Thursday, May 28, 2009
The Pacific Coast of the Americas was settled starting about 15,000
years ago during the last glacial retreat by seafaring peoples
following a "kelp highway" rich in marine resources, a noted professor
of anthropology theorized Wednesday.
Jon Erlandson, director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History
at the University of Oregon, suggested that especially productive
"sweet spots," such as the estuaries of B.C.'s Fraser and Stikine
rivers, served as corridors by which people settled the Interior of
Erlandson said in an interview these migrating peoples were already
sophisticated in harvesting from the sea and would have worked their
way down the coast in search of new sites.
"I think as much as anything it was an exploratory urge," he said at
an international conference on the history of marine mammals at the
University of B.C. "Populations were gradually growing and people kept
moving. What's around the next bend? If there were no people there, it
must have been a really powerful draw to keep exploring."
The kelp highway theory runs up against the long-held belief that the
first humans entered the Americas on a land bridge that spanned the
Erlandson said the kelp highway represented a diverse ecosystem and
would have extended from what is today Japan past Russia's Kamchatka
Peninsula and Alaska's Aleutian Islands all the way down the west
coast of North America to Mexico's Baja peninsula and then continuing
again in the waters off Peru, Ecuador, and Chile in South America.
"These kelp forests would have provided a migration corridor near
shore with no major barriers," he said. "It would have been a very
similar ecological zone to follow and a rich one."
It's hard to know what kind of vessels carried these early seafarers,
although dugouts (perhaps carved from driftwood) and skin boats are
possible, he said.
The world's first evidence of human harvesting of marine life is found
at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania dated to about 2.3 million years ago.
Simple shoreline ponds were likely employed to catch fish.
The first evidence of sophisticated fishing technology dates back
90,000 years to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire,
where harpoons were crafted from stone points with bone barbs to catch
Evidence of seaweed recovered from hearths at the Monte Verde II
archeological site in southern Chile has been dated to about 14,000
The first seafarers would have over-exploited resources initially
amidst a windfall of marine life, but over time would have learned to
live sustainably off the ocean, Erlandson said.
"There is a general human tendency, when you come into great
abundance, to waste it. In B.C, in California and other parts of the
world there is evidence early they did impact resources.
"But I think they learned lessons from it, just as we're trying to
learn lessons from the overfishing of recent decades."
Of aboriginal involvement in the elimination of sea otters from B.C.'s
West Coast during the European fur trade starting in the late 1700s,
he said: "That was part of a globalized economy, a cash economy that
was fundamentally different."
Erlandson is part of research on California's Channel Islands that has
found evidence of human occupation -- the Chumash people -- spanning
13,000 years, evidence that they must have found a way to live
sustainably from the ocean around them.
"When Europeans got there, within 150 years all sorts of animals were
devastated. When you compare the two records, they are dramatically
different." he said.