are the remains of intertidal fishing weirs and traps, arrangements of wood stakes driven into muddy substrates (Moss and Erlandson 1998; Moss, Erlandson, and Stuckenrath 1990). Over 1,200 such sites have been found in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon (Moss forthcoming). Of these, fewer than 200 have been radiocarbon dated, with the sites ranging in age from ca. 5500 cal bp to the twentieth century. Weirs and traps made exclusively of stone also number in the hundreds, but because most cannot be directly dated (like the one near the mouth of the Namu River), they have not been intensively studied. These numbers provide evidence of the scale of mass capture of fish on parts of the North Pacific coast.

Ethnographically described technologies include weirs, traps, and nets. A weir is a fence-like structure, set across a river or stream or in an estuarine tidal channel for catching fish. Weirs were built in shallow waters to block the upstream movement of fish or strand them with the outgoing tide. Sometimes stakes were closely spaced; other times, generous spaces between stakes were filled in with minimally altered brush or boughs woven into a framework or with manufactured latticework (rectangular woven screens).

A trap might consist of an arrangement of wood stakes, stones, or other elements left in place as an enclosure. These might be large structures embedded in the tidal channel or stream, and some had removable parts. Basketry traps occurred in cylindrical, conical, or globular forms and were often attached to the more stationary weirs or traps described above. Latticework sections could be configured into rectangular traps or rolled into a cylinder to form a trap.

When fish were caught in one of the smaller, easily portable traps they could be lifted out of the water. Spears, harpoons, gaff hooks, dip nets, or other devices were used to take fish while a person was positioned on a platform or rock, or from a canoe. Netting was made of nettle or other fibers and graduated needles and gauges were used to make mesh sizes tailored to the size of the targeted fish. Nets were used for eulachon; salmon gill nets or flounder seines were anchored by wooden stakes along the shoreline, while other types of drag nets and reef nets were not set to stakes.

Most intertidal sites with wood stakes have been simply recorded as sites, with some recovery of wooden stakes for radiocarbon dating. One prominent exception is the Little Salt Lake Weir, near Klawock, Alaska, where Langdon (2006, 2007) mapped extensive features with an estimated 100,000 stakes found over a 75 hectare area, dating to the last 2,000 years. Distinctive features included "pavements" with as many as eighty wood stakes per square meter used as barriers or leads to direct fish movements or for people to stand on; "pounds," which are rectangular arrangements of stakes in which fish were impounded; "pairs" of stakes used to brace latticework; and "piles" of stone and stake alignments used as a foundation. Based partly on salmon escapement features, Langdon, Reger, and Campbell (1995) estimated that between 75,000 and 80,000 fish could be caught in the Little Salt Lake Weir annually.

Another spectacular weir and trap complex is located in Comox Harbour, on the east side of Vancouver Island, where Nancy Greene (2010) mapped more than 11,000 wood stakes in overlapping alignments on the surface of the tidal flats. Greene identified two temporally distinct structural designs; the older (ca. 1,000 years old) is a large heart-shaped enclosure with a flattened, or truncated, rear wall, with an opening toward the shoreline, and aligned with the outgoing tide. The younger trap type (ca. 200 years old) has large chevron-winged enclosures with openings toward the shoreline. Both trap types used leads to channel fish into the traps. In their overall configuration, these are similar to the double-lead-and-enclosure wood-stake-and-stone traps near Petersburg, Alaska, so well described by Mobley and McCallum (2001). Such traps may have been used for salmon, herring, and a wide range of other fish.

Beyond technologies, there is an important social dimension to fisheries production. Ethnographies, for example, contain generalizations that strongly gender the labor of fishing: men catch fish and women butcher and process them (e.g., Drucker 1937:232; Emmons 1991:143; de Laguna 1972:384). This generalization conjures up a stereotype of the lone fisherman out in his canoe, with his wife waiting at home, fish knife at the ready. This image is not dissimilar to that of the lone fly fisherman in the remote Western stream, but it is a far cry from the reality of much of Pacific coast fishing. Weir and trap fishing and the use of gill and reef nets were not activities carried out by one person working alone; they required group teamwork. Group fishing could result in large numbers of fish, but processing quantities of fish for long-term storage also required well-organized labor. Some fish, including halibut or nearshore rockfish and greenling, were caught by individuals with hook and line or gorges, but the capture of schooling taxa such as salmon, herring, eulachon, smelt, and others were group activities.

By scrutinizing ethnographies, we find evidence that women fished on the Pacific coast (Barnett 1955:89; Boas 1921:181–182; Elmendorf and Kroeber 1992:63; de Laguna 1972:386; Olson 1936:29, 32; Singh 1966:58–59; Smith 1940:254, 257, 268; Suttles 1974:114, 188), even in societies that had an ethic precluding women from fishing. Children were also involved in fishing (Byram 2002:169; Smith 1940:268), but who actually caught the fish was only a part of the process—women were often chiefly responsible for gathering and processing the plant materials used in manufacturing the perishable, portable portions of fishing technologies, such as basketry traps, fish baskets, latticework, netting, and nets (Byram 2002:167; Emmons 1991; Gunther 1973:28; Olson 1936:28; Paul 1944). The fabrication of many tools used in fishing is akin to weaving and basketry technologies. In some groups, women were involved in weir construction (Hewes 1940). In other societies, men made some or most of the fishing gear (e.g., Barnett 1937:164; Boas 1921:162; Drucker 1937:232, 1951:16). The rigid division of labor used to characterize Pacific coast fishing breaks down under a close reading of ethnographic sources. Fish butchery is almost always attributed to women, but certainly the drying, smoking, and storage process likely involved work groups made up of a mix of people—women and men, elders and children.

