Archaeologists In Canada Unearthed An Ice Age Settlement That May Rewrite North American History

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Photo Courtesy: [Julia FranzChristie Taylor/The World]

In Canada, a group of archeologists unearthed an Ice Age settlement that has changed a story that has been passed down from generation to generation among the Heiltsuk Nation. It forms part of the oral history of the Canadian people. Roughly fourteen thousand years ago, the North American continent was in the middle of an ice age. Scientists believed that the first humans crossed into North America on foot across a land bridge between what is now Alaska and eastern Russia. However, the new discovery has challenged that theory.

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Heiltsuk Nation

The Heiltsuk Nation is an Indigenous people of the Central Coast region in British Columbia. They are centered on the island community of Bella Bella, and the Heiltsuk Nation is the government of the Heiltsuk people.

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Photo Courtesy: [Dorothy Kennedy/The Canadian Encyclopedia]
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They are the main descendants of Haitzaqvla-speaking people, and they identify as being from one or more of the five tribal groups. The Heiltsuk ancestors have been located on the Central Coast since at least 7190 BCE.

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Triquet Ancestors Of The Heiltsuk

For centuries now, the Heiltsuk people have claimed that they were the first nation indigenous to the Great Bear Rain Forest. They also claimed that their ancestors came to the Island to seek refuge during the Ice Age. 

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"There are people connected to this site. There are people who created these artifacts; there are people who lived here, resided here." ----- Larissa Dixon.

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First Nations 

The Heiltsuk Nation is a First Nations government in the Central Coast region of the Canadian province of British Columbia. There were centered on Campbell Island in the community of Bella Bella, British Columbia. 

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The First Nations are groups of Indigenous people who are the earliest known inhabitants of an era. "When First Nations talk about time immemorial, it just goes to show how far back the occupation of this land goes back in deep time." ----- Alisha Gauvreau.

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University Of Victoria

The University of Victoria has been involved in the unearthing of the Ice Age settlement in Canada. It is a public research university that is located in the municipalities of Oak Bay and Saanich, British Columbia, Canada. 

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They offer the Indigenous-ACE program, which provides culturally sensitive and community-tailored entrepreneurial and business education to ensure the full participation of Indigenous Peoples in the Canadian economy.

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Hakai Institute

The Hakai Institute is also involved in the unearthing of the Ice Age settlement in Canada. The institute represents what happens when the elements of funding, science programs, skilled staff, infrastructure, and partners are integrated into one organization. 

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It is a scientific research, meeting, and teaching center on the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada. The institute works with First Nations, local schools, and government agencies.

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Paleosol

The team had to dig down deep into the Earth to find an Ice Age settlement. They had to dig down through many layers of soil and peat. After they cut through many feet of Earth, they came across paleosols. 

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Paleosol is a thin layer of fossil soil, and finding it, intrigued archeologists. What really interested them was what the soil contained and the items that they found.

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The Settlement Had Been Established Around 14,000 Years Ago

The researchers sent in the soil to be tested, and the results came back and confirmed the oral history of the Heiltsuk Nation. It revealed that the settlement was established about fourteen thousand years ago.

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Photo Courtesy: [Brigit Katz/Smithsonian Magazine]
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It was the land that First Nation people had been telling stories about for so long. "This find is very important because it reaffirms a lot of the history that our people have been talking about for thousands of years." ----- Housty.

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Archaeologists Found A Number Of Other Incredible Items

Archeologists found several incredible items while they were digging down into the Earth. They found fish hooks and tools, and in another spot, they came across spears, which would've been used to hunt marine mammals. 

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Photo Courtesy: [Joanne McSporran/Archaeology Magazine]
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In addition, they found a drill that would've been used to start fires. They uncovered cutting and woodworking tools made from a volcanic glass called obsidian.

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They Were Around When Animals Such As Mammoths Still Walked The Earth

Putting the discovery into some historical context, the settlement that researchers found on Triquet Island is thousands of years old and predates the Roman empire. The land was actually around when animals such as mammoths still walked the Earth. 

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The ancient Heiltsuk people would have come to this land, going through species of prehistoric beasts, including bear-sized moths, lions, cheetahs, dire wolves, and saber-toothed tigers.

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It Was Thought That Ancestors Used The Sea To Make Their First Forays Into The Continent

The evidence that was discovered has proved that the earliest human migration into North America wasn't made by land. Instead, the ancestors used the sea to make their first forays into the continent. 

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They would've been capable of moving along the coast of the land bridge into North America, and it appears they continued to move deeper into the continent along the coast rather than by land.

