University of Victoria AUV
University of Victoria/Canadian Press
The University of Victoria's AUV is being off-loaded from the Parks Canada vessel Gwaii Haanas II at the end of the project. The team plans to return next summer for further investigation.

Archaeologists Discover 13,800-Year-Old Underwater Site at Haida Gwaii

Alex Jacobs

An archaeological discovery from this past September could put the earliest inhabitation in Canada at around 13,800 years ago, reported CBC News. Right now it’s all on sonar images captured by an underwater robotic vehicle. Archaeologist Quentin Mackie from the University of Victoria (UVIC) and his team returned from a research trip to the Haida Gwaii archipelago in August, where they used an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to scan the sea floor in search of evidence of ancient human inhabitation.

His team has been looking for proof of the earliest human presence in North America for decades, and what they think they’ve found is a fishing weir (a man-made rock formation) on the bottom of Juan Perez Sound under 122 meters of water. There are other formations on the sea floor that the team thinks are the sites of ancient camps of the same age.

Scientists think that area was at sea level 14,000 years ago and was mostly one large island that stretched across Hecate Strait east toward the mainland. The area has been submerged by 120 meters of water since that last Ice Age. The oldest artifact discovered in Canada so far came from Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site—it was dated to 12,700 years old.

Mackie says the sonar images fit in with his team’s theories (and tribal oral histories) about human inhabitation in Haida Gwaii where they’ve been researching for 20 years. The project is supported by the Tula Foundation Research Centre, the Gwaii Haanas, Parks Canada and UVIC. Colleagues Dr. Daryl Fedje (retired Parks Canada) and Nicole Smith (Parks Canada) presented previous findings in 2009.

Mackie and Fedje have theorized humans inhabited the area that’s now deep under Hecate Strait at around 16,000 to 17,000 years ago. So far, they have no hard proof, but they may be getting closer. And it’s not just technology, but agreements between the Governments of Canada and the Haida Nation may also have set the stage for an exciting discovery.

Ernie Gladstone, Haida, has been field superintendent for Parks Canada at Gwaii Haanas since 2001. These are his words and they answer so many questions that us outsiders have about this place and what was found and what will happen there.

“Gwaii Haanas means ‘Islands of Beauty’ in the Haida language, it is located in the southern third of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. It is designated as a Haida Heritage Site, a National Park Reserve and a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve. It is the only place in the world protected from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the ocean. It is home to temperate rain forests, rich and abundant sea life and the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program. It includes SGang Gwaay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where carved monumental poles and Haida architecture provide a glimpse into the living Haida culture and our historic Haida way of life. Gwaii Haanas has also come to represent the strong relationship built between the Government of Canada and the Haida Nation. While born out of conflict, the relationship that exists in Gwaii Haanas today is regarded internationally as an outstanding example of cooperative management.

Sgang Gwaay is an island at the southern tip of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii) archipelago. (

“Gwaii Haanas has sustained livelihoods for millennia. We know this first from the stories that have been passed down through oral histories and more recently from archaeological surveys. The entire Gwaii Haanas area has been completely mapped with Haida place names and over 600 archaeological sites have been located. The more recent sites are found near almost every accessible shoreline, while those that date back to 12,000 years before present are elevated in the forest on raised beach sites or submerged in tidal areas. These older sites correspond with Haida stories about floods and lower sea levels as well as the most recent ice ages on the Pacific Coast.”

Gladstone has written this description, titled “My Life Has Been Shaped by Gwaii Haanas,” in the The Haida Gwaii Observer, as well as in a book about Gwaii Haanas, which is currently awaiting publication. Gladstone goes on to describe a series of agreements with the Governments of Canada and British Columbia and the Haida Nation, in 1988, 1993 and 2010. These agreements commit to protecting the land and water, new economic opportunities like eco-tourism, new programs and infrastructure, and funds that are managed by community and tribal representatives.

The 1993 Gwaii Haanas Agreement between Canada and the Haida Nation is described as precedent setting and a model for other governing bodies. Gladstone says: “At the core… is the agreement to disagree. Both the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada assert ownership over Gwaii Haanas. However, both parties respect each other’s views and maintain their respective authorities under Haida and Canadian laws.

“The Haida have an inseparable connection with the land and sea. They have protected Gwaii Haanas as a place where they can continue to carry out traditional activities and maintain the continuity of Haida culture. The Government of Canada has protected Gwaii Haanas as a representative natural and cultural area, an intact ecosystem and a place for people to appreciate and learn from.”

Ernie Gladstone, right. (Gwaii Haanas)

Before there were these agreements, there was The Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program, started in 1981 by local Haida tribal members that set up tent camps in areas to watch over and protect ancient sites. The 1993 agreement established The Archipelago Management Board, which is comprised of equal representation from the Government of Canada and the Haida Nation and is responsible for all issues related to planning, management and operations in Gwaii Haanas. In 2010, the Gwaii Haanas Marine Agreement was signed by Canada and the Haida Nation so that Parks Canada, Department of Fisheries and Ocean, and the Haida can manage the surrounding waters. Gladstone says this agreement calls for “Sustainable use activities, including commercial fishing and tourism, (which) will continue to support local and coastal communities and will be managed to ensure healthy and productive ecosystems will exist in the future, just as they do today.”

This 2,500-year-old wood and stone fish weir is mapped out by researchers in Gwaii Haanas. Archaeologists believe they have found a much older weir in an area that could have been a village, but is now underwater. (Parks Canada)

Some of the tribal oral histories used in the research were written down in the late 1800s and early 1900s by ethnographers and other histories are still being told by elders and recorded in other ways through Haida-led organizations like the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program. There is a resource book, Haida Gwaii: Human History and Environment from the Time of Loon to the time of the Iron People, and the authors, including Fedje and Mackie acknowledge Captain Gold, a Haida archaeologist who first led them to Kilgii Gwaay, an inter-tidal site that revealed thousands of lithics, as well as preserved bone and wood artifacts, which date back 10,000 years. All artifacts found within Gwaii Haanas are housed in the Haida Gwaii Museum in British Columbia.

It is very possible that next summer, we will hear that Mackie’s team will confirm the 13,800-year-old discovery and maybe even find older sites. All this done with the help and cooperation of Parks Canada, Ernie Gladstone and the Haida Nation.

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alexjacobs's picture
Submitted by alexjacobs on
Heather Ramsay, Media contact at Gwaii Haanas, says the proper designation is Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area and Haida Heritage Site. Ernie Gladstone's piece "My Life Has Been Shaped..." is from The Haida Gwaii Observer, Dr. Fedje is also retired Parks Canada. Go to the Gwaii Haanas website for any further info.