The Archaeology of North Pacific Fisheries
March 6, 2014
Review By Becky Wigen
Books that are compilations of papers given at conferences, such as this one, can be rather disjointed, often with only a few chapters of interest to each individual reader. This is an exception to that rule. The topic of the session at the 2008 Vancouver Society for American Archaeology conference was very tight, focused on archaeological information on fish on the north Pacific coast, particularly salmon, cod, and herring. The resulting book expands on the conference session but is equally tightly focused, and most readers with any interest in those areas will find the whole book useful.
Research on Pacific cod has tended to be overshadowed by Pacific salmon. One of the successful goals of this book is to bring Pacific cod more attention. Several of the authors compare Atlantic and Pacific cod in food quality, use, and population over time. Mathew Betts et al. demonstrate that the population patterns of the two cods are quite different. Madonna Moss points out that Pacific cod has fared poorly in historic and current comparisons of quality with Atlantic cod, and she provides a summary of archaeological data. Comparison of Atlantic and Pacific archaeological sites and fishes is very uncommon. Other fish species, such as herring or salmon, might also produce interesting results from this type of Atlantic/Pacific Ocean distant comparison. Other aspects of research on Pacific cod featured here, such as the chapters by Ross Smith et al., and Catherine Ross et al., include data on cod bone density and examination of cod otoliths for information on sea temperatures.
Not surprisingly, considering their importance in the region, salmon remain the focus of many chapters, for example those by Trevor Orchard, Aubrey Cannon, Elroy White, and Paul Prince. New techniques allow identification of salmon vertebrae by species, which in turn leads to more detailed analyses of salmon use. Several chapters, for example those by Orchard and Prince, demonstrate long-term stable salmon use, with at least one case provided, at Namu, of an apparent local collapse of a salmon run (Cannon et al.). Orchard shows the possibility of late intensification of salmon use in Haida Gwaii, with some variations. Evidence (both bones and fish traps) of salmon use in these chapters supports a focus on local salmon resources, with one notable exception: residents of the Dundas Islands appear to have accessed important resources, salmon and eulachon in particular, outside their local area (Natalie Brewster and Andrew Martindale).
The remaining chapters are more varied, though all have a focus on fish resources. Two chapters (by Megan Caldwell and Moss et al. respectively) examine evidence for herring use, another fish that has tended to be under-represented in traditional excavations. The importance of herring is now becoming obvious and has led Caldwell to suggest that the fish traps of Comox Harbour may have been used to catch herring instead of, or in addition to, salmon. Intensification of salmon use is a theme in several chapters, but one site in Puget Sound (Teresa Trost et al.) shows evidence of a broader resource intensification: an increase in the variety and size of classes of fish species caught.
A recurring theme in this book is that regional patterns are often overridden by local patterns. Ethnographic and historical records indicate that people travelled to harvest salmon in the large rivers on the coast where possible, but the archaeological record tends to show a substantial focus on local resources. The one exception to this, at least in this volume, the Dundas Island group, stands out dramatically (Brewster and Martindale), which suggests that we need more work in those islands to explain why these residents chose, or needed, to collect fish resources away from their local area.
Use of small-volume technologies such as augers and cores allows samples to be taken from a large number of archaeological sites economically. Several of the research projects considered here use this type of sampling extensively, for example Brewster and Martindale. Abundant remains are represented very well, particularly fish and shellfish, and lab sorting ensures excellent recovery. As a result, these samples have increased our understanding of small fish species that were missed or seriously underrepresented in traditional larger scale excavations using quarter-inch field screens. However, these analyses now run the chance of losing track of larger and/or less abundant species, including such species as halibut, marine and terrestrial mammals, and birds (not to mention tools!). Hopefully it will be possible to use both these small volume samples and larger excavation units in most archaeological sites to sample all fauna.
This is a useful volume for anyone with an interest in west coast archaeology. Some of the data are not found easily in other places and several of the chapters deal with large regional summaries. Even if you do not agree with all the interpretations, the ideas presented will trigger discussion and argument: always a sign of excellent scholarship. Not to be undervalued is the presence of substantial bibliographies for the regions covered, including references to unpublished work. This volume will also give people interested in fisheries on the coast a very good idea of the archaeological data available.