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The Ancestors Used Spears As Weapons To Hunt Large Marine Mammals

The spears that were found gave the archeologists the insight that they came by sea. The weapons were obviously used for hunting large marine mammals. 

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In order to hunt large marine mammals, the people would've been capable of taking to the waves. "It's a lot more work to hunt large animals, but when you get one, you get a lot. It's a high caloric payoff." ----- Alisha Gauvreau.

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Triquet Habitant's Diet

Tests that were conducted on materials found during the dig indicate that for the first seven thousand years of human habitation, the people's diet on Triquet consisted primarily of seals and sea lions. 

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One of the key pieces of evidence revolved around the diet of the Triquet habitants. The evidence shows that for roughly fifty-seven hundred years, people's diet shifted to fin fish. Evidence of shellfish processing was found as well.

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Triquet Was Habitable Even When The Rest Of The Continent Was Encased In Ice

The story that the Heiltsuk people passed from generation to generation was about a strip of land along the west coast of Canada. Their traditions claim that this piece of land didn't freeze during the Ice Age when everything else did. 

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They said it was there that their ancestors took shelter from the freezing conditions. However, the new findings suggest they came by sea and not by land.

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The Sea Level At Triquet Had Been Constant For More Than 15,000 Years

It all uncovered that the sea level at Triquet has been constant for more than fifteen thousand years. Because of its stability, it made the island habitable for humans. 

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It also helped to preserve evidence of continuous use and the dramatic changes in the occupants' hunting and eating habits. However, the natural rise and fall of sea levels and the Earth's tectonic plates have left ancient villages on other parts of the coast submerged.

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The First Nation People Still Struggle With Land Rights Claim

The discovery and confirmation of the Heiltsuk's oral history could have a major impact on the lives of the descendants of the inhabitants of Triquet Island. The First Nation people still struggle with land rights claims. 

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"So now we don't just have oral history; we have this archaeological information. It's not just an arbitrary thing that anyone's making up. We have a history supported from Western science and archaeology." ----- William Housty.

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Gvi'ilas

Gvi'ilas are the laws of their ancestors to guide all resource use and environmental management. Gvi'ilas refers to their authority over all matters that affect their lives. It is an understanding that all things are connected, and that unity is important to maintain.

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Photo Courtesy: [Heiltsuk oral tradition/Culture]
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"Gvi'ilas not only governed our relationship and responsibilities to land and resources but also social relationships and obligations with respect to lands and resources. For example, take a little and leave a lot; dispersed and varied resource harvesting obligations to share and support family and community; obligations to care for the resource; seeing all aspects of harvesting, from the taking of the resources to the methods used, as a gift of the Creator." ----- Chief Moses Humchitt.

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Heiltsuk Village Site Of Namu

The Heiltsuk Village site of Namu in the 1960s and 1970s concluded that the history of the Heiltsuk goes back as far as eleven thousand five hundred years. On Namu, packers operated a cannery; it was a hub of activity for commercial fishing along the central coast. 

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It had a population of up to four hundred cannery workers, fish processors, maintenance personnel, and their families. Sadly, due to high transportation costs and low fish prices, forced the shift to the fish being shipped south to Vancouver and west to Japan for canning.

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The Ancestors Were Living Here Before The Time Of A Great Flood

This land and people existed before the Great Flood. The Great Flood caused the waters of Huyat to rise so high that the people had to take refuge on the mountain. 

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The story of the flood exemplifies some of the ways in which Heiltsuk history is embedded in the mountains and rocks of the Huyat landscape. In addition, it shows that the settlement of Huyat was one of the first settled on the island.

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Bella Bella

Thousands of years ago, their ancestors occupied more than fifty major villages across Canada. The people have used the intricate network of waterways to travel from well-established winter villages to numerous seasonal camps situated on salmon streams, along ancient trading routes, and on outer islands. 

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When Europeans arrived in the eighteenth century, there were several Heiltsuk villages on the various islands near the present-day location called Bella Bella.

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Old Bella Bella

The Old Bella Bella, now called the 'Qelc village site, has all but disappeared. It is also called the Old Town. McLoughlin Bay, which is now connected by a road to Bella Bella. 

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It is the site of the BC Ferries terminal, a Heiltsuk fish processing plant, and a salmon hatchery. The old Hudson's Bay Company land is now owned by the Heiltsuk, and today is the New Bella Bella.

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Captain Carpenter

Someone at the forefront of modern Heiltsuk culture is Captain Carpenter, and he produced some of the most intriguing pieces of work attributed to these people more than one hundred and fifty years ago. 

