News / USA

Archaeologists Hope to Solve Ancient Mystery

Canada dig explores why nomads settled into villages

Aerial view of Dionisio Point where archaeologists are examining why nomads in the area settled into village life.
Aerial view of Dionisio Point where archaeologists are examining why nomads in the area settled into village life.

Multimedia

Audio
Tom Banse

Many archaeologists believe humans first migrated to North America over the Bering Strait 15,000-to-18,000 years ago. They lived a nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering. Then, starting about 2,000 years ago, some of them settled in large, permanent villages.

An on-going excavation to find out why this fundamental transformation occurred has archaeologists focusing on an ethnographic group in the Pacific Northwest called the Coast Salish people.

The skyscrapers of Vancouver, Canada twinkle across the water while tall Douglas firs shade the excavation squares and sifting stations as researchers from Washington State University and the University of British Columbia kneel in pits, carefully scraping away with trowel or brush.

At Dionisio Point Provincial Park on Galiano Island in British Columbia, WSU archaeologist Colin Grier leads a 10-member crew probing what he considers one of the best preserved early village sites of the Coast Salish people. Grier hopes this place can answer a burning question about what caused previously nomadic bands to advance into a more complex society.

Colin Grier (center) discusses a find with graduate students Chris Arnett (left) and Kelly Derr (right).
Colin Grier (center) discusses a find with graduate students Chris Arnett (left) and Kelly Derr (right).

"Why did the transformation happen when it happened? That's probably the most difficult question to answer," says Grier. "When do people start to settle down?"

In many parts of the world, the rise of village life is associated with the introduction of farming.

"But of course, here no one invented agriculture," says Grier. Instead, the Salish people relied on fish, clams, game and wild plants.

The archaeologists have identified the ruins of six big, ancient houses which form two neighboring beachfront villages. The largest of the buildings could shelter eight to 10 families. Based on radiocarbon dating, they were occupied around 1,500 years ago.

Grier's team can infer economic changes from the variety of shells and animal and fish bones in the refuse piles outside doorways.

"With a settled village life, you have to bring the food to you," he says. "So the diversity of resources in these village sites is very high."

An illustration of the Dionisio Point village as it may have looked 1,500 years ago
An illustration of the Dionisio Point village as it may have looked 1,500 years ago

Other evidence of the transition to a more complex society includes trappings of wealth and a social class system.

Grier catalogs some of what they've found. "A cache of 5,000 slate beads, some labrets, which are actually plugs that get inserted through the lip, that were status markers."

Still, there's that nagging question of what caused these people to settle down and adopt customs that vaguely resemble some of ours today. One theory is that population pressure triggered the change. Grier isn't sure that's it, but he's finding evidence that seems to suggest that.

"When settlement gets dense on a landscape, you have to create more food for people to eat. You have to intensify," he says. "So you have to reorganize a lot of what you do to feed more mouths."

The researchers consult closely with the local Indian tribe. Penelakut tribal member Robert Sam, who believes ancestors of his lived in the village, supports the excavation.

"It is really interesting to me to see the work that is being done," says Sam. "It shows more of where we were, all the sites that need to be catalogued for our people, our younger generation."

Like other tribes, the Penelakut are sensitive about excavations which could disturb human remains. But Sam says there’s little risk of that while digging amongst the old longhouses, since the ancestral burial grounds were outside the village.

Grier has worked here off and on since 1997, and says the ancient tribal village is slowly giving up its secrets. He has funding for two more summer seasons, and hopes that will be enough time to get to the bottom of the story.

You May Like

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid