An ancient find in Southeast Alaska could help pinpoint how and when the first humans got here

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A view of the spillway from an underwater drone. (Image courtesy of the Sealaska Heritage Institute)

An underwater find on the west side of Prince of Wales Island shows that people have lived in what we now call Southeast Alaska for at least 10,000 years. And scientists say this could support the theory that the Pacific coast was first settled by people traveling along the coastline, living off the sea.

Canadian archaeologists, in partnership with the Sealaska Heritage Institute, have found the weir in Shakan Bay – the culmination of a search that began when a weir-like shadow appeared in a sonar image over ten years old.

Fish fascines are barriers used to trap or redirect fish. These were some of the earliest forms of fish traps, and they are still used today. The team was able to date the submerged spillway based on when it would have been at sea level – at least 10,000 years ago.

Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl says the weir not only shows that Indigenous peoples lived in Alaska so long ago, but it reveals how early communities in North America may have put down roots here .

“In general, scientists believe that you have to have agriculture to develop a civilization,” Worl said. “I think what we’re seeing here is that indigenous people have developed the technology to harvest significant numbers of fish. So you can see the beginning of what turns out to be a very complex culture.

She says the find also supports the coastal migration theory over the other main theory – that early people traveled on an inland overland route.

“Occupation of the Americas was previously thought to be through an interior ice-free corridor,” Worl said. “But that hallway wasn’t opened until later.”

Archaeologist Kelly Monteleone says the find helps disprove a main argument against the coastal migration theory, which is that there aren’t many archaeological sites to prove it.

“But that’s because we haven’t really looked,” she said. “The amount of work we have done is so small compared to what has been done on earth.”

Monteleone had been searching for the weir for more than a decade when something that looked like a fish weir appeared on a sonar image.

“Until we could actually see it, we couldn’t confirm that it was really a spillway,” Monteleone said.

She got funding to search for the spillway in 2012 but couldn’t find it. She had been looking in the wrong place. This year, she found it right away.

“I felt so validated after spending, you know, 12 years of my life talking about this potential fish weir,” she said. “I’ve done presentations about it all over the world. So finally finding it was so exciting.

She found the spillway while piloting an underwater drone equipped with a camera. Video footage shows a jumble of rocks covered in shells and seaweed. Moneteleone says she knows it’s a spillway because the rocks wouldn’t naturally be in piles or formations like the ones they found underwater.

She will continue her underwater research with the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Southeast Alaska next summer. There is sonar evidence of shell middens – piles of shells that indicate human presence and often contain artifacts. She will seek out these and other archaeological sites that explain how and when the first people arrived here.

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