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Northwest Coast: Archaeology as Deep History

By Madonna L. Moss

Review By Alan McMillan

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 179 Autumn 2013  | p. 220-222

The Society for American Archaeology website describes their “Contemporary Perspectives” series, in which Northwest Coast is the second title, as “short volumes focused on the archaeology of a specific region.” Aimed at “busy professionals and instructors,” the series calls for “state-of-the-art, efficient summary of current research and interpretations.” True to these guidelines, this short book (only 146 pages without the bibliography and index) avoids lengthy presentation of data and instead engages the reader with some of the major currents and issues facing researchers in this region today.  Moss sets out her ambitious goal “to summarize the latest in Northwest Coast archaeological research… in a way that connects with the needs and interests of contemporary people, Native and non-Native, professor and student, colleague and layperson, scientist and humanist” (5). While some chapters follow a fairly traditional cultural historical framework, others challenge past priorities, promote new directions, and examine such essential issues as the nature of collaborative research with the First Nations whose heritage we study.

Moss starts the book with a short chapter that takes the reader to On-Your-Knees Cave in Alaska. She uses the discovery of human skeletal remains, dated at around 10,300 years, to illustrate the importance of collaboration with local communities. The remains, now known as Shuká Kaa, were turned over to the local Tlingit people, who were involved at every stage and opted to allow scientific study. This is contrasted to the similarly ancient Kennewick remains along the Columbia River, where failure to reach an accord with Indigenous communities led to lengthy lawsuits and prolonged hostility.

In the next two chapters, Moss critically examines several important concepts that have shaped how we view the archaeological past. The rich ethnographic documentation of post-contact coastal cultures provides invaluable insights for the interpretation of earlier lifeways. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how we could interpret much of the archaeological evidence without such knowledge. However, the application of ethnographic information to more distant times presents significant pitfalls for the unwary archaeologist. Moss details the great diversity in ethnographic cultures along this lengthy coastline and notes significant historic cultural shifts due to reduced populations, new political adaptations, and changes in land and resource use. She then devotes a chapter to the “Complex Hunter-Gatherer” stereotype. The search for the origins of cultural complexity has driven considerable past work on the Northwest Coast. In more general anthropological theory, these were seen as “middle range” societies in a broad unidirectional evolutionary framework, yet were considered anomalous due to their non-agricultural economic base. However, as Moss stresses, the term “hunter-gatherers,” even complex ones, is inappropriate for people who lived primarily by fishing, had mastered mass processing and storage of various resources, and are increasingly recognized as food-producers.

Three chapters, comprising well over half the book, summarize present knowledge of the lengthy Aboriginal heritage along the Northwest Coast. Even in this more traditional culture history section, Moss warns that archaeology can be considered a “colonizing practice” (47), which imposes our analytical units of time on the histories of people who may view their past in different ways. She employs relatively neutral geological stages (e.g. Middle Holocene), along with calibrated radiocarbon dates, and generally avoids the plethora of regional labels that have arisen, many with ties to earlier evolutionary schemes or other cultural baggage. She starts with evidence of earliest settlement, of necessity drawing heavily on recent paleoenvironmental research. Understanding complex and locally variable sea level changes is essential, as much of the evidence for this early period has been submerged and lost. Recent multi-disciplinary research in Haida Gwaii features prominently in this discussion. Moss then turns to the Middle Holocene (ca. 7000 to 3500 cal BP), which had earlier been seen as a time of environmental and cultural change. She challenges Fladmark’s early and influential model of stabilizing shorelines around 5700 cal BP leading to increased salmon productivity, growth of shell middens, and emerging cultural complexity. Instead she presents more recent research that shows much greater variability in developments and timing along the coast. Arguing for continuity, she rejects previous labels (e.g. “Lithic” vs. “Developmental”) that imply region-wide cultural shifts during this period. The third chapter, “The Late Holocene Mosaic,” takes us up to the well-known ethnographic cultures. This is the longest chapter, reflecting greater knowledge as a result of more and larger sites, with better preservation. She summarizes artifact types, settlement patterns, and other data from various regions along the coast, but even in areas with the most extensive archaeological research, particularly the Strait of Georgia, poor control of dating means that many of our existing cultural-historical units “are best conceived as hypotheses to be tested” (104).

In the book’s final chapter, “Looking to the Future of Northwest Coast Archaeology,” Moss briefly suggests new directions for research and how it can be made more relevant to a wider audience. Archaeological studies can support Aboriginal land claims and court challenges, while zooarchaeology can contribute to climate change studies and to wildlife and fisheries management programs. Moss ends the book with “Lessons from Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi,” referring to the preserved remains of a young man found on a glacier in extreme northwestern British Columbia. The name, meaning “Long Ago Person Found,” comes from the language of the Tutchone, interior Athapaskans in whose territory the discovery was made. Along with the coastal Tlingit in adjacent Alaska, the local communities authorized a battery of scientific studies before the body was cremated and the ashes returned to where he had perished. DNA analysis demonstrated relatedness with individuals in both interior and coastal communities today, reminding us that people in the past travelled widely and coastal contacts would have extended far inland. By using Shuká Kaa and Kwäday Dän Ts’inchi to begin and end this book, Moss stresses the vital role collaboration with Aboriginal communities plays in Northwest Coast archaeology.

In preparing this slim volume Moss inevitably had to make choices. In general, these were good ones, but some themes have been omitted and some areas have been more lightly covered than others. The cultural summary is admirably up-to-date at the time of writing, but new research will inevitably invalidate some points, particularly for the early period. That may have already happened in regard to the Manis mastodon site on the Olympic Peninsula. Moss states that this site’s “cultural origin… is not widely accepted” (70). However, recent research involving AMS dating and high-resolution X-ray tomography has strongly supported the original claim of Late Pleistocene megafauna hunting (M.R. Waters et al. Science 334, 351-353 [2011]). Nevertheless, Moss demonstrates impressive knowledge of information, ideas, and developments all along the coast, from southeast Alaska to Oregon.

This book is illustrated, but not richly so. Clear maps and drawings present useful information, but photographs are often small and indistinct. It won’t have a strong appeal to the casual general reader, but that is not the target market. As noted at the beginning of this review, the SAA series is directed at teaching and research archaeologists who want a concise recent summary of discoveries and interpretations. Anyone interested in this fascinating area will find much to consider in this book, which might also serve admirably as an undergraduate course text, perhaps augmented with additional readings. 

Northwest Coast: Archaeology as Deep History
Madonna L. Moss
Washington, DC: Society for American Archaeology Press, 2011. 183 pp. $24.95 paper.