Submariners search for ancient clues

  • Jul. 25, 2005 4:00 p.m.

Archeologists explored a small part of Juan Perez Sound in Gwaii Haanas by submarine earlier this month, hoping to find clues about the people who lived here thousands of years ago.
This kind of underwater exploration is a new step for the archeological team which has been researching sites in Gwaii Haanas for the past several years, Dr. Darryl Fedje explained at a public lecture in Queen Charlotte Sunday night (July 24).
Archeologists are interested in the sea bottom off the east coast of the islands because at one point – around 12,000 years ago – sea levels were much lower than they are now, Dr. Fedje said. People tend to settle along the coastline, so potential sites are now submerged under hundreds of metres of water.
Using extremely detailed maps of sea floor, the team has pinpointed features like former river channels, deltas and lakes. They then took advantage of a Department of Fisheries and Oceans vessel equipped with a small submarine which was working in the area to go for a couple of underwater forays, Dr. Fedje said.
Navigation did not go exactly as planned on one of the trips, but the archeology team did find a spruce tree submerged under 150 metres of water on the other trip, Dr. Fedje said.
Underwater research is expensive and logistically challenging, he said, but it may have lots of potential. In September, a team of Parks Canada underwater archeologists who usually work on wrecked ships will be spending a week in Gwaii Haanas to see whether it would be worth more study next year, Dr. Fedje said.
On land, the archeology team is continuing to study limestone caves, as it has for the past couple of years. Dr. Fedje described recent work at the Gaadu Din cave site on Huxley Island in Gwaii Haanas, where researchers have mapped 500 metres of passages and have been finding lots of bear bones. The bones come from both black bears and grizzly bears, which is interesting because grizzly bears do not live on Haida Gwaii any more.
Dr. Fedje said the bones they’ve found indicate that these grizzly bears were “huge”, bigger than the largest specimens at the museum in Victoria. They haven’t found any grizzly bones that date more recently than 12,000 to 10,000 years ago.
He said that might be because the grizzlies existed here at a time when the sea level was lower and Haida Gwaii was connected to the mainland. At this time, there were no trees here – the environment was grizzly-friendly open grassland. But after this period the sea level rose rapidly and the islands became covered in trees. The new environment and perhaps hunting pressure from humans could have caused the population to die out, and it couldn’t be replenished by bears from the mainland because the islands were now cut off by Hecate Strait.
Researchers have also found two stone spear points in the cave at Gaadu Din, and Dr. Fedje said that means it’s very likely that people were hunting bears.
“Bear hunting was obviously really important for people here, early on, especially in winter,” he said.
Dr. Fedje will be back in August for more work. His colleague, Dr. Quentin Mackie of the University of Victoria, said they will be working at Tow Hill next month and at some other beach sites on Graham Island.
Lookout sites like Tow Hill – which rises steeply from a vast expanse of flat land, offering views in every direction – are magnets for human activity and have proved to be rich sites in Alaska.
“We think Tow Hill has a lot of potential and we’d like to check that out,” Dr. Mackie said.