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Bear Hunting at the Pleistocene/Holocene Transition on the Northern Northwest Coast of North America

Canadian Zooarchaeology/Zooarchéologie canadienne
Number/Numéro 22 (2005)
Bear Hunting at the Pleistocene/Holocene
Transition on the Northern Northwest
Coast of North America
Duncan McLaren1*, Rebecca J. Wigen1, Quentin Mackie1, and
Daryl W. Fedje2
1Department of Anthropology, University of Victoria, PO Box 3050 STN CSC,
Victoria, BC V8W 3P5
2Parks Canada, 711 Broughton Street, Victoria, BC V8W 1E2
* corresponding author:
Recent discoveries on the northern Northwest Coast of North America provide evidence of
bear hunting dating to the Pleistocene/Holocene transition. This paper describes the faunal
assemblage from the Kilgii Gwaay wet site in southern Haida Gwaii. This assemblage
includes a high proportion of remains of black bear. Ethological data, ethnographic
sources, and the archaeological record are examined in order to provide an interpretative
context for this assemblage and others in this region. The significance of bear hunting, the
use of different hunting strategies, the economic utility of bears, bear ceremonialism, and
the occurrence of bear bones at other Pleistocene archaeological sites are discussed.
Evidence from Kilgii Gwaay suggests that bear hunting at the Pleistocene/Holocene
transition on the northern Northwest Coast had both economic and ceremonial significance.
De récentes découvertes sur la côte nord-ouest de l`Amérique du Nord nous fournissent des
données sur la chasse à l`ours pendant la transition pléistocène/holocène. Cet article décrit
la faune de Kilgii Gwaay, un gisement archéologique du sud de Haida Gwaii. Cet
assemblage faunique comprend un fort pourcentage de restes d`ours noir. L`interprétation
se fait dans le cadre d`une recherche ethnographique, éthologique et archéologique.
L'importance de la chasse à l'ours, les différentes stratégies de chasse, l'utilité économique
des ours, les pratiques cérémonielles liées aux ours et la présence de restes d`ours dans
d`autres sites sont les thèmes discutés ici. Les données archéozoologiques de Kilgii Gwaay
suggèrent l`importance économique et cérémonielle de la chasse à l`ours sur la côte du
nord-ouest pendant la transition pléistocène/holocène.
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
ecent archaeological discoveries on
the northern Northwest Coast of
North America indicate that bear
hunting was practiced by humans during
the Pleistocene/Holocene transition. This
paper draws upon a range of ethnographic,
archaeological, ethological, and biological
data to provide an interpretative framework
for the archaeological evidence of bear
hunting in this region. In particular, the
following questions are considered: Was
bear hunting a common practice during the
late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods
on the northern Northwest Coast? What
types of hunting strategies were employed?
What evidence suggests that ethnograph-
ically observed commonalities in bear
hunting and ceremonial practices, which
are found across northern North America
and Eurasia, have roots that date back to
the Pleistocene? What role did bears play
in the prehistoric economy of this region?
In establishing an interpretative framework,
this paper draws from both scientific and
non-scientific sources regarding bear
behavior and bear–human interaction. As
suggested by Irving Hallowell, renowned
ethnographer and author of the influential
volume Bear Ceremonialism in the
Northern Hemisphere, traditional
ecological knowledge has much to offer
scientific inquiry:
In our culture, as a result of several
centuries of the scientific tradition,
animal life has been studied from a
rational point of view. On the one
hand, this mental attitude has led to a
classification of the creatures of the
earth into phyla, order, classes, etc.,
based on their morphology and genetic
relationships, and, on the other, to an
interpretation of animal behavior in
terms of instinct, reflexes, environ-
mental adaptations, and so forth.
Consequently, there is today a marked
absence of “folk attitudes” towards
animals… (Hallowell 1926: 5-6).
For archaeologists interested in prehistoric
hunter-gatherer economies, “folk attitudes
towards animals provide an appropriate
starting point when considering possible
interpretations of archaeological evidence
(e.g., Binford 2002). Given that the “ave-
rage individual in a hunting or fishing
culture has much greater practical know-
ledge about the animal world” than those in
most modern societies (Darnell 1977:21),
folk and traditional knowledge provides an
essential complement to scientific data in
our attempts to understand prehistoric
human-animal interactions.
The contextual information reviewed here
was derived from studies representing a
variety of different localities across the
northern hemisphere. Archaeological evi-
dence comes from sites dating from the late
Pleistocene and Holocene. Where possible,
a focus is placed on information drawn
from studies on the Northwest Coast. The
discussion of bear-human interactions is
extensive in both the ethnographic and
archaeological literature, and the review
presented here is by no means exhaustive.
In the following sections, we discuss the
ecology and behavior of bear species on the
Northwest Coast, traditional strategies used
to hunt bears, the economic and ritual
significance of bears, and the archaeol-
ogical evidence of bear hunting. This
discussion provides the context for
interpreting the faunal data that we present
from the site of Kilgii Gwaay in southern
Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands).
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 5
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
The Natural History of Bears
on the Northwest Coast
There is currently very little literature
concerning the archaeology of bear-human
interaction on the Northwest Coast. Bears
appear to have occupied this area for longer
than human populations. North American
black bears (Ursus americanus) and grizzly
(brown) bears (Ursus arctos) occurred on
the northern Northwest Coast before and
immediately following the last major
(Fraser) glaciation (Heaton et al. 1996;
Nagorsen et al. 1995; Ramsey et al. 2004).
There is evidence of both black and grizzly
bears in this region prior to the Fraser
glacial event, between 40,000 bp and
27,000 bp (Heaton and Grady 2003). The
earliest post-glacial evidence of bear on the
northern Northwest Coast are grizzly bear
remains dating to 14,500 bp
from cave deposits on Haida Gwaii
(Ramsey et al. 2004).
Evidence for human occupation in the area
begins around 10,600 bp (Fedje et al.
2004). Despite this, there is considerable
evidence suggesting that humans could
have inhabited the Northwest Coast long
before this time period (Fladmark 1975;
1979). The post-glacial appearance of
bears in the region at about 14,500 bp
suggests that the environment at the time
was also capable of supporting human
occupation (Ramsey et al. 2004).
