VANCOUVER – First Nations in British Columbia were once believed to have travelled long distances to find prized volcanic rock for tools, but a new study of an ancient village suggests the mountain actually came to them.
Archeologist Colin Grier has been studying the Gulf Island village site at Dionisio Point on Galiano Island for almost two decades, but it wasn’t until his team picked up a few dark stones on the beach that they began questioning the theory of travelling for stones to make tools.
The associate professor at Washington State University’s anthropology department said the team tested the beach stones, the debris from stone toolmaking at the site and the volcanic rock from Mount Garibaldi over 100 kilometres away on British Columbia’s mainland.
The chemical fingerprint matched.
Grier said the finding dispels the theory that the villagers went all the way to Mount Garibaldi between 600 and 1,500 years ago to get the stone for their tools. Instead, the rock came to their beach thousands of years before.
“It was picked right off the local beach, brought there by glaciers, conveniently, 12,000 years ago,” he said.
Grier co-authored the study published in the September issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
It said the volcanic rock was difficult to fashion into a tool, but it kept a better edge and required less retouching during use compared with obsidian or chert, a silica rock.
“We conclude the high-quality tool stones were readily available in secondary glacial till deposits at the Dionisio Point locality,” the study said.
Grier said the beach stones — while not the highest quality — made it much more possible for the villagers to be self-sufficient because the material for tools was easily accessible.
“You could go down to the local corner hardware store rather than having to pick up and pack the canoe up and head off to the Super WalMart on the mainland,” he chuckled.
That didn’t mean the First Nations did not travel at all. In fact, other studies showed they often trekked to other villages on Vancouver Island and the mainland, Grier said.
There is a lot of evidence that many island villagers went to the Fraser River to fish for salmon during the summer.
“The villages they were living in were likely inhabited through the winter, after they had dried all their salmon and bought it back,” Grier said.
The Dionisio Point village, part of a protected provincial park and only accessible by boat, is considered one of the best preserved village sites on the entire B.C. coast.
“It’s an amazing element of the archeological record of British Columbia and Canada, and really, of the world,” said Grier, a Canadian who lives on Galiano when he’s not working in Washington state.
The Gulf Islands sit right along the Canada-U.S. border between Vancouver Island and B.C.’s mainland.
Grier said the islands are a treasure trove of archeological sites with new discoveries taking place all the time, giving more hints about what ancient Coast Salish life was like hundreds of years ago.