Stepping Into The Past

The discovery of 13,000-year-old footprints on a remote island in western Canada indicates that people were living on the Pacific Coast during the Clovis period.

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The crew excavates in an intertidal zone where the footprint features were found preserved beneath beach sands. Credit: Grant Callegari / Hakai Institute
The crew excavates in an intertidal zone where the footprint features were found preserved beneath beach sands. Credit: Grant Callegari / Hakai Institute

Fall 2016: By Tom Koppel.

“Footprints have raised ridges,” says Duncan McLaren, as he crouches and scrapes with his trowel at the bottom of the seaside pit. “Here, you can see what we think is the back—the heel—of a footprint, and here is another entire footprint, with toes.”  When someone steps into soft sand or mud and then pulls their foot out, he explains, it raises the area around the edges and leaves a slight depression. In this case, the yellow-gray clay eventually became firm. “This black sediment is set into it,” he adds, pointing with the trowel to where dark sand later filled in the depressed area.  The contrast makes the print readily visible.  “You can almost feel the edge of the footprint with the trowel, and the clay has a slight anaerobic scent from lack of oxygen.  Like rotten eggs.”

McLaren, forty-five, wiry and athletic, is working one end of a rectangle the size of two queen beds.  It has been sunk into the foreshore just below the high tide line on a sheltered bay at remote Calvert Island, in British Columbia, Canada.  McLaren leads a team of archaeologists and support personnel that has spent portions of five field seasons here already.  Most have links to the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island either as students, recent graduates, or faculty members. There are also representatives from the Wuikinuxv and Heiltsuk First Nations whose traditional territories encompass Calvert and neighboring islands.

Colleague Daryl Fedje, sixty-three, tall and slim, is working away in the opposite end of the pit. McLaren and Fedje have collaborated on numerous projects and published papers, their research funded by the privately endowed Hakai Institute.  The dig site is ten minutes by boat from the Institute’s island field station, where the crew is housed and fed.  Visitors come and go by seaplane.

Painstakingly shaving away the muck at the lowest levels of the pit, the archaeologists uncovered twelve well-defined prints in just a few days.  These are in addition to the equally numerous footprints they unearthed here last year. What makes the dig unique is that these human traces were left behind some 13,000 years ago, making them the oldest footprints ever found in North America.

A 13,000-year-old footprint is prepared for removal. The impression, which was made in light colored clay, was subsequently covered by dark sand. Credit: Joanne McSporran / Hakai Institute
A 13,000-year-old footprint is prepared for removal. The impression, which was made in light colored clay,
was subsequently covered by dark sand. Credit: Joanne McSporran / Hakai Institute

Summary. Read More in our Fall 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 3. Browse Content of this Issue: Fall 2016.

Browse Articles Summaries from our last issue, Summer 2016 .

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