Strangers In A Strange Land

Recent discoveries reveal the earliest nomadic humans traversed the BC coast into the rest of the Americas

By Daniel Wood

The footprints of North America’s mastodons, saber-toothed tigers and camels are long gone, as is the evidence today of prehistoric Chewaucan Lake, whose waters once eroded a series of caves in a remote bluff outside Paisley, Oregon. It was in Cave 5 in 2002 that archeologist Dennis Jenkins heard an excited voice from inside a three-metre-deep pit: “Dr. Jenkins!” He descended a ladder into the dig-site and saw his assistant had uncovered the hoof of a long-extinct camel. As the site expanded in the following years, Jenkin’s crew excavated hundreds of bones, lots of strange spearpoints and 1,800 specimens of human feces, called coprolites. When radio-carbon dating was done, tests revealed the poop was 14,000 years old.

But that was impossible.

Vast, utterly lifeless Ice Age glaciers covered the northern half of North America then—endless ice from Labrador to the coast of British Columbia. For almost a century, scientific opinion had stated that migrating Pleistocene humans, crossing from Siberia into northernmost Alaska, could not—and had not—gotten south of the ice until it melted at the at the end of the Ice Age, opening a narrow ice-free corridor through what-is-now Alberta around 13,000 years ago.


Jenkins was flummoxed. “It’s a daunting thing—being on the edge of something new!” he says. “It was scary. People were south of the Ice Age ice before they supposedly could be. If that were so… then, how’d they get here? It turned my mind toward another possibility: Could the first humans have come along the BC coast?”

Duncan McLaren (orange pants) and Daryl Fedje (red shirt) excavating the footprints along Calvert Island’s Meay Channel.

As University of Victoria archeologist Daryl Fedje knelt over a half-metre-deep shoreline pit on BC’s mid-coast Calvert Island in 2015, he couldn’t imagine that what he was about to find would not only fulfill Jenkins’ suspicions, but help overturn the 80-year-old thinking about how the earliest humans came to the Americas. During the height of the Ice Age 26,500 years ago, two-kilometre-thick glaciers covered the planet’s higher latitudes. And as snow and ice piled up on the land, sea levels dropped 100 metres. And a land-bridge opened between Siberia and Alaska. But as the ice began to melt later, it revealed coastal refugia—ice-free BC promontories and islands along the Pacific. Simultaneously: The land rebounded as the weight of ice disappeared; and melting glacial water submerged BC’s shorelines, inundating routes that might have been used by early, southbound arctic migrants whose ancestors were Siberians. (And the predecessors of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas.) It was this triple equation—newly exposed refugia, rebounding land and sea-level rise—that led Fedje and his Hakai Institute archeology partner, Duncan McLaren—to the exact spot on Calvert Island where they hoped to find evidence of early human occupation.

When Fedje peered down into the shallow hole on that 2015 day, he saw a subtle difference in the hardened clay surface, a vague, undiscernible impression. Maybe a fallen tree did this, he thought. Maybe a bear. Maybe a human footprint. But… probably nothing. Over the following months, the archeological team expanded the shoreline pit to two-square-metres. Rain often fell. Tarps were deployed. In the end, Fedje and his associates found themselves staring down at 29 human footprints, the shape of heels, ball of toe and toes revealing the movements of two adults and a child—a paleolithic family perhaps—circling their now-charcoal-filled campfire pit. “It was pretty exciting,” says Fedje today. “We’d found direct evidence of humans on this coast. Not just their tools. But them!” When subsequent radio-carbon analysis of the willow twigs underfoot and charcoal came back, the site had a date:13,200 years ago.


That was big news. Early humans were using BC’s rugged coastal refugia, hop-scotching—from island to headland to island—into the rest of the Americas. If that were true, they must have had boats.


Prompted in part by the footprint discovery, McLaren, a paleo-biologist/geologist, has recently turned his attention toward locating other “sweet spots”—sites on the BC coast that might have provided shelter and sustenance to southbound Ice Age nomads. “I’m looking for places that would have been a magnet for early humans—caves, ancient river terraces, old estuaries, prehistoric fish traps. You can’t just go sticking a shovel into the ground anywhere.” In the past three years, McLaren has focused on northwestern Vancouver Island, particularly the Holberg/Quatsino Sound region and its karst caves.

