Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fish traps 'almost 1400 years old'

Radio carbonating strengthens case for National Historic Site

Some of the ancient fish traps in the Courtenay Estuary are way older than first imagined.

Radiocarbon dating of the remains of wooden stakes pounded in to the mud has revealed some date back almost 1400 years.

The results, announced on Tuesday, could strengthen the case to designate the estuary as a National Historic Site.

Archaeologist Nancy Greene and her husband, geologist David McGee, have been investigating the mystery of the fish traps for years.

They estimate there are the remains of perhaps 150,000 stakes in the estuary, although many are not immediately obvious as the remnants are below the mud.

But at low tide, the remains of huge numbers are visible, and careful mapping of 14,000 of them using GPS equipment has exposed intricate patterns.

They include large heart and chevron-shaped compounds, with long straight lines of stakes once used to help guide fish, particularly salmon and herring, into the traps as tides receded.

Fragments of basketry and cord have been found buried in the mud, indicating that many stakes were linked like fences to create pens to prevent fish escaping.

While a handful of stakes were scientifically dated six years ago - a process that proved that some had been in place for centuries - Greene and McGee realized a much larger sampling was needed to progress the research to the next level.

A wider sampling would not only provide more precise dates for the structures, but also help unravel the mystery of overlapping patterns. But the cost was prohibitive.

To the rescue came the specially-created 'Stick in the Mud Club,' an idea conceived by regional district Area B director Jim Gillis and Project Watershed vice-chair Paul Horgen.

The idea was each member of the new club would put up $500 to cover the costs of scientifically dating a stake, with a target of getting at least 40 analyzed. The end result topped that, with enough money raised to date 46.

A host of individuals, groups and local governments stepped forward to join the club, and on Tuesday each was presented with a certificate of appreciation, including the date of their stake now the results are in.

Greene gave an illustrated presentation on the outcome of the research to coincide with the distribution of certificates at the Black Fin Pub in Comox.

She said the oldest date for a stake was 1360 years, and the youngest around 170 years, all before Europeans settled in the Comox Valley.

Because the stakes had been sampled from various parts of the estuary, what could be gleaned from the results was spectacular, she said. Groups of stakes of a similar age had helped define specific patterns of fish traps from different eras.

"We now have the scientific evidence for something that is extremely rare - maybe unique in North America," she said.

"The estuary has the merits to be a National Historic Site and these new dates could nail it," Greene added.

The latest radiocarbon results pushed the earliest trap dates back a further 200 years and had allowed "a whole range of questions to be answered."

She added: "There's no doubt now that this is the biggest, most sophisticated and intense fishing site ever recorded in Canada.

"Some of the traps are 140ft across and had the capability of catching immense numbers of fish, capable of feeding a vastly larger population than we imagined.

"The First Nations knew how to fish on a huge scale but they did it sustainably. There's a lesson to be learned from that."

Greene said the research to date would now be written up for publication in a professional journal, with full acknowledgement to the community input to the project.

"The community has really supported our research, especially through the Stick in the Mud Club. We could not have reached this point without that support," she said.

Gillis said he was delighted with the outcome of the fundraising and research and looked forward to the next stage of the project.

When he originally wanted to get people to sponsor a stake and part with $500, he had some difficulty getting traction.

Then he pitched the idea to Comox Mayor Paul Ives who, he recalled, had responded: 'Why should I be interested in a bunch of sticks in the mud?'

"What he said got me thinking," said Gillis. "'Stick in the Mud' would be a great phrase to draw attention to the project, so the idea of the club was born."

Ives soon signed up as a member, putting $500 of his own in to the pot and later his council also joined.

At Tuesday's event, Ives said what had been discovered had really opened his eyes to the estuary's historic as well as natural significance.

"The magnitude of this is really quite mind boggling," he commented. "A lot more people were living here at one time than most people realize."


Round, Philip. 2010. "Fish traps 'almost 1400 years old'". Posted: December 3, 2010. Available online:

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