Black and grizzly bears of the northern
Northwest Coast are genetically distinct
from inland continental species (Byun et al.
1997, Leonard et al. 2000). During the
Late Glacial Maximum, black and grizzly
bear populations inhabited isolated glacial
All dates are reported in radiocarbon years before
present (bp).
refugia on the northern Northwest Coast
and subsequently repopulated areas that
had been glaciated. Interior areas were
repopulated independently following de-
glaciation. This pattern of distinct lineages
on the coast and inland likely predates the
last glaciation (Byun et al. 1997, Leonard
et al. 2000). Heaton et al. (1996:190)
suggested that glaciations may have
promoted, rather than inhibited, coastal
range extension by grizzly bears because,
during such times, a combination of marine
foods and ice bridges may have provided a
viable coastal corridor for this species.
Both black and grizzly bears continue to
inhabit many parts of the Northwest Coast
today. In some areas they are sympatric
but, on certain islands, particularly those
with smaller catchments or lacking suitable
habitat, only one species is found. For
example, as a result of changing post-
glacial environmental conditions and sea
level rise, it appears that grizzlies
disappeared from Haida Gwaii during the
late Pleistocene, while black bears have
remained (Ramsey et al. 2004).
Bear Behavior and the Hunting
of Bears
The paleontological evidence described
above indicates that late Pleistocene human
inhabitants of the Northwest Coast co-
existed with bear populations. Due to the
widespread geographic occurrence of bears
across the northern hemisphere (Leonard et
al. 2000), it is very likely that these people,
regardless of their geographic origin,
would have had an intimate knowledge of
bear behaviour as well as of bear-hunting
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
According to Hallowell’s (1926:42) survey
of ethnographic and historical literature on
the practice of bear hunting, three general
types of bear hunting techniques were
traditionally used from Scandinavia across
northern Eurasia and North America to
1. The animal was sought in its lair
and, being forced out by the
hunters, was as a rule dispatched
with a spear or axe as it emerged,
or shot with the bow and arrow.
2. The bear was frequently attacked
in the open (even after it came out
from its den) in what often
amounted to a kind of “hand to
hand” combat in which the favorite
weapon was the spear or lance.
One or more hunters might par-
3. The bear was trapped by any one
of a number of devices, most
frequently of the deadfall variety.
Hallowell (1926:36) noted that “the use of
trapping devices for killing bears and the
custom of seeking them out in their winter
dens seems to characterize the bear hunting
customs of the natives of the North Pacific
Coast.” These differences in hunting tech-
niques were influenced in part by season.
For example, amongst the Tlingit, the black
was sought with dogs in its winter
den, which was located by
scratches which the animal had
made on the bark of the trees in the
neighborhood. In summer it was
the custom to lie in wait until about
sunset, for at this time of day the
bear would descend the mountains
to the clearings in the forest
(Waldeslichtungen) in order to feast
upon the young verdure there. (f.n.
When bears were killed in the open
the bow seems to have been the
typical weapon employed…) In
the autumn, when bears would
come to the streams to catch
salmon during the night, deadfalls
of planks would be constructed
near their haunts in order to kill
them” (Krause (1885), cited in
Hallowell 1926: 37).
The success of a bear hunt would have
depended largely on the hunter’s under-
standing of bear behaviour. In particular,
knowledge of the seasonal behaviours of
bears, particularly in relation to hibernation
and trail use, would have been integral to
hunting success.
Bear Hibernation
Both black and grizzly bears hibernate
(Folk et al. 1976). While there is con-
siderable variation in the amount of time
that bears from different habitats remain in
their winter dens, black and grizzly bears in
all geographic regions spend at least some
of the winter in isolated dens. There are
several physiological and behavioural traits
characteristic of bear hibernation. Some
researchers have argued that bears
hibernate as a result of a lack of food rather
than the cold of the winter (Holzworth
1930:283; Mills 1955:97). For example,
bears in some parts of Mexico will
hibernate in the wintertime when food is
scarce. Bears will not hibernate until they
have laid down enough fat to last the
winter (Holzworth 1930:283).
Black bears will den in hollow trees,
excavated dens, caves, and ground nests
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 7
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
(Seryodkin et al. 2003). Grizzly bears will
either dig dens in areas with enough
sediment accumulation, or they will use
natural shelters like caves (Reynolds et al.
1976). When possible, bears like to use the
same den every year (Mack 1993: 145).
Dens that are excavated into sediment have
a tendency to collapse and will thus be
built anew each year. Dens of more
permanent structure, such as hollow trees
or caves, may be used for several
consecutive years and, in the case of caves,
through subsequent generations over
several millennia (Kurten 1976).
With the exception of some data obtained
by physiological monitoring, activities that
occur within the den during the winter are
not well known to researchers. Most of
this time is spent sleeping. In contrast to
other denning carnivores, bears do not eat
or drink during this period or even in the
days immediately preceding their hiber-
nation. The digestive tracts of grizzlies
killed while hibernating have been found to
be empty (Mills 1919:82-97). Similarly,
bears do not urinate during hibernation;
their bodies recycle their urea (Hellgren
1995:469). Other physiological aspects of
hibernating bears include a minimal
reduction in body temperature, a lowering
of the average heart rate, some weight loss,
protein conservation, and continued bone
(osteoblast) activity in the absence of
skeletal loading (Hellgren 1995).
Bears lose both lipid stores and lean body
mass during hibernation. The amount of
lean body mass lost is proportional to the
amount of lipid stored at the onset of
hibernation (Hilderbrand et al. 2000: 181).
Female bears will give birth and lactate for
two to three months in the winter dens
(Hilderbrand et al. 2000:178). Lactating
bears must do so for this long period
without eating or drinking. Cubs may
continue to nurse during dormancy for an
additional 3 years. Bear milk has the high-
est fat of any known terrestrial mammal, an
advantageous trait during the lean times of
hibernation (Hellgren 1995:472).
During this long period of dormancy, bears
may be roused from their winter quarters.
Some observers have noted that, regardless
of their stage of hibernation, bears awaken
in a very alert state, able to flee or fight in a
normal manner (Mills 1919:88). However,
the amount of prodding needed to awaken a
hibernating bear may vary with the
temperature of the winter. In colder
climates, it can be difficult to wake a
sleeping bear (Rogers 1987:21).
