Reprinted with permission from Heart of The Coast: Biodiversity and Resilience on the Pacific Edge, copyright © Tula Foundation. 

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Thirteen thousand years ago, two adults and a child were walking on an island in what is now British Columbia’s Central Coast. The trio were in an area above the high-tide line of a beach. They may have been foraging for berries or preparing food, or they may have just disembarked from a raft or boat.

Whether or not they were a family—and whether their people lived on the island for generations or were recent arrivals—is uncertain. But the fact of their presence is not, because they did something remarkable: they left more than two dozen footprints that would never be completely erased.

During the period that these three people were tramping the clay-rich soil on what is now Calvert Island, the northeast Pacific coast looked very different than it does today. Earth was in the tail end of the last ice age, and ice sheets were still in the process of receding from the continent.

Lower sea levels exposed areas of the continental shelf, connecting landforms that are now islands. What would become Alaska and Russia were merged into a landmass called Beringia—a vast area of low-growing vegetation known as a mammoth steppe, roamed by now extinct species such as mammoths, saiga antelope, scimitar cats, and giant short-faced bears. Vegetation was also different: it would be over 4,000 years before cedar trees would advance north past the 49th parallel.

Fast-forward to a rainy afternoon in the spring of 2014, when archaeologists on Calvert Island were digging into the wet nearshore sand at low tide. The effort, one of dozens of exploratory “shovel tests” by archaeologist Duncan McLaren and his team, was part of the Hakai Ancient Landscapes Archaeology Project. A Hakai Institute research initiative run with the participation of the Heiltsuk and Wuikinuxv First Nations, the project looks for evidence of early human occupation on the Central Coast.

McLaren, his colleague Daryl Fedje, and a crew of graduate students and field assistants were excavating carefully but quickly that day because conditions for discovery were less than ideal: the rain was relentless, the tide was encroaching, and their freshly dug pits seemed to be yielding the same unimpressive results as previous ones.

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Daryl Fedje, left, and Duncan McLaren, right, in the excavation area, surrounded by other members of the Hakai Ancient Landscapes Archaeology Project team. Image courtesy Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute.

Fedje nonetheless felt a cautious anticipation that something might be different this time. Like McLaren, Fedje is an archaeologist who has been exploring the history of the BC coast for over 30 years.

“About fifty to sixty centimeters below the surface, I noticed a change from modern shell hash and sand and beach textile to what looked like an old paleo soil, an old soil surface,” says Fedje. “And when I hit that, I encountered this strange depression.”

There wasn’t much to see in the subsurface clay, but it was enough to stop an archaeologist with a keen eye.

“It looked like it could be some kind of footprint. There was a kind of pattern recognition there, and I thought it might be a print of a bear or maybe a person—though it could have just as well been a place where a tree had fallen and made a kind of dimpled depression.”

Fedje called McLaren over to look at the pattern pressed into the light brown clay at the bottom of the pit. They agreed it was an interesting find, but neither was sure exactly what they were looking at.

The hole was deep, the light was dim, and rain continued pelting down as the seawater inched closer. They took a photograph and extracted some wood samples from the impression. Then they filled in the hole to protect their find from the incoming tide. 

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Archaeologist Duncan McLaren examines the footprint excavation on Calvert Island. Image courtesy Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute.

A question of sea level

Four years before, McLaren and his team members had begun meeting with the Hakai Institute to discuss possible avenues for research. Understanding the history of local sea levels was a critical first step.

“We were quite interested in the region from an archaeological perspective,” says McLaren. “Based on our knowledge from other parts of the coast, we figured that there was a really good chance that sea level had been fairly stable in and around the Hakai Passage region for the last twelve to thirteen thousand years.”

Before they could break ground in search of early human occupation, however, McLaren’s team would have to confirm their theory. Two years of research later—testing sediment cores taken from ponds and lagoons, analyzing deposits of single-celled algae called diatoms, and using other methods—they found their hunch was right: amidst an ice-age landscape of extreme variation, sea level on Calvert Island had remained relatively unchanged since the last ice age, only three or four meters lower than it is today.

And so began the shovel tests that revealed an apparent footprint. It took six months before the samples they’d taken from the foot-like impression would be dated in separate tests. (The first sample got lost for several months on its way to a California lab.)

When they at last received the results, the data were promising: the tests placed both of the wood samples at around 13,000 years old.

This gave McLaren and Fedje a reason to bring their shovels back to Calvert Island. If the impressions were made by humans, they would be the oldest human footprints ever found in North America to date, and one of the earliest known traces of human habitation in British Columbia.

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Archaeologist Alisha Gauvreau at the footprint site.  Image courtesy Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute.

