Duncan McLaren and Daryl Fedje dig one of the footprints on Calvert Island. (Grant Callegari / Hakai Institute)
The Sanctuaries of British Columbia have long talked of a time when most of Canada was buried under glaciers and their ancestors fished and fished along the shoreline, forming a thin green ridge between them open ocean and impenetrable ice
Now an archaeological excavation has unearthed physical evidence of ancient human presence: 29 footprints pushed into the shoreline of Calvert Island, part of the traditional territory of the Savior. The prints represent at least three people – maybe two adults and one child – and they last more than 13,000 years until the end of the last ice age.
"Just knowing that it's a place our ancestors have gone before is here today, it's really powerful for us," said William Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation.
Archaeologists say the footprints are the oldest in North America – proof that humans were here at the end of the Pleistocene. But they are not just proof of where people have been. Footprints tell where anyone was going, and these tracks suggest that North America's earliest inhabitants by boat populated the Pacific coast of the continent, following a "seaweed highway" to greener regions in the south. The prints are a confirmation of a tradition dating back to prehistoric times.
"It's really, very exciting, but also very emotional," said Housty, board member of the Heilsuk Integrated Resource Management Department overseeing projects like this on Calvert Island.
"You hear the story and the stories, and now you stand looking at something that is real, that confirms the stories that have been passed down through the generations." 19659009] Archaeological materials and genetic studies suggest that humans first immigrated to America via a land bridge between Asia and Alaska. Further travel would have been blocked by the two massive ice sheets that covered most of Canada until about 10,000 years ago, but scientists find signs of human presence many thousands of years ago: in Washington, a mastodon rib with a buried stone on it; in Chile, chipped tools and burned bones; faeces fossilized in Oregon containing ancient human DNA
How did these first settlers come here? For years, it was assumed that they followed an "ice-free corridor" between the two ice sheets. Now scientists are increasingly favoring the "kelp highway" hypothesis. The only problem: any indication of the coastal presence of the first Americans would have gone down when melting ice caused the sea level to rise to 400 feet.
Aerial view of Calvert Island. (Keith Holmes / Hakai Institute)
Here Calvert Island is special. Partly because of the way the ice floes were pushed onto the mainland, the sea levels off this part of the Canadian coast were only six to ten feet different than today.
Calvert Island is also of great importance to the Healing Suku: Housty said that there are tombs and ancient villages in the countryside, and oral stories tell of a long presence of Heiltsuk there.
So, in 2014, scientists from the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria, along with representatives from Heiltsuk and Wuikinuxv First Nations, set about sampling a small section of the island's northwest coastline.
As soon as they dug out a shoe-box-sized test pit, they found a dark impression of a foot pressed into the light brown clay. "We were unsure if we fooled ourselves, that this was a human path," said Hakai archaeologist Duncan McLaren, lead author of a report that appeared in PLOS One this week.
But two more years of excavation yielded 28 additional prints that were unmistakably human. There was the curve of a bow, the tips of five toes, a smear where someone might have slipped in the mud. Some looked like they fit in a size 7 or 8 men's shoe; others, a size 3 woman; the third row of prints corresponded to a junior size 8. The researchers determined the age of the fossils by measuring the decay of radioactive carbon into the pieces of wood pressed into the prints.
Of the clearly visible toe marks It does not seem as if any of the people who made the prints wore shoes. And unlike other tracks that lead more or less straight lines to distant targets, these footprints follow no obvious pattern.
Housty imagines that they were a father, a mother and a child who visited the beach to gather food. For McLaren, they look like the imprints of people gathering on the shore.
"The area being tracked would have been just over the flood line 13,000 years ago," he said. "I imagine a group of people getting out of a boat and leaving their tracks in a wet area before moving to a dry place."
Left: One of the footprints found on Calvert Island. Right: A digitally enhanced version of the same image. (Duncan McLaren)
When the tide receded, the mud would have been exposed to the sun, which dried and preserved the prints. The next flood then filled the hollows with sand and gravel. Over millennia, forest soils have developed over the terrain and protected from erosion. Today, the rock layer with the footprints is about two feet below the surface.
McLaren and his colleagues hope to find other areas like Calvert Island, which did not freeze during the Ice Age and are now over water.
Paleo-environmental work will then be used to inform the search for early locations along Canada's formerly glaciated Pacific coast, "he said." This line of research is still in its infancy. "
Housty sees this as a role for them Indians.
"This is an oral story that goes hand in hand with science," he said.
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