When bears emerge from their hibernation
dens, they will often do so very gradually.
For several days they will remain in the
vicinity of the den, eating and drinking
little. Again, there is variation in this
aspect of bear behavior. One observer
recorded an occasion in which a lactating
black bear dragged the carcass of a white-
tailed deer into her den shortly after her
first emergence (Rogers 1987:23). Once
this liminal stage of emergence has passed,
bears will abandon their dens to begin
roaming for the remainder of the year.
There is some documentation of bears
returning to their dens or shelters before the
denning season recommences. For
example, wounded bears will often seek
refuge in their dens (Mack 1993:147). In
the vicinity of readily available resources,
such as a stream with late running salmon,
a bear may take advantage of nearby caves
and other natural shelter in the area (Mack
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
Hibernation and the Hunting of Bears
in Winter
In economic terms, a hibernating bear is a
sedentary source of fattened meat and
warm fur. To any hunter desiring to add to
a meager larder or to provide warmth
during the cold of winter, hibernating bears
likely presented worthwhile, albeit dan-
gerous, prey. There is a considerable
amount of information on traditional winter
bear hunting techniques, most of which
involve luring the bear out of hibernation.
The first task in hunting bears in the winter
is to find their dens. This is not necessarily
an easy task, as bears, aware of their
vulnerability during this period, will den in
secluded and hidden areas (Charles 1997).
Bears seeking dens may encounter ones
already occupied by other bears. In the
early winter, observant hunters may thus
locate bear dens by following other bears.
…sometimes bears will use other
bear dens. Especially black bears
will do this. My grandfather, he
want to get meat for the winter. He
found a black bear that winter. He
followed that black bear in the
snow to his den. A black bear
don’t care where he den. Will use
hollow tree, go in there through a
little hole in the bottom. The old
man see where a black bear make a
hollow den in a big cedar tree. My
grandfather he go and chase that
black bear out. The black bear
come out in the snow. He go look
for another den. That black bear
walk and walk until he found
another den. He try to go in but
come out. There’s another bear in
there. My grandfather knows now
where there is one hibernating bear.
That black bear go on looking for
another den. Same thing happens
again, tried to go in a den but come
out again because there was
another bear in there. This hap-
pened four or five times. Once my
grandfather knew where all the
bear dens are, he go and kill a bear
each month … Do this until April
or so. At that time fish start to
come back up the river, he don’t
have to go look for any more black
bear to eat (Mack 1993:146).
Before the introduction of firearms, the
preferred weapon of the winter bear hunter
was the spear (Hallowell 1926). Bear-
hunting spears of the Yakutat Tlingit
described as having a “double-edged blade
(like that of a dagger) about 14 inches long,
set into a handle that was about 6 or 7 feet
long” (de Laguna 1972:368). A Haida
story from the bear totem described the
hunting spear as having “a shaft two
feathers in length” (Deans 1899:46). A
Nuu-chah-nulth spear for killing bears is
described as five feet long with points that
are generally a finger’s length (Mills
Hunters would not enter and kill the bear in
the confines of its den, but would seek to
roust the bear from its den using smoke,
prods, or dogs (Hallowell 1926:39). De
Laguna (1972:364) describes this type of
hunt amongst the Tlingit:
The general location of the peoples discussed in the
text are as follows: Yakutat Tlingit (south coast of
Alaska); Haida (Haida Gwaii), Nuu-chah-nulth (west
coast of Vancouver Island), Tlingit (southeast Alaska),
Eyak (south coast of Alaska); Ainu (northern islands of
Japan); Kwakwaka’wakw (central coast of BC);
Tsimshian (northern coast of BC)
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 9
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
The bear usually attacked as he
emerged from the den. A party of
men would wait on the slope above
the den for the bear to come out.
They were armed with bows and
arrows, but the bravest used spears.
The butt end of the spear was
braced against the ground, and
when the bear charged, the man
would quickly jump aside, letting
the bear impale himself on the
The Eyak of the Copper River Delta
undertook winter bear hunting in much the
same manner as recorded for the Tlingit,
using dogs to locate the dens and either
spearing the bear as it emerged or taunting
it into charging into a trap of spears
(Birket-Smith and de Laguna 1938:100).
Ainu hunters in eastern Asia would engage
in even closer hand-to-hand combat with
their prey.
The entrance of the den was
sometimes blocked, the animal
stirred out of its den by prodding,
dogs, or smoke, an Ainu armed
with nothing but [his] hunting knife
will go in and force the animal to
come out. Even when the beast
appeared outside, the bow and
arrow was not always used,
especially when the animal stood
upon his haunches at close quarters.
“Drawing the knife, an Ainu
“rushes into the animals embrace,
hugs him closely and thrusts the
knife home into his heart.” Or the
spear will be held in readiness, and
when the beast makes a rush at the
hunter, the latter will step back a
few paces and allow the bear to fall
on the spear (Batchelor 1911, cited
in Hallowell 1926:39).
It was difficult to directly attack bears with
spears because they were capable of
parrying spear thrusts with their forepaws
(Hallowell 1926:39). One strike of a spear
was often not sufficient to dispatch a bear,
and hunters trying to withdraw a spear may
pull loose the handle, leaving the point
embedded in the animal (de Laguna 1972:
While bears may appear to be very
vulnerable during hibernation, the
ethnographic literature suggests that winter
hunting of bear was a risky venture, and
many hunters were injured or killed
undertaking such pursuits (Hallowell
1926). Regardless, this strategy was
efficient and successful enough to have
been adopted by peoples across northern
Eurasia and North America as a primary
means for hunting bears.
Archaeological traces of such bear-hunting
activities may be rare in bear dens.
However, injured bears returning to their
dens may leave some archaeological traces
in the form of broken spear points that had
been lodged in their bodies.
Trails and Trapping
In the spring, after bears have emerged
from their dens and have begun to roam,
they can no longer be hunted in their dens.
Hunting bears with arrows is a dangerous
venture even with modern archery
equipment (Mack 1993:90-91). To avoid
active confrontation with bears, humans
have used several methods to trap bears
during the spring, summer, and fall. The
success of these methods relied heavily on
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
the ability of the hunter to predict the
movements of the intended prey.
