Haida Gwaii: Human History and Environment from the Time of the Loon to the Time of the Iron People
Review By Catherine Carlson
November 4, 2013
BC Studies no. 152 Winter 2006-2007 | p. 120-2
This edited volume, which consists of sixteen chapters plus two fore words, a preface, and a conclusion, has twenty-nine contributors. Its focus is the Parks Canada Gwaii Haanas Archaeology and Paleoecology project, which reports primarily on the late Pleistocene and Early Holocene history of human occupation and the environmental context of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve on the islands of Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands). Some material on late Holocene-age archaeological sites is presented, but this is not the focus of the book. The time period is the last 15,000 years of environmental history, over which is superimposed approximately 10,500 years of human history. This range involves research from several paleo environmental disciplines, and this ensures that Haida Gwaii offers a genuinely interdisciplinary methodological approach to its material. The volume is divided into three parts: paleoenvironmental history (six chapters), Haida traditional history (two chapters), and archaeological research (eight chapters). It is rich in descriptive data and research questions pertaining to early Holocene human and environmental history, and it includes very high-quality maps, graphs, and photographs.
The chapters of Part 1 present data and interpretations of the archaeologica l-pa leoecologica l project with a view to understanding the en vironmental context of a late Pleistocene coastal migration route, including the chronology and extent of sea level change, the potential for fauna and vegetation refugia, and the development and evolution of the marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Islands with regard to their human use. Barrie et al. present the Late Quaternary geology; Fedje et al. identify paleoshorelines; Lacourse and Mathewes evaluate the potential for a coastal migration route on the continental shelf; Hebda et al. construct a vegetation sequence from Anthony Island and identify anthropogenic changes; Reimchen and Byun evaluate data for endemic species as they pertain to identifying glacial refugia; and Wigen identifies faunal evidence that indicates long-standing rich marine ecosystems for the islands for at least the last 9,500 years.
There are just two chapters in the second part of the volume, and they explore Haida oral history as it is related to past environmental events. The first chapter, by Wilson and Harris, addresses the nature of oral history and provides examples of how environmental events (sea level rise, climatic cooling and warming, ice advances, vegetation change, earth quakes, and tidal waves) are found in the oral histories of the Haida people. Ethnographers recorded most of the stories in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The second chapter by Young, a traditionally trained Haida historian, relates the story of Haida origins and rejects the idea of an Asian origin for his people. It is unfortunate that this part of Haida Gwaii is not integrated into the final interpretations and conclusions of the volume.
Part 3 focuses on the archaeology of the project area, addressing questions surrounding cultural chronology, the nature of maritime subsistence over time, the significance of the microblade technology on the northern coast, and settlement patterns. The chapter by Fedje et al. describes the site of Kilgii Gwaay, which contains several perishable and non-perishable artefacts as well as an important faunal assemblage indicating a diversified marine subsistence economy. In their chapter, Fedje, Magne, and Christensen present the testing undertaken at raised beach terrace sites, including the Richardson Island site, which shows the well-stratified and dated transition from bifacial (Kinggi Complex) to microblade (Moresby tradition) lithic technology that occurred around 8900 BP. The beginning of shel l midden deposits after 5200 BP, and the appearance of ground stone technology at the Cohoe Creek site, is discussed by Christensen and Stafford, along with faunal remains that include caribou. The last three chapters in this section of the volume focus on the Middle to Late Holocene Graham Tradition, such as found at the Blue Jackets Creek site, and move into the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a discussion of changes in settlement patterns as population declined and villages amalgamated after European contact.
A separate concluding chapter by Fedje and Mathewes provides a succinct overview of the results of the various paleoecological and archaeological studies, indicating that, in Haida Gwaii, cultural adaptations to changing environments were conservative. It suggests that adaptations in technology, resource utilization, and settlement patterns are reflective of in situ cultural modifications rather than population replacement. Haida Gwaii as a whole is well-written and dense with data. It is geo graphically specific to one important region of the larger Northwest Coast culture area (the Queen Charlotte Islands), and it presents a valuable case study of interdisciplinary research in the paleoenvironmental sciences and archaeology. This is a book that should be read by all scholars of Northwest Coast prehistory. It would also make a useful supplementary case study text for courses in Pacific coast prehistory, environmental archaeology, and the anthropology of indigenous maritime societies.