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Photo Courtesy: [Bruce Hallman/History]
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He was the chief of the Heiltsuk people but adopted an English name because of his reputation as a skilled carver. The photo is of one of his amazing pieces of work.

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The Ice Age

The Ice Age saw sheets of ice covering all of Antarctica, large parts of Europe, North America, and South America, and small areas in Asia. The ice stretched over Greenland and Canada and parts of the northern United States. 

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There are even glaciers from the Ice Age that remain in Greenland and Antarctica. There was a lot of movement over time, and the major effects were erosion and deposition of material over large parts of the continents, the creation of millions of lakes, modifications of river systems, changes in sea level, and so much more.

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When The First Humans Crossed Into North America

The timeframe in which humans inhabited Triquet Island was actually two thousand years earlier than the previous assumption of when humans arrived in North America. 

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The artifacts that were found proved that the first humans crossed into North America much sooner than originally thought. They found that the area had been through a couple of giant tsunamis and that the first humans were present there before the first tsunami hit.

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Strip Of Land Along The West Coast Of Canada

The initial theory that humans entered the Americas was that they came from Asia over an Alaskan land bridge through an ice-free corridor east of the Rockies and made their way through what is now eastern and central Canada. 

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"The bottom line is that even though the physical corridor was open 13,000 years ago, it was several hundred years before it was possible to use it. That means that the first people entering what is now the US, Central, and South America, must have taken a different route. Where you believe these people were Clovis, or someone else, they simply could not have come through the corridor, as long claimed." ----- Eske Willerslev.

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Archaeologists Found The Remains Of An Ancient Hearth-Like Structure

Within the paleosol, the archeologists found the remains of an ancient hearth-like structure. Inside, there were minuscule flecks of charcoal. They used tweezers to extract tiny pieces of burnt wood. 

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The fragments were pulled out, taken off to be carbon-dated, and the results were then tested. They tested many parts of what they found in the ground.

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They Found A Hand Drill

One of the tools that were discovered in Canada was the hand drill. The hand drill was used for lighting fires. Hands create less friction than a drill, so they made drills to start their fires. 

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It could've also been used as a tool for drilling holes in hard materials such as wood, stone, or bone. They got a spark by holding the rod vertically between both hands and moving it back and forth.

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The Remains Are Thousands Of Years Older Than The Great Egyptian Pyramids

The Egyptian pyramids are ancient masonry structures in Egypt. The findings in Triquet show that the settlement is more than fourteen thousand years old. In fact, it is thousands of years older than the Egyptian pyramids. 

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Photo Courtesy: [Ricardo Liberato/Public Domain/Wikipedia]
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The settlement is three times as old as the Great Pyramid at Giza. That's another reason why archeologists were so interested when they found the Ice Age settlement.

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Fort McLoughlin

Fort McLoughlin was established in 1833 by the Hudson's Bay Company. It is a heavily fortified fur trading post on what is now McLoughlin Bay on Campbell Island. At the time, Heiltsuk already had a well-established trading network on the coast. 

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Photo Courtesy: [Steve A. Anderson/Fort McLoughlin]
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However, the Hudson's Bay Company sought to supplant Indigenous people as middlemen in the fur trade wherever possible. They found out that the Heiltsuk would not allow themselves to be pushed aside.

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'Qelc Village

The Heiltsuk knew the village as 'Qelc, but it was recorded by the Europeans under other names such as Pelbala and eventually Bella Bella. 

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Members of Heiltsuk-speaking tribes from across the region who gradually relocated to the village over the next sixty years became known as the Bella Bella Indians. 'Qelc was basically another name for the Old Bella Bella.

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1862 - A Devastating Smallpox Epidemic

In the winter of 1862 and 1863, a devastating smallpox epidemic took a massive toll on the Heiltsuk population across the territory. 

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Several of the villages were completely wiped out, and the others didn't have enough people left to sustain them. The survivors from the various Heiltsuk tribes gradually gathered at Bella Bella because it is centrally located in Heiltsuk territory.

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It Was A Village That Was A Busy Center Of Trading And Shipping Activities On The Coast

Originally, the Heiltsuk ancestors occupied more than fifty major villages spread across the vast territory. They became well-known as skilled and savvy traders. 

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Within just a decade, the village was the second largest on the coast, with a hospital, sawmill, school, fire hall, warehouse, wharf, and planked roads with street lights. The residents contributed to and shared in the success of nearby ventures like Ocean Falls and Namu.