Bears are known to keep to regular trails
(Holzworth 1930:289-290). They have
even been observed to exhibit a tendency to
step in old footprints, a habit known as
“step-marking” (Hummel and Pettigrew
1991:62). The recognition of such trails
was integral to efforts to bait and trap
bears. This repeated use of trails is of
particular interest to hunters, enabling them
to predict the movements of bears and to
set bait and traps accordingly.
The use of snares to trap bears has been
documented across the northern hemi-
sphere (Hallowell 1926). Deadfall traps
were used up and down the Northwest
Coast of North America as well as along
the Siberian coast. Both types of devices
are designed to attract bears with some sort
of bait. Snares, when triggered, will close
around the body of the prey, sometimes
suspending it in the air. Harrison (1925:
93) described the construction of bear
snares by the Haida:
They sometimes made a trap with
the help of a soft sapling which
they found near a bear trail; the top
of the tree was bent towards the
ground and fastened down, a rope
made of spruce root fiber was
attached to the bent sapling and a
noose on the top was cunningly
arranged and almost touching a log
placed there for the purpose of
affixing a fish on either side as bait.
No matter from which direction the
bear approached he would scent the
bait, and would first eat the fish on
the near side of the log, to secure
the other fish he would have to
place his head through the noose, a
light trigger catch would be
released, and the sapling would
spring back to its normal condition
with the suspended bear…
In deadfall traps, a trigger is disrupted
when the bait is taken, and a heavy object
such as a log falls on the bear. Swanton
(1905b:68-69) described a Haida deadfall
trap, illustrated in Figure 1:
The hadjigā’ñwa-i (a) are four
posts, two on each side of a bear
trail. These are fastened together in
pair by the kiut!a’sk!î (b). Between
them lies a timber called the
q!atA’nlanu (c), while the deadfall
proper consists of a timber called
sî’txasq!a’gida (d) hung above this
at one end and weighted at the
other end, which rests upon the
ground. The suspended end is held
by a loop (lq!ō’ya-i), which passes
over a short stick, the x.ā’ña (e),
which is supported in its turn by
one of the kiut!a’sk!î. A rope is
fastened to the inner end of this
x.ā’ña and carried down to the
notch in another stick called’wa- î (f), which is fast-
ened to a stake at one side of the
bear trail. Other cords, qa-ĭ’tu (g),
are then fastened between the two
front posts and carried down to this
loop. The bear, coming against the
latter, in its endeavors to get
through pulls the loop (h) out of the
notch in the’wa- i. This
in turn releases the x.ā’ña allowing
the sî’txasq!a’gida to fall upon the
animal’s back.
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 11
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
Emmons (1991:134) observed that the
mainland Tlingit preferred snares, while the
island dwellers preferred deadfall traps. He
suggested that the snare was likely
introduced from inland areas. Deadfall
traps and snares have the benefit of
allowing the capture of bears without
having to get close to them. In some
regions, their use was restricted to locations
away from villages, as it was considered
too dangerous to erect these traps near the
rivers of fishing camps where women and
children accompanied the men to prepare
salmon (Harrison, 1925). The Masset
(Haida) story of The Bear Hunters tells the
story of a man with copper bands around
his legs who is caught in a remote deadfall
trap (Swanton 1908: 672).
Archaeological evidence of snare and
deadfall traps would be limited as they are
made primarily of organic components
unlikely to be preserved, but the remains of
butchery activities may occur in the
vicinity of such trapping localities.
The Economy of Bears
Employing traditional means of winter bear
hunting was undoubtedly a risky venture.
Engineering and constructing a deadfall
trap or snare for summer hunting would
have involved considerable effort. Where
such efforts were undertaken, one possible
interpretation is that the exploitation of
bears was an important component of the
subsistence economy.
Ethnographic documents indicate that bear
parts were used in a variety of different
manners. For example, among the Yakutat
Tlingit, bear bladders were used as floats
for harpoon lines, split humeri were used
for skinning small fur-bearing animals,
prepared bear intestines were woven into
waterproof jackets and bags, canines were
Figure 1: Haida deadfall trap (from Swanton 1908). See text for description.
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
used by basket makers to smooth out
lumps, meat was preserved by smoking,
teeth and jaws were made into amulets by
shaman, and skins were used for warmth
and clothing. The hard, cortical bone of
bears was used for the manufacture of bone
tools (de Laguna 1972: 366):
The hunter used to carry a heavy
[bear] bone awl, suspended by a
cord around his neck, or over one
shoulder and under the other arm.
With this he could sew the bear
hide to make a bag in which to
carry home the meat and fat.
However, the traditional economies of the
Northwest Coast focused on the rich
diversity of marine resources that are
periodically available in great quantities
(Suttles 1990). Given the reliability and
abundance of these resources, it appears
unlikely that bears figured prominently as
economic necessities. Such marine foods
were available during the Pleistocene/
Holocene transition (Fedje et al. 2001).
Therefore, evidence of bear hunting from
this period may indicate that bears had a
cultural significance beyond their economic
Bear Ceremonialism
In addition to the widespread similarities in
traditional bear hunting techniques, other
pan-boreal commonalities uncovered by
Hallowell’s (1926) research involve
ceremonial aspects that surround the
hunting of bears. These include the
avoidance of using the word for “bear”, the
custom of talking to the bear after it has
been killed, the holding of post-mortem
ceremonies, and the special disposal of
bear remains. Many specific post-mortem
ceremonies are found to have had wide
geographic distributions. The head and
skin of the bear are the focus of special
ceremonial attention, offerings are made to
the bear, taboos surround the preparation or
consumption of the bear, and a communal
feast is often held. Other ceremonial
activities involving bear kills may include
the special disposal of the skull, distinct
methods of butchery, the stuffing of the
skin, the bringing of carcass parts into a
house through an opening other than the
door, and a final bear feast in which all is
consumed at one sitting. Hallowell (1926:
148) noted that “no other animal was found
to attain such universal prominence as the
bear, nor to have associated with it, over
such a wide geographical areas, such a
large series of customs.”