Fish were sliced in different ways depending on the species and the size of the fish, and weather conditions affected stages of fish curing—sunny or windy conditions might allow initial drying to occur outside, whereas rain required drying in a house, smokehouse, or perhaps a rockshelter. As Suttles (1968:63) pointed out long ago, the number of sunny days and the amount of rainfall varies tremendously on the Pacific coast, by latitude and due to orographic factors. Within British Columbia, the city of Victoria, located in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, enjoys over 2,000 hours of sunshine per year, while Prince Rupert receives only half as much. Not all fish preserve equally well. Suttles (1968:63) wrote that his Salish informants said fatter fish (e.g., sockeye salmon) lasted longer than lean species, although elsewhere Suttles (1990:25) stated that sockeye were the hardest fish to keep (see also Romanoff 1985). Processing and storage techniques likely varied as much as fishing technology by season, location, and species, but detailed information is often hard to find. Strategies of fish butchery, cooking, processing, and disposal are of great interest to zooarchaeologists, and while some ethnographies provide important detail (e.g., Boas 1921), many yield only generalizations. Capturing large numbers of fish is pointless, however, without the technological knowledge and organized labor to process them for storage. Stored fish were important winter staples, but a variety of fish products—dried fish, fish oils, fish eggs—were also valued trade items.


Excerpted from The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries Copyright © 2011 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Alaska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1: The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries: An Introduction
      Madonna L. Moss and Aubrey Cannon
Section I: New Methodological Approaches to Archaeology of Fisheries
Chapter 2: Identification of Salmon Species from Archaeological Remains on the Northwest Coast
      Trevor J. Orchard and Paul Szpak
Chapter 3: Little Ice Age Climate: Gadus macrocephalus Otoliths as a Measure of Local Variability
      Catherine F. West, Stephen Wischniowski, and Christopher Johnston
Chapter 4: Pacific Cod and Salmon Structural Bone Density: Implications for Interpreting Butchering Patters in North Pacific Archaeofaunas
      Ross E. Smith, Virginia L. Butler, Shelia Orwoll, and Catherine Wilson-Skogen
Section II: Salmon in Context: Regional and Local Variation
Chapter 5: Site-Specific Salmon Fisheries on the Central Coast of British Columbia
      Aubrey Cannon, Dongya Yang, and Camilla Speller
Chapter 6: Heiltsuk Stone Fish Traps on the Central Coast of British Columbia
      Elroy White
Chapter 7: Riverine Salmon Harvesting and Processing Technology in Northern British Columbia
      Paul Prince
Chapter 8: Late Holocene Fisheries in Gwaii Haanas: Species Composition, Trends in Abundance, and Environmental or Cultural Explanations
      Trevor J. Orchard
Chapter 9: Locational Optimization and Faunal Remains in Northern Barkley Sound, Western Vancouver Island, British Columbia
      Gregory G. Monks
Section III: Pacific Cod and Other Gadids: “Cousins” of the Fish That Changed the World
Chapter 10: Pacific Cod in Southeast Alaska: The “Cousin” of the Fish That Changed the World
      Madonna L. Moss
Chapter 11: Zooarchaeology of the “Fish That Stops”: Using Archaeofaunas to Construct Long-Term Time Series of Atlantic and Pacific Cod Populations
      Matthew W. Betts, Herbert D.G. Maschner, and Donald S. Clark
Chapter 12: Processing the Patterns: Elusive Archaeofaunal Signatures of Cod Storage on the North Pacific Coast
      Megan A. Partlow and Robert E. Kopperl
Chapter 13: Cod and Salmon: A Tale of Two Assemblages from Coffman Cove, Alaska
      Madonna L. Moss
Section IV: Herring and Other Little-Known Fish of the North Pacific Coast
Chapter 14: Fish Traps and Shell Middens at Comox Harbour, British Columbia
      Megan Caldwell
Chapter 15: An Archaeological History of Holocene Fish Use in the Dundas Island Group, British Columbia
      Natalie Brewster and Andrew Martindale
Chapter 16: Patterns of Fish Usage at a Late Prehistoric Northern Puget Sound Shell Midden
      Teresa Trost, Randall Schalk, Mike Wolverton, and Margaret A. Nelson
Chapter 17: Herring Bones in Southeast Alaska Archaeological Sites: The Record of Tlingit Use of Yaaw (Pacific Herring, Clupea pallasii)
      Madonna L. Moss, Virginia L. Butler, and J. Tait Elder
Section V: Conclusion
Chapter 18: Conclusion: The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries
      Aubrey Cannon and Madonna L. Moss


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