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Joshua Vickers Of The Heiltsuk First Nation

Joshua Vickers is of the Heiltsuk First Nation and the archeological team. He can be seen in a photo holding up a rare sixty-five hundred-year-old carved wooden bi-point. 

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In his home territories, he works as an Indigenous Guardian, which is surveying, monitoring, and stewarding the lands and waters. He stated that he gives thanks to the old ones that safeguarded his family's stories, culture, and origins for the work he's doing today.

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Alisha Gauvreau

Alisha Gauvreau is an archeologist and a Ph.D. student from the University of Victoria, and a scholar with the Hakai. She helped uncover the Ice Age settlement, and she and her team are supported by the Hakai Institute. They found a number of artifacts. 

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She said in an interview, "I remember when we got the dates back, and we just kind of sat there going, holy moly, this is old. What this is doing is just changing our idea of the way in which North America was first peopled." She also said, "It appears we had people sitting in one area making stone tools beside evidence of a fire pit. The material that we have recovered has really helped us weave a narrative for the occupation of this site. Archeologists had long thought that the coast would be completely uninhabitable and impassible when that is very clearly not the case." 

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Indigenous People Have Lived In The Arctic For Thousands Of Years

Ten percent of the Arctic population are Indigenous peoples, and they have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. So, it's not surprising that archeologists found a settlement from the Ice Age. 

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The Heiltsuk people were not new to that climate. They were known for having large permanent 'winter villages.'

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Larissa Dixon

Larissa Dixon (bottom right) is one of the research assistants at UVic's archeology research lab. She is a second-year anthropology student at UVic and is of Heiltsuk descent. In fact, her family can trace their ancestry back generations through its associated oral histories. 

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"The media took it in a whirlwind (speaking of the Triquet Island discovery last spring. Dixon had put down the stone artifacts she had been cataloging) for future generations to learn from and came to speak with me just outside the lab. The sensationalized aspect of it all was just really overwhelming." ----- Larissa Dixon.

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New Bella Bella

In 1897, the Heiltsuk made the decision to move and surveyed a new town site north of McLoughlin Bay. The town was known as Waglisla, which meant "river on the beach." 

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Building progressed quickly, and by 1900, the people of 'Qelc had relocated to the new village, which boasted large European-style houses and businesses run by Heiltsuk. This new community is called New Bella Bella.

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Huyat

Huyat is the place in the heart of Heiltsuk traditional territory and has been described as a place of learning and teaching. It is one of the oldest archeological sites in British Columbia. 

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It is one of an immense network of culturally important places in the area and is the land where Cumqlaqs gave birth to her wolf children. Huyat refers to several socially and geographically connected bays on northern Hunter Island.

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The Ladder To The Ancestors

In Huyat, there was a ladder there, and it was said that if you went down, that's where the dead Haitzaqv lived. The legend is that the dead Haitzaqv member went to her relatives, and she had a beautiful baby. The Haitzaqv picked up the baby and made a big fuss over it. He saw that the baby had no eyes, was startled, and threw the baby across the room. The mother was angry and said that they would no longer live among the living anymore. 

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Cecile Reid stated, "I always found that interesting because that apparently is why our people believe that if you burn toast, you can't eat it because the people who do eat it are the dead Haitzaqv. The same with them; they can't eat anymore because they obviously have no stomachs. The story was that whenever there was smoke coming out of the stove, they would inhale it as quickly as possible because that is how the dead lived. Yeah, so there you go.” She also stated, “I always found that interesting because that apparently is why our people believe that if you burn toast, you can’t eat it because the people who do eat it are the dead Haitzaqv. The same with, they can’t eat anymore, because they obviously have no stomachs. The story was that, whenever there was smoke coming out of the stove they would inhale it as quickly as possible because is how the dead lived. Yeah, so there you go.”

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The Heiltsuk Tribe Is Part Of The Native American Tribes

The Heiltsuk tribe is part of The Native American Tribes that fall under the Northwest group. They were located on the Pacific West Coast of North America and stretched from Southern Alaska to the coast of British Canada to Northern California. 

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Photo Courtesy: [Native American Cultures/History]
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Some of the other tribes that are a part of the Northwest Indian Tribes are Alsea, Bella Coola, Chehalis, Chinook, Cowlitz, Haida, Haisla, Klallam, Kwakiutl, Makah, Nooksack, Nootka, Quileute, and many more.

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Hakai Ancient Landscape Archaeology Project (HALAP)

The Hakai Ancient Landscape Archeology Project (HALAP) was led by Dr. Duncan McLaren, and he found early-period sites on an area of the coast with relatively little long-term sea level change. He chose the Hakai Pass/Northern Calvert Island area. His research was carried out under the generous funding of the Hakai Institute.