There is considerable ethnographic evi-
dence on the Northwest Coast for bear
ceremonialism, which occurred in many
different manifestations. Compared with
the many cultures in Eurasia and other
parts of North America among whom the
bear held a unique ritual significance, the
ceremony with which the native peoples of
the Northwest Coast treated bears was
extended to other animals such as salmon
and whales. In the Haida Song of the
Capture, the ritual importance of the bear
is compared to that of the salmon and
contrasted to that of a captured enemy
(Fraser 1957:13).
Ritual behaviors in preparation for bear
hunting have been documented for the
peoples of the Northwest Coast. Before
embarking on a expedition, Tlingit bear
hunters prepared for the hunt by engaging
in bathing, fasting, and abstinence in order
to ensure their success (de Laguna,
1972:365). Furthermore, while the hunters
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 13
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
were out, the women were to remain quiet
and calm. Bears were often referred to by
names other than “bear” – for example,
“Big Flappy Foot” (de Laguna 1972:880-
881). Tsimshian hunters would practice
purification rituals to help ensure a decent
hunt. Twenty days of abstinence from
bathing and sex were followed by two days
of indulgence in both (Tate 1993:35).
Similarly elaborate ritual preparations are
described in the Haida story, The Bear
Hunters (Swanton 1908).
Once a bear has been killed, several other
ritual behaviors were observed. When a
Haida hunter had killed a black bear “and
was carrying the skin home, he tried not to
sneeze; but if such a thing did happen, he
exclaimed, ‘hali’xiasa!’ [f.n. This is
perhaps the Black-Bear word for “chief”.]
(Swanton 1905b:57). In Nuu-chah-nulth,
Kwakwaka’wakw, and Haida societies,
bears were venerated when returned to the
village by being placed at the centre of
attention in the chief’s house (Hallowell
1926; Fraser 1957).
When a Haida hunter prepared a bear’s
body to be skinned and butchered, the bear
would “sing” through the hunter, as
recorded in the Story Told to Accompany
Bear Songs (Swanton 1905b:94). A Haida
story of a bear-trapping adventure tells that
it was the practice to cut a bear open away
from one’s self (Swanton 1905a:57). In
another, The Woman that Married the
Bear, the bear sacrifices itself to the
woman’s brother, after teaching her the
proper way in which to prepare and respect
him once killed (Barbeau 1946).
After butchery, several other ceremonial
actions have been documented, particularly
in regards to the disposal of various bear
parts. The Tsimshian narrative, The
History of Kbi’shounty, instructs that the
head and tail of the bear should be burnt,
red ochre should be placed on the skin, and
the skin placed near the fire to keep it
warm. A special song is to be sung at each
different stage – when the bear is first
killed, when it is butchered, when the skin
is dried, and when its heart is roasted and
its head burnt (McClellan 1970:31; Tate
1993:38). Yakutat Tlingit bear hunters
often removed the bear head and buried it
facing the mountains (de Laguna
1972:362). They sang a traditional “dead
bear” song during bear butchery (de
Laguna 1972:366). The Tlingit were also
observed to put eagle down on the heads of
skinned bears to honor their spirits, and to
take the head and feet and either bury them
deep in the ground or cast them into the
sea. Bear flesh was consumed and the pelt
was used much like that of any other
animal (Emmons 1991:133).
Bears have played a prominent role in the
belief system and worldview of Northwest
Coast peoples. The Haida, Tlingit, and
Tsimshian peoples use grizzly bear crests.
Historical narratives reveal that grizzly
bears were believed to have contributed to
the lineages of people with these crests
(e.g., Swanton 1905b). In discussing the
origins of the Tongass Tlingit, Emmons
(2000) noted that:
Of the three families that constitute
this tribe the origin of the two
oldest is a matter of conjecture, and
it seems most reasonable, from
their traditions, that they were
among the first of the migrating
bands to descend the Skeena and
the Nass and settle on the nearby
coast, but there is a curious belief
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
prevalent among the old people that
one of these families, the
Teikweidi, came from over the sea.
As told to me by a very intelligent
older man, the Teikweidi came
from the ocean and were the first
people to reach the outer coast.
They settled on Dall Island off the
southwestern portion of Prince of
Wales Island. In time, they in-
creased and were joined by people
from the Interior who had come to
the coast and this combination
formed a nucleus from which the
Tlingit, Haida, and some Tsimshian
were derived… The Teikweidi
(Brown Bear rock house or cave
people) are unquestionably the
oldest family here. Their origin is
unknown but a close relationship
with the Haida is recognized.
Given the abundance of ritual surrounding
bears, it is clear that the importance of bear
hunting transcended simple economic
considerations. Hallowell (1926) evaluated
three hypotheses that address why these
pan-boreal commonalities in bear hunting
practices and their associated ceremonial
activities became so widespread: the
psychological, the economic, and the
historico-geographic. The psychological
hypothesis argues that bears have made a
common impression on the human psyche
that resulted in the widespread similarity of
ritual practices. It suggests that human-like
form of a skinned bear impresses itself
deeply into the human psyche. Hallowell
rejected this hypothesis on the basis that
bear ceremonialism is not found in all areas
where bears occur and that there is a great
deal of variability in the degree of bear
veneration. The economic hypothesis
proposes that the veneration of a particular
animal is in proportion to its usefulness,
but Hallowell found that this was not
supported by ethnographic observations.
Hallowell favored a historico-geographic
hypothesis that the common traits found in
bear hunting and ceremonialism are due to
common historic roots and spread as a
result of later migration and diffusion:
In short, I think it more than likely
that a bear cult was one of the
characteristic features of an ancient
Boreal culture, Old World in origin
and closely associated with the
pursuit of reindeer. Later, it
became intercontinental in its
scope, extending from Labrador to
Lapland. As this culture spread…
a veneration of the bear and simple
rites connected with hunting the
animal became more and more
widely diffused and radically
modified in the course of time.
This hypothesis would account, it
seems to me, for the ostensible
differences in the customs
described, as well as for the
peculiar underlying trends and
similarities observed (Hallowell
He went on to speculate that bear
ceremonialism may have originated among
some Paleolithic peoples and persisted
among hunting peoples of the north for
millennia (Hallowell 1926:162-163.). If
such were the case, one would expect to
find some evidence of bear hunting and
ceremonialism in archaeological contexts
from the Late Pleistocene and Holocene.