Across that area—along the Nimpkish River, above Topknot Lake, in Port Eliza Cave—McLaren has been investigating cave debris for evidence of prehistoric human activity. He knows these sites became ice-free over 17,500 years ago as the Ice Age slowly came to an end. (That’s 4,500 years before an aperture of ice-free land opened through Alberta.) McLaren knows from the dated bones of marmots, mountain goats and bears in the Vancouver Island caves that these sites might have also provided protection for early Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. But so far, he has found nothing—unlike the spear points, dated to 12,700 years ago—found inside a cave on Haida Gwaii.

Today, a multi-disciplinary search is on along the BC coast—utilizing the latest DNA analyses, robotic submersibles, aerial lidar (laser-based) scanning and traditional First Nations’ knowledge—to confirm the dates and places where the first paleolithic nomads sought refuge and nourishment in their migration into the New World.

In early September of 2014, University of Victoria archeologist Quentin Mackie stood on the deck of the Gwaii Haanas II as it sailed the shallow waters of Hecate Strait. Drawn into the search for proof that prehistoric humans had used the BC coast as their route into the Americas 17,000 years ago, he’d studied hydrographic maps for years, looking for old, submerged shorelines that might have lured Pleistocene humans to pause on their journey south. But the evidence he sought now lies beneath 100 metres of ocean water that had inundated BC’s coastline as the Ice Age ended. His companion on the boat was UVic research engineer Alison Proctor, tasked to deploy the torpedo-shaped Bluefin-12S, a robotic 3.5-metre Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) capable of transmitting images as it moved along the ocean bottom. “It’s like a voyage of discovery,” Mackie says of the research project. “We know people have lived in this area for many thousands of years. Much of the very early history of Gwaii Haanas and Haida Gwaii (the two islands that form the BC archipelago) lies below the waters of Hecate Strait. It’s really incredible to think there were people down there, walking around.”

Proctor programmed the AUV’s underwater movements, following Mackie’s premise that Pleistocene nomads would establish their camps along the islands’ now-submerged coastal estuaries, and likely construct stone weirs there to funnel salmon into traps. (Evidence of these native fish weirs lie all along the BC coast, some dating back thousands of years.) Then, during the next 10 days, she “flew” the Bluefin-12S submersible along 25 kilometres of ancient river channels in hopes of spotting remnants of prehistoric human occupation.

Daryl Fedje, the UVic archeologist who found the footprints, had joined Mackie and Proctor on the underwater search along Haida Gwaii. He’d spent years imagining what had happened 16,000, 17,000, 18,000 years ago that had first lured Siberian nomads southward from Alaska as the Ice Age began to end. “The people of that time,” he says, “had the same brain capacity as us. There was a lot of fauna, a lot of salmon along the BC coast. If you were young and adventurous, it wouldn’t take long to get from the Aleutian Islands to what’s now Oregon. They had to have boats. The Japanese had boats 35,000 years ago. The people coming south probably had boats made of wood and hides—like the walrus-skin umiaks the Inuit used in the arctic until recently. There were places along BC’s coast where the heads of the fjords were glaciated and impassable, and 60 kilometres of water separated the ice-free headlands. Without boats, it would have been a long swim.”

As the Bluefin-12 submersible scanned the seafloor off Gwaii Haanas and transmitted images, the scientists above tried to make sense of what they were seeing. There were remnants of drowned forests and eroded riverbeds. But it was a strange wall of large stones, 60 metres below and positioned perpendicular to an ancient stream’s current, that caught their attention. The structure was identical to stone fish weirs elsewhere on the BC coast. Mackie believed that, using data from another archeological site on Haida Gwaii, the weir could date back 13,800 years. Even more curious was a submerged, four-by-four-metre square pit that could possibly mark an ancient structure. But being inaccessible, there was nothing definite found—no “smoking gun,” in Fedje’s words—that proved the drowned shoreline of Gwaii Haanas held answers to the ongoing mystery of the role the BC coast played in the settlement of the Americas.

A scientist shows the orientation of two 13,200-year-old footprints found on the Central Coast.