Beringia and the “kelp highway”

Even during the portion of the ice age when ice cover was at its peak— known as the Last Glacial Maximum—many areas on the northeast Pacific coast were untouched by ice. These refugia offered thriving habitats for plants and animals. These oases of life could be found throughout the northeast Pacific coastal margin, from southeast Alaska south to Haida Gwaii, Hakai Passage, and Vancouver Island.

Beringia, the largest ice-age refuge, stretched west from the Lena River in Siberia to the Mackenzie River in the Canadian Northwest Territories, encompassing Alaska and Yukon. As of about 12,000 years ago, much of Beringia was covered by the ocean as sea levels rose. This now submerged “land bridge”—actually a massive, encompassing area that stretched across 5,000 kilometers and at its peak was likely over a thousand kilometers wide—plays an important role in ideas of how the first people came to live in the Americas. Along with several extinct species of land animals, it was home to humans. Researchers theorize that these peoples gradually moved out of eastern Beringia at some point during the last ice age, their descendants moving westward and southward into North America over millennia.

North and South America were the last continents on Earth to begin to host populations of Homo sapiens. How humans came to be here continues to be the subject of intense debate. A variety of findings have led many researchers to believe that a likely pathway for the first human settlement of the Americas was via the western coastline—not, as has long been assumed, through an inland ice-free corridor between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets.

By about 16,000 years ago, much of the outer coast of present-day Alaska and British Columbia was ice-free. Watercraft would have allowed people to colonize many islands and coastal areas over the ensuing millennia, settling areas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego as they followed the abundant food resources and calmer waters of what has been called the kelp highway. 

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One of the human footprints made on Calvert Island 13,000 years ago. Humans take about 200 million steps in their lives, but finding preserved evidence of them is rare.  Image courtesy Joanne McSporran. 

Following the footsteps

Compared to paleontological digs that find 60-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex bones, footprints 13,000 years old may not seem all that ancient: 520 generations, approximately. But they precede the building of the Giza pyramids by almost 9,000 years.

Finding clues to the ways humans lived at that time takes careful work and preparation. When McLaren and his team were finally able to return to enlarge the excavation on northern Calvert Island, their long wait was rewarded: the unmistakable pattern of Homo sapiens footprints.

That’s the kind of moment, says Fedje, when the hairs go up on the back of your neck. “We spend a lot of time looking for bits of chipped rock and animal bones and little things like that. We very seldom get the opportunity to see where somebody has been walking, and there’s a larger person and a little person. That connects so much more viscerally with the human condition.”

Humans take over 200 million steps in their lives, but finding intact footprints is a rarity—even those made in an ancient world devoid of asphalt and concrete. Whatever the optimal conditions are for making long-lasting footprints, they were apparently present on Calvert Island all those thousands of years ago: further surveying ultimately revealed a total of 29 identifiable prints.

“It turns out under very specific conditions, coastal regions can be ideal for preserving tracks,” McLaren told an interviewer from Hakai Magazine. “Coasts have a lot of soft sediment where tracks or footprints are easily made or left. Then wind or wave action fills them with sand or silt.”

The Calvert Island footprints are not old enough to offer conclusive evidence, but they fit with and support a history of long coastal occupation—as well as of the gradual movement of ice-age peoples southward along the kelp highway.

There is some nuance here, however. The distinction between occupation and migration is less clear than it might appear. When archaeologists describe the peopling of the Americas with words like “migration” and “journey,” it’s easy to ascribe to them motives that they likely didn’t have. Looking back, we may see a trajectory of people moving out of Beringia that culminates in settlements at the tip of South America, and imagine that as a kind of long epic journey. But the people who ranged along the coast of the Americas had no final destination in mind.

As much as the sites explored by their Hakai project support a theory of ice-age humans moving into the Americas via the coast, they equally indicate a long history of settlement. Historically, the Central Coast has offered a productive habitat teeming with marine mammals like seals and sea lions—as well as rockfish, salmon, clams, and shellfish. Food and resources were relatively stable and easy to harvest. Given all the resources that were right in front of people, says Fedje, the area would have been a comfortable place to live for thousands of years.

The work of the Hakai Ancient Landscapes project has revealed a handful of sites on the outer coastal islands of British Columbia that support this idea, showing repeated occupation over 5,000 to 10,000-year timespans.

“We talk in archaeology a lot about migration, but we’re also quite interested in the long-term history of occupation of the place in and of itself,” says McLaren. “There is really good evidence that once people arrived in the Central Coast, they stuck around.”

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Kilbella Bay in Rivers Inlet, about 40 kms east of Calvert Island, has a primeval beauty. Humans have occupied the Central Coast since before the end of the last ice age. Image courtesy Jenn Burt.

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