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An underwater mystery on Canada’s coast

While the scientific community has been expressing surprise over the extensive nature of traditional coastal mariculture (information that’s smashed the long-held stereotype that this was a population of unsophisticated hunter-gathers), Nicole Norris, a knowledge holder for the Hul’q’umi’num Nation and an aquaculture specialist, says the communities themselves had never forgotten. “These were our grocery stores,” she said.

What has surprised Norris over the years she’s spent exploring the British Columbia coast is how the technologies differ from nation to nation yet are perfectly adapted to each location. While the K’ómoks People used stakes with lattice fences to manage and sustain what was once one of the region’s most productive fish runs, in her own territory around the Gulf Islands, the Hul’q’umi’num and W̱SÁNEĆ People stacked rocks “like Tetris” to build low walls running parallel to the shore. These walls were designed to trap silt, which changed the slope of the beach to create “sea gardens” – large, flat inter-tidal areas that, once cleared of large rocks, were carefully tended to create the ideal habitat for clams, crab, sea cucumbers, rockfish, octopus, whelks and other marine life.

In the winding inlets and islets of the Broughton Archipelago Provincial Park, the technology changes again. Here, the Kwakwaka’wakw People built monumental rock walls, large enough to be seen from space, to create the ideal water depth to encourage clam growth in the shallow bays. Norris says they also built the rock walls into spiral-shaped gardens that created flattened areas that could take advantage of the region’s unique swirling currents.

Still further north, in the inner waterways and islands that make up part of Heiltsuk territory, Haíɫzaqv archaeologist Q̓íx̌itasu, also known as Elroy White, says his ancestors built stone-walled sea/clam gardens (called λápac̓i) and a wide variety of stone fish traps (called Ckvá) that were specifically designed depending on if they were “on a tidal flat, or in a creek or at the mouth of a river”.

“They were built so solidly that they wouldn’t fall apart by actions of a river, or by the tide or if a canoe hit it,” he said.

For his thesis, “Heiltsuk Stone Fish Traps“, White combined archaeology with oral history to gradually unravel the interconnection of rock-walled fish traps and his ancestors’ relationship to salmon. He explained that when he began visiting the sites, he saw how the ancient fish trap technology and resource management system didn’t just shape the tidal landscape, they shaped his culture and heritage.

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