Earliest evidence of ancient North American salmon fishing

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Researchers work on excavation at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. Image courtesy of Ben Potter, UAF
Researchers work on excavation at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. Image courtesy of Ben Potter, UAF

Summary from Press Release Earliest evidence of ancient North American salmon fishing verified and NYT Oldest Find of Salmon Remains in North America

Archaeologist working at an Interior Alaskan Site, named the Upward Sun River Site, have announced the first evidence of salmon consumption dating back to the Paleo-Indian Period during the end of the last Ice Age. Excavations at the site have revealed dwellings, tools, burials and now food remains such as the 11,500 year old chum salmon bones. The bones were recovered from a hearth.

The site is located near the modern extreme edge of salmon habitat in central Alaska. This represents the earliest known human use of salmon in North America. The site also provides evidence that the Paleo-Indians consumed other animals, including ground squirrels and hares. Many past portrayals of Paleo Indians as being primarily big game hunters have started to fall away, and this is one more important piece of evidence documenting the diverse lifeways of the early Peoples of the Americas.

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“Salmon fishing has deep roots, and we now know that salmon have been consumed by North American humans at least 11,500 years ago,” said lead author Carrin Halffman, a UAF anthropologist who helped analyze the fish bones with co-authors Brian Kemp of Washington State University, Potter and others.

The findings also suggest that salmon spawning runs were established much earlier and much farther north than previously thought, at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, also known as the last Ice Age.

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DNA and Stable Isotope analysis done on the fish bones, confirmed that the remains were indeed sea-run chum salmon ( Oncorhynchus keta). The chum salmon had to migrate upriver some 1,400 kilometers from the current Mouth of the Yukon River. This not only supports the long-standing importance of Salmon to ancient native peoples, but also to the ancient migration routes of the salmon themselves.

The salmon were found in an ancient cooking hearth in a residential structure. Fish remains pose a challenge to archaeologists because their bones are very small and fragile and typically do not preserve well. Because of these challenges, their remains are likely underrepresented in global archaeological studies and findings.

[quote_center]Although about 300 bone fragments belonging to salmon were found, the site represents the beginning of salmon exploitation, said Ben Potter, also an archaeologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a study author.[/quote_center]

Summary from press release Earliest evidence of ancient North American salmon fishing verified and NYT Oldest Find of Salmon Remains in North America

Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, abstract available http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/09/15/1509747112.abstract

The excavation and analysis were funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Contributors to the paper include Ben Potter, UAF, Brian Kemp, Washington State University, UAF postdoctoral researcher Holly McKinney, Bruce Finney of Idaho State University, and Antonia Rodrigues and Dongya Yang of Simon Fraser University.

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