Despite the case made for the historico-
geographic hypothesis and the association
of bear and cultural remains in many
archaeological contexts, evidence for the
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 15
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
practice, antiquity, and continuity of bear
ceremonialism remains controversial.
Archaeological Evidence of
Bear Hunting
The archaeological record of bear hunting
and utilitization is best known from the
Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods of
Europe and Western Asia (e.g., Tillet and
Binford 2002). Archaeologists working in
cave sites dating to these periods have
found many bear bones in association with
cultural material. Despite the claims of
early archaeologists for the existence of
bear cults and extensive bear exploitation
during these periods (e.g, Bächler 1921),
more recent studies – incorporating scien-
tific methods and, in particular, taphonomic
analyses – have found little clear asso-
ciation between bear remains and the
human occupation of caves. Their findings
have resulted in the assessment that “there
is no good evidence that cave bears were
hunted by hominids” (Gargett 1996:38);
“…many professionals are now convinced
that bear remains in Paleolithic caves most
likely represent hibernation-related deaths
that occurred independently of human uses
of the same localities” (Stiner 1998:304).
However, tool marks indicating butchery
have been found on cave bear bones in
some Middle Paleolithic and later contexts
(Barta 1989, cited in Stiner 1998:304;
Stiner 1994:109-123). Some researchers
have argued that the archaeological
evidence does indicate that bears held
particular significance for the Middle
Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic (Gabori-
Csank 1968; Bonifay 2002; Morel and
Garcia 2002), and Neolithic (Arbogast and
Meniel 2002) peoples of Europe, although
not to the same degree as originally
suggested by Bächler (1921).
The primary reason for the controversy
concerning past bear–human interaction is
the frequent association of bear and cultural
remains in cave excavations. Those who
discount this as evidence of bear–human
interaction have argued “that humans and
ursids used [the same] localities at different
times” (Wolverton 2001:56). This ongoing
debate has provided little insight into
whether the practice of bear hunting from
the Pleistocene/Holocene transition on the
northern Northwest Coast of North
America had its roots in the Old World.
Only a few archaeological sites from the
Pleistocene/Holocene transition in North
America and East Asia have produced
possible evidence of bear use by human
populations. Two recent anthologies on the
Pleistocene/Holocene transition in these
regions indicate that bear remains are rarely
found in archaeological contexts dating to
this period (Bonnichsen and Turnmire
1999; West 1996). There are exceptions,
including the possible grizzly remains that
are noted from the Lime Hills Cave 1 in
southwestern Alaska (9,500–8,000 bp). It
is unclear if these remains are associated
with the cultural material located in this
cave (Ackerman 1996:470). Grizzly bear
remains have also been noted at Bluefish
Caves in the northern Yukon, in
archaeological strata of late Pleistocene age
(Cinq-Mars and Morlan 1999:202). Some
of these bear bones exhibit cut marks (J.
Cinq-Mars, pers. comm.). In Idaho, on the
banks of the lower Snake River, a site
dating to 10,300 bp was found with
remains attributed to grizzly bear. During
the single, brief occupation of this site, an
elk and a grizzly bear were prepared and
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
possibly consumed (Sappington and
Schuknecht-McDaniel 2001).
On the Siberian island of Zhokhov, an
early Holocene habitation site (8,000 bp)
has produced an abundance of polar bear
remains. This site indicates that the early
inhabitants of this Arctic island relied
heavily upon polar bears for subsistence
(Pitul’ko and Kasparov 1996:15; Pitul’ko
2003). The predominance of polar bears in
the Zhokhov assemblage differs greatly
from other Arctic sites, where they usually
comprise only a minor element (Pitul’ko
and Kasparov 1996:15). Many of the
bones excavated from this site exhibit cut
marks. Measurements of the skulls suggest
that female bears with cubs were killed
more often than male bears. Female bears
venture into this area to look for dens to
give birth, and they were hunted on
Zhokhov Island during this period (Pitul’ko
and Kasparov 1996:18). Differential trans-
port is evident from the remains at
Zhokhov, with an abundance of cranial and
fore-limb elements, and a paucity of
vertebrae, scapulae, and hind-limbs (with
the exception of fibulae). The evidence
from this site indicates that early Holocene
populations were able to inhabit High
Arctic islands by engaging in the intensive
exploitation of bears during the winter
Archaeological Evidence for Bear
Hunting on the Northern Northwest
Coast of North America
Bear bones and cultural remains have been
found in association in some of the earliest
archaeological contexts on the northern
Northwest Coast. In particular, three
limestone caves On-Your-Knees Cave in
southeast Alaska (Dixon et al. 1997), and
K1 Cave (Fedje et al. 2004; Ramsey et al.
2004) and Gaadu Din (Fedje 2004), both
on Haida Gwaii have produced
accumulations of bear bones associated
with hunting equipment (Figure 2). At the
early Holocene open-air wet site of Kilgii
Gwaay, bear are the most abundant land
mammal in the faunal assemblage, which is
discussed in greater detail below (Fedje et
al. 2001). Limited testing at other intertidal
and raised beach sites in southern Haida
Gwaii has also produced bear remains
(Fedje et al. 1996; Mackie and Sumpter, in
press). With regards to the prevalence of
bear remains at these sites, Mackie and
Sumpter (in press) have suggested that
bears were economically more important in
these earlier time periods. With the
exception of On-Your-Knees Cave, all of
the sites discussed in this section are
located in southern Haida Gwaii.
