looking east from the Hakai Institute Ecological Observatory on Quadra Island, with parts of Quadra Island in the foreground, Read Island in the mid-ground and little bits of Cortes Island, West and East Redonda islands, and the mainland of BC in the background

The Ice Age settlement of Vancouver Island and the Discovery Islands

New evidence suggests that First Nations people may have arrived in northern Vancouver Island as early as 18,500 years ago. 

Chris Hebda, from the Hakai Institute, is the lead author of a study that found Topknot Lake, near Cape Scott, has been ice free since then.  In today’s interview he also gives a tentative outline of our area’s history from post ice age settlement down to the First Nations of our era.

 Chris Hebda with one of the lowest core sections from Little Woss Lake. You can see the transition from inorganic silts and clays (grey and light brown on the left, indicating little or no vegetation nearby) to highly organic lake sediment (dark brown on the right, indicating a forested environment). – Photo credit: Duncan McLaren

“We looked at two different sites on Vancouver island.  Topknot Lake, which is within about two kilometres of the ocean and Little Woss Lake, which is  basically right in the Northern portion of the Vancouver Island ranges,” he explained.

Core samples taken from the bottom of those lakes illustrated how the landscape had changed throughout the millennia.

The first people to settle in this area probably arrived by boat. They would have hunted seals, harvested fish, shellfish, berries and cold climate plants. Vancouver Island probably looked more like modern Greenland than the forested landscape we are used to. There would have been an abundance of grass, daisies and some smaller trees such as willows.  

Hebda and his colleagues discovered that Topknot Lake was ice free at this time and possessed an environment similar to what the first settlers would have been familiar with. 

“The key thing about our study is the demonstration that we have an environment in which people could live,” said Hebda.

Recovering the core from Little Woss Lake. (L to R: Dave Wall, Chris Hebda, Richard Hebda; Photo credit: Duncan McLaren)

There is little hard evidence until a little more than 14,000 years ago, at which point humanity had already spread throughout North and South America.  

“The genetic evidence suggests that between maybe 14,000 and 17,500 years ago, there was a split in lineages of people coming down from Beringia (Siberia, Alaska and part of the Northwest Territories) into what is now North America. Somewhere in that timeframe, the two populations split and became two distinct populations south of the ice sheets. They then went on to populate the Southern portion of North America and South America and everything since,” explained Hebda. “Somewhere in that time range, or just before that time range if they were coming down together in one population and then split, that’s when we would expect to find the  earliest evidence of the people here on the coast.”

Between 20,000 and 25,000 years ago, people were certainly living up in Beringia and  slowly moving down towards the Americas.

A scanning electron microscope photo of some of the sediment from deep in the core from Topknot Lake (ca. 16,900 years ago). There is no sign of marine diatoms, implying that relative sea level never rose to the height of the lake (13m above modern sea level). – Photo credit: Terry Holmes, NRCAN

“Probably  around 17,000 and 20,000 years ago is when people were really starting to shift down the coast, according to our current understanding and about 14,000 years ago, according to the genetic evidence. Probably on the earlier end of that, would be my guess based on other archeological evidence,” explained Hebda. “We see forests begin to appear after about 15,000 years, beginning with  more open pine Woodlands which eventually filled in with spruce and hemlock.  That also is going to come with changes in the way that people were living and sort of an explosion of archeological sites on the coast, especially after 13,000 years and all the way to the present.”

One of the oldest archaeological sites in North America is at Triquet Island, about 300 km north of Cortes, where materials from the ancient hearth were dated at about 14,000 years. 

a light microscope photo from the lower sediments at Topknot Lake (ca. 16,200 years ago) showing pollen belonging to Asteraceae (the daisy family) in a tundra-like environment. – Photo credit: Chris Hebda

A little south of that on Calvert Island, there are human footprints dated between 13,000 and 13,300 years

Hebda suggests the Discovery Islands were probably settled about 13,000 years ago.

The earliest directly dated archaeology site is about 11,000 years ago at Yeatman Bay on Quadra Island.

He did not have an early date for Cortes Island, but explained, “It really comes down to where people have done the research.”

The coastal rainforests, with red cedar trees that were so integral to later First Nations, did not appear until between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. 

While there is not sufficient archeological or genetic evidence to prove the modern First Nations in our area descended from the first settlers, Hebda points to traditions.

looking north from Yeatman Bay on the northeastern side of Quadra Island, with Maurelle Island in the foreground and Sonora Island and the mainland of BC in the background. – Photo credit Chris Hebda

 “Modern First Nations in the Discovery Islands and on Vancouver Island have extremely extensive histories and the oral histories that people have in a lot of cases probably tie back to the end of the last Ice Age. Up on the central coast, in Heiltsuk territory, there’s an oral history that basically says, I’m paraphrasing here, ‘In the beginning there was water, there was ice, and there was a narrow strip of land between. That is one example, but there’s also others from elsewhere on the coast that really do quite clearly and vividly describe essentially a deglaciated landscape and the kinds of landscape that would represent the first peoples here,” he explained.

“Because those have been passed down for many thousands of years, it’s not unreasonable to tie those two things together and to say that there is direct continuity between the people who live there today, and those people whose stories have been passed down from that ancient time.”

Top image credit: looking east from the Hakai Institute Ecological Observatory on Quadra Island, with parts of Quadra Island in the foreground, Read Island in the mid-ground and little bits of Cortes Island, West and East Redonda islands, and the mainland of BC in the background – Photo by Chris Hebda

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