From his position as director of the Center for the Study of Early Americans, Texan archeologist Michael Waters has had a perfect vantage point to assess the scientific shift, currently underway, in understanding the human migration into the New World. People had populated Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. But not North or South America. Most 20th century archeologists had settled on a theory—that became a largely agreed-upon certainty—that an ice-free opening in North America’s Ice Age glaciers 13,000 years ago created an avenue for the very first humans to migrate south from the arctic. Any anomalies that contradicted this belief were often doubted or discarded. (Seventeenth century, Italian astronomer Galilei Galileo faced inquisition and house-arrest for being the first to announce the Earth went around the Sun, and not, as the Catholic Church insisted, vice versa. It took over 200 years for the Church to admit it was wrong.)

But, as Waters explains, scattered contradictory evidence kept cropping up about the first settlers of the Americas—an arrow-point embedded in a Washington state mastodon rib, 1,800 coprolites from an Oregon cave, radio-carbon dates from sites in Peru and Chile, Idaho and Texas—indicating people were in the Americas 14,000 to 15,000 years ago. Then, in 2014, Waters was invited to join an underwater excavation at the bottom of a Florida sinkhole, and when the archeological team got a date on the sinkhole’s organic material and a human-modified mastodon tusk they’d found, Waters felt certain the old paradigm of human migration into the Americas had to go. Radio-carbon analyses showed people had been in what-is-now Florida 14,500 years ago. If that date was right, the Ice-Free Corridor theory was wrong. Humans had entered and dispersed across the Americas thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Then the next year, Waters heard that Fedje and McLaren had found 29 footprints on BC’s Calvert Island. It was a historic discovery: Early humans were on the coast of British Columbia. “My best guess,” says Waters of what happened, “is that Pleistocene people up north began going south… to see what resources lay there. In small groups. Several families, maybe. Moving south. In dribs and drabs. They’d find fish and sea mammals and caves. They’d stop. They’d meet others who’d left before. And say, ‘Hey, what’s goin’ on?’ Maybe a few months passed. Maybe a few generations. Some would come back north. Word spread. More would head south. And go a bit further.”

No one knew at first that beyond the ice-covered BC mountains nearby, beyond the glaciers and icebergs, beyond the cold ocean and hazardous coastal channels the nomads encountered, lay two entire continents—uninhabited, warming up, full of game an entire new world open to the arrival of the adventurous.



Chronology Of The Invasion of the Americas

In recent years, evidence is piling up that appears to show the earliest humans into the Americas travelled from Siberia—via an Ice Age land-bridge crossing the Bering Strait—and then southward along the British Columbia coast. This idea, still contentious among some archeologists, appears to mark a major paradigm shift. Why? For most of the 20th century, archeologists believed the very first humans entered the Americas 13,000 years ago along a narrow, Ice-Free Corridor where Alberta now is.


  • Before the depths of the Ice Age, radio-carbon dating puts Arctic hunters in northeastern Siberia 31,500 years ago.


  • By 26,500 years ago, the Earth had cooled enough that massive ice sheets covered the boreal latitudes, and dropping sea levels had exposed a vast land bridge—called Beringia—between Siberia and North America. The nomads—following the caribou, mammoths and mastodons—began to migrate eastward into what-is-now Alaska.


  • About 19,000 years ago, the Earth started to slowly warm up. DNA evidence suggests some paleo-natives stayed in Alaska—north of the disappearing continental ice—for centuries.


However, the adventurous ones—very likely using primitive boats and travelling in small groups—began a southward push along British Columbia’s coastal refugia. This push probably began around 17,500 years ago. These nomads were, as genetic evidence shows, accompanied by dogs of Asian ancestry. This migration continued for millennia.


  • Some groups stopped and stayed and are thought to be the predecessors of BC’s many coastal tribes, relying—then as now—on salmon.


  • Others pushed onward until they were south of the ice at least 14,500 years ago, and probably much earlier. There they found vast plains—with herds of wooly mammoth, giant sloths and camels. Within a brief period, these hunter-gatherers had caused most of North America’s prehistoric megafauna to go extinct.


  • A mastodon rib with an embedded bone spearhead was found almost 50 years ago on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Radio-carbon dating puts the bones’ age at 14,000 years old.


  • The Heiltsuk First Nation claims to have identified a site on BC’s mid-coast Triquet Island that dates back 14,000


  • When the Ice-Free Corridor finally opened 13,000 years ago, it provided a second route into the Americas.


  • The Ice Age ended 11,500 years ago.


*All dates are fluid

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