The importance of bears to this early
economy may be in part due to the paucity
of large terrestrial mammals on island
locations such as southern Haida Gwaii
(Wigen, in press). Contrary to the
speculations of Mackie and Sumpter (in
press), it is possible that this pattern of bear
hunting continues as a tradition into later
Holocene periods. For example, black bear
remains were recovered from the following
contexts on Haida Gwaii: Cohoe Creek
(5,700–4,400 bp) (Wigen and Christensen
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 17
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
2001:16), Blue Jackets Creek (4,2002,000
bp) (Severs 1974), later Holocene deposits
at Second Beach (Christensen et al. 1999),
and test excavations at several late
Holocene shell middens in southern Haida
Gwaii (T. Orchard, pers. comm.). The very
small number of bear bones that were
found at late Holocene sites on Kunghit
Island, at the very southern end of Haida
Gwaii, may simply reflect the general
absence of bears in this area (Acheson
In light of the debate over similar evidence
from the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, the
co-occurrence of bear and cultural remains
from early period sites on the northern
Northwest Coast should be interpreted with
caution. For the three cave localities with
late Pleistocene and early Holocene bear
and archaeological remains, no detailed
taphonomic analyses have yet been
undertaken to address this issue. However,
preliminary investigation suggests that
hibernating bears at these den sites were
hunted by humans.
0200 400
K1 Cave
Gaadu Din Cave
Kilgii Gwaay Wet Site
North America
British Columbia
Figure 2: Location of sites discussed in the text. [This map was created
using Online Map Creation at]
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
Archaeological and paleontological in-
vestigations at On-Your-Knees Cave on
Prince of Wales Island, southeast Alaska,
have revealed cultural remains dating to
10,300–9,800 bp and paleontological
remains dating from 40,000 bp to present
(Dixon et al. 1997). Bear bones are a
significant component of the assemblage
from the cave, particularly between
40,000–27,000 bp and 13,000–5,000 bp
(Heaton and Grady 2003). According to
Hall (1999), the association of cultural
material and bear remains suggests the
possibility that bear hunting was being
practiced. However, as in the Middle and
Upper Paleolithic, the association of bear
remains and cultural remains does not
necessarily demonstrate the interaction of
these species. A detailed site report on the
archaeology of On-Your-Knees Cave has
not yet been published.
Some archaeological evidence from On-
Your-Knees Cave is suggestive of bear-
human interaction. One is the presence of
a spear fragment within the cave. This
fragment conjoins with another found
outside of the cave (Dixon et al. 1997).
This situation may have resulted from a
hunting incident in which a spear point was
broken in a bear, after which the wounded
bear returned to its den to die, leaving the
broken point. In addition, a split bear tibia
found in the cave and dating to 10,300 bp
may represent human modification of the
bear bones, possibly an early stage of the
manufacture of bone tools. Finally, human
remains dating to 9,200 years bp were also
recovered from the cave. They exhibited
signs of carnivore gnawing (Dixon 1999)
and have been interpreted to represent the
bones of an unsuccessful bear hunter (Hall
At K1 Cave on the western shore of South
Moresby Island, Haida Gwaii, bear remains
dating to 14,500–9,500 bp have been
recovered (Ramsey et al. 2004).
Excavations in Locus 11 of the cave have
revealed stratified deposits with a number
of bear bones and other fauna dating
between 12,500 bp and 10,000 bp. In
addition to these faunal remains, two spear
point bases were recovered in a
stratigraphic context dated to 10,900–
10,600 bp (Fedje et al. 2004). No other
archaeological material was found in
association with these bones, suggesting
that the broken projectile points may have
entered the cave in the body of a wounded
At Gaadu Din Cave in southern Haida
Gwaii, a complete chipped stone spear
point, a fragmented bifacial spear point, a
retouched flake, and the tip of a bone point
were recovered in association with bear
remains dating to 10,000 bp (Fedje 2004).
No debitage or additional archaeological
materials were found at this site, suggesting
that it was most likely used as a hunting
and butchery site rather than a place of
residence. Charcoal flecks were common
in the deposits and may have originated
from attempts to smoke denning bears out
of the layers by throwing burning branches
into the den.
These three sites present evidence of bear
hunting during the Pleistocene/Holocene
transition. In particular, the presence of
spear points is suggestive of winter
hunting. However, it must be reiterated
that detailed taphonomic analyses of these
assemblages remain to be conducted.
There are several other species represented
in the faunal collections from these sites
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 19
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
that are not bear (Heaton and Grady 2003;
Ramsey et al. 2004). Because bears are not
known to eat during their winter
hibernation, there must be some
explanation as to how these other bones
entered the cave. Furthermore, many of the
bear bones have tooth marks on them
(Dixon et al. 1997; Ramsey et al. 2004;
Fedje 2004), suggesting that they may not
have died naturally during hibernation. It
is possible that they were killed and/or that
their remains were scavenged by other
bears. Lastly, the presence of cultural
remains within the caves may be indicative
of some human occupation.
The co-occurrence of bear remains and
stone artifacts at these sites may represent
evidence of winter bear hunting practices
during the Pleistocene/Holocene transition.
Evidence from the early Holocene site of
Kilgii Gwaay clearly illustrates the hunting
and exploitation of bears.
The Kilgii Gwaay site
Kilgii Gwaay, also known as Ellen Island,
is located close to the southernmost end of
Haida Gwaii. The Kilgii Gwaay site
(1325T) is a wet shell-midden, currently
located in the intertidal zone, and was
occupied for a short period of time between
9,450 and 9,400 bp, when sea levels were
slightly lower than at present. In addition
to preserved wooden, bone, and stone tools,
a large number of faunal remains were
recovered from this site (Fedje et al.
The high species diversity of the Kilgii
Gwaay faunal assemblage is indicative of a
broad diet, and its species composition
A 1/8” screen size was used during the excavation.
reflects a generalized, marine-oriented
subsistence economy (Table 1). However,
the faunal assemblage is notable because of
the high proportion of bear. Black bear
was the only large terrestrial mammal
identified in the assemblage. Several bear
bones exhibit cut marks, others were burnt,
and seven long bone elements were split
longitudinally. Kilgii Gwaay itself is too
small of an island to sustain a bear
population but is within swimming range
of larger islands.
Table 1: Minimum number of individuals
(MNI) and number of identified specimens
(NISP) for mammals at Kilgii Gwaay
The large amount of bear bone associated
with the short cultural occupation suggests
that bears were being hunted by the site’s
inhabitants. No bones were found in the
non-cultural deposits at the site. Unlike the
Black bear
(Ursus americanus )
Harbour seal
(Phoca vitulina )
Sea otter
(Enhydra lutris )
River otter
(Lontra canadensis )
Northern sea lion
(Eumetopias jubata )
Northern fur seal
(Callorhinus ursinus )
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
cave sites discussed in the previous section,
there is a paucity of spear points at Kilgii
Gwaay, with only one small unifacial point
and one biface edge fragment found in a
sample of 2271 stone artifacts recovered
from the site.
