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

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

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

Canadian archeologists, in partnership with Sealaska Heritage Institute, found the weir in Shakan Bay — the culmination of a search that started when a weir-like shadow showed up on a sonar image more than a decade ago.

Fish weirs are barriers used to trap or redirect fish. They’re some of the earliest forms of fish traps, and they’re still used today. The team was able to date the submerged weir 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 people were living in Alaska that long ago, it reveals how North America’s earliest communities could take root here.

“Generally scientists think that you have to have agriculture to develop a civilization,” said Worl. “I think what we see here is that the Indigenous people 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 discovery also supports the coastal migration theory over the other main theory — that the earliest peoples traveled on an interior land route.

“It was previously thought that the occupation of the Americas was through an ice free interior corridor,” Worl said. “But that corridor wasn’t opened up until later.”

Archeologist Kelly Monteleone says the discovery helps rebut a main argument against the coastal migration theory, which is that there aren’t a lot of archaeological sites to prove it.

“But that’s because we haven’t really looked,” she said. “The amount of work we’ve done is so small in comparison to what’s been done terrestrially.”

Monteleone has been looking for the weir for more than a decade, when something that looked like a fish weir showed up on a sonar image.

“Until we could actually get eyes on it, we couldn’t confirm it was really a weir,” Monteleone said.

She got funding to search for the weir in 2012 but didn’t find it. She’d 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 have presented on this all over the world. So to finally find it was just so exciting.”.

She found the weir by piloting an underwater drone outfitted with a camera. Video footage shows a jumble of shell and algae-covered rocks. Moneteleone says she knows it’s a weir because rocks wouldn’t naturally be in stacks or formations like the ones they found underwater.

She’ll continue her underwater research with the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Southeast Alaska next summer. There’s some sonar evidence for shell middens — piles of shells that indicate human presence and often contain artifacts. She’ll be looking for those and more archaeological sites that explain how and when the earliest people got here.

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