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The HALAP would add UVic undergraduate students from the Department of Anthropology's Archaeology Field School. The students receive hands-on and skill-based training in archaeology field methods and get opportunities to work side-by-side with seasoned professionals. 

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Dr. Duncan McLaren

Dr. Duncan McLaren is an assistant professor at the University of Victoria. He stated that his research methods pay special attention to dating deposits and material through absolute and relative techniques. 

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Photo Courtesy: [Duncan McLaren/UOE]
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He stated that his research interests are focused on the Northwest Coast culture of North America. He was interested in the unique position of archeology in the social sciences and humanities in providing a long-term perspective on history. He was also involved in the unearthing of the Ice Age settlement.

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The Bella Bella Tribe Consists Of 5 Tribal Groups

The Bella Bella Tribe consists of five tribal groups. Wuyalitxv is known as the Seaward Tribe, Qvuqvayaitxv is known as the Calm Water Tribe, Quithitxv is known as the Roscoe Inlet Tribe, Yisdaitxv is known as the Yisda Tribe, and Xixis is known as the Northern/Downriver Tribe.

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Photo Courtesy: [Bella Bella Tribe/The Pacific Northwest Indians]
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They were all located on the Central Coast of British Columbia for many thousands of years. The image above shows how the tribes all lived years ago.

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William Housty

William Housty is part of the Heiltsuk culture, and his Heiltsuk name is Duqvaisla, which he received from his late grandfather, George Housty. William has a Bachelor's Degree in Natural Resource Management and has gained invaluable knowledge in Heiltsuk song, story, language, and name. 

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Photo Courtesy: [William Housty/Salmon Nation]
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He grew up on the land and waters of Bella Bella, and he has a strong will to protect and take care of his people's territory. He now works with the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD).

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They Were Skilled Traders

The Heiltsuk became well-known as skilled and savvy traders, and they were able to develop a lucrative but somewhat uneasy business relationship with the fort. 

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For a while, the village was a busy center of trading and shipping activities on the coast. It didn't take long before it was one of the largest trading centers on the coast. They were highly skilled in canoe making and fur trade.

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Colonists Attempted To Exterminate The Community With Smallpox Blankets

Sadly, like other First Nations on the coast, the Heiltsuk were subject to repeated attempts at genocide by the colonists. Especially smallpox, which killed the majority of the population. 

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Photo Courtesy: [PATRICK J. KIGER/History]
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The 1862 Pacific Northwest smallpox epidemic alone killed about seventy-two percent of the Heiltsuk people. The decrease in the population caused the Heiltsuk to coalesce into fewer communities and reduced the population to just under two hundred and twenty-five by 1919.

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Archeology

Archeology is the scientific study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of culture, and archeologists study human prehistory and history. 

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Photo Courtesy: [Tom Koppel/American Archaeology Magazine]
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Their work involves surveying, excavation, and eventually, analysis of the data that has been collected in order to learn more about the past. It is the archeologists that found the Ice Age settlement from more than fourteen thousand years ago.

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How Did The Triquet Island Remain Uncovered? 

How did Triquet Island remain uncovered? It was able to stay uncovered for so long because the sea levels in the area remained stable over time due to the sea level hinge. 

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"So, all the rest of the landmass was covered in ice. As those ice sheets started to recede and we had some major shifts in sea levels coastwide, so further to the north and the south in the magnitude of 150 to 200 meters of difference, whereas here it remained exactly the same." ----- Alisha Gauvreau.

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Also Found, 13,000-Year-Old Footprints

They also found twenty-nine footprints, likely from a man, a woman, and a child. They tested the radiocarbon in the clay where the footprints were found. The results were that they walked there thirteen thousand years ago. 

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Photo Courtesy: [THE CANADIAN PRESS/LCC]
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It also defied nearly a century's worth of thinking about the long human journey into North America. The footprints are just the latest in a series of dramatic discoveries that placed people on the B.C. coast long before they were supposed to be there.

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The Heiltsuk Tribe Still Exists Today In Canada And Still Maintains Their Rights To Their Ancestral Land

The Heiltsuk tribe still exists today in Canada, and the tribe still maintains their rights to their ancestral land. The discoveries at Triquet Island are definitely changing the way that scientists think about the distant history of the human race, and they will most likely have several effects. 

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They show that oral history can be just as strongly rooted in fact as a record, and it could be key to the future of the Heiltsuk Nation. They have a very rich history, but they still maintain a strong identity today and are legally recognized in British Columbia.

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