Based on the faunal evidence, Kilgii
Gwaay appears to represent what was
primarily a non-winter occupation (Table
2). The species of bird and fish in the
assemblage indicate that the site was
occupied some time between spring and
fall, an interpretation supported by the
presence of sea mammal pups, which likely
died during or not long after the birth
season from May to July. Given the
absence of spear points and the faunal
evidence for non-winter occupation of the
site, it is most likely that traps or snares
were used for bear harvesting. Spears
would not have been necessary, and
butchery could have been conducted using
large flake tools, which are abundant at
Kilgii Gwaay.
Table 2: Seasonality of species at Kilgii
Of particular interest is the fact that the
Kilgii Gwaay site lies in a sheltered area,
but in close proximity to the west coast.
The presence of the remains of albatross,
which are common off the shore of the
west coast, suggests that the site inhabitants
traveled the short distance to the coast
(Fedje et al. 2001:114). Drawing from the
ethnographic observations noted earlier
(Harrison 1925), one may speculate that
bear traps were set in areas on the west
coast where there was less human activity
and thus less likelihood of accidentally
trapping a person.
From the total of 83 identified black bear
bones, the distribution of elements from
Kilgii Gwaay shows the influence of
selective processes (Figure 3). Most
notably, cranial and mandibular specimens
are relatively abundant, vertebrae and
metapodials are virtually absent, and there
is a disproportionately low representation
of canines.
A number of factors may determine
skeletal element representation in a faunal
assemblage. The two that have received
the most attention are differential
preservation and differential transport.
Certain elements preserve better than
others, and bone density has been used as a
proxy measure of a bone’s ability to resist
destruction (Lyman 1994). While bone
density data have been derived for a
number of mammal species, none are
available for bear or any mammalian
carnivore. As a result, the influence of
post-depositional destructive processes on
the Kilgii Gwaay fauna may not be readily
quantified. In terms of differential
transport, evidence of human selection of
different skeletal elements is typically
interpreted in terms of “utility”, a measure
Salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.) x x
Herring (Clupea pallasi )x
Harbour seal pup x
Northern sea lion pup x x
Cackling Canada goose
(Branta canadensis minima )
x x
Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica )x
Albatross (Phoebastria sp.) x
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 21
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
of the nutritive value represented by each
element, including its associated meat,
marrow, and grease (Binford 1978).
Unfortunately, as is the case with bone
density values, no utility data are available
for bear elements.
Figure 3: Relative abundance of black bear
elements at Kilgii Gwaay
There is some indication, however, that
differential transport did play a role in
shaping the representation of bear bones at
the Kilgii Gwaay site. The pattern of
skeletal element abundance for black bears
at Kilgii Gwaay resembles that described
for polar bears at the Zhokhov Island site
(Pitul'ko and Kasparov 1996). The lack of
vertebral elements and hind limbs at
Zhokhov was interpreted to be the result of
differential transport from the initial kill
and butchery site. The large number of
cranial elements at Zhokhov was attributed
to the economic importance of the brain
and tongue. At Kilgii Gwaay, a similar
paucity of vertebrae and hind limbs and
abundance of cranial elements, some of
which exhibit cut marks (Plate 1)
, may
have also reflected preferential selection by
hunters. For mammal species for which
utility data are available, cranial elements
are considered to be of low utility despite
the value of the brain and tongue (Lyman,
1994). If the crania of bear were
selectively transported to Kilgii Gwaay,
this did not necessarily indicate a purely
economic decision. In addition, the paucity
of canines compared to other teeth may
have reflected their value and curation as
charms or talismans.
While the utility of bear elements remains
undocumented, it is likely subject to some
seasonal variation. Bear meat is less tough
during the spring and summer months
(Dudoward 1983). Conversely, bear hides
will be of better quality in the early winter,
when bears will have accumulated a
substantial amount of fat prior to
hibernation. As the bears at this site did
not appear to have been killed in the
winter, it would seem that they were
hunted primarily for their meat, which may
have been preserved through smoking. As
bears were the only large land mammals
available to the Kilgii inhabitants, their
bones were likely valued as a raw material.
Because of the general lack of bone raw
material, a greater number of elements may
have been transported to the site than
would be expected under other
Please see the inside of the back cover for Plate 1.
0 5 10 15 20
inc is or
cervical vt
thoracic vt
lumbar vt
caudal vt
innomina te
phalanx 1
phalanx 2
phalanx 3
Canadian Zooarchaeology 22 (2005)
circumstances. Several bone tools,
including a barbed point, a billet flaker,
two awls, and two split tibiae (Plate 1),
have been documented from the site.
Although it can not be determined if all the
bone tools were fashioned from bear bones,
this is most likely the case. The structure
of sea mammal bone, also abundant at the
site, is less suitable for tool manufacture.
Seventy burnt bone fragments were
recovered from Kilgii Gwaay. Of these,
half (35) could be attributed to land
mammal – most likely bear – but only one
specimen to sea mammal, even though the
two taxa are represented in similar
frequency in the assemblage. The
remaining burnt fragments consist mostly
of fish (29) and some bird (7). The
differential treatment of the mammal
remains resembles the ethnographic
patterns of ceremonialism bestowed upon
bear and the first salmon caught in the
spring (e.g., Fraser 1957:13). Such
patterns suggest the possibility of the
ceremonial importance of bears (Hallowell
1926) and fish to the inhabitants of the site.
An alternative, functional explanation may
be that the bear and fish bone were used as
fuel for fire. However, climax forests were
established in the area at this time,
indicating that there was plenty of fuel
available to site inhabitants.
Drawing from analogy, the evidence from
Kilgii Gwaay and the cave sites mentioned
above suggests that bear hunting was
practiced in both summer and winter.
Indeed, the hunting technologies practiced
may well have been similar to those
recorded ethnographically across northern
Eurasia and North America. The remains
from Kilgii Gwaay demonstrate that the
use of bears supplemented a marine-
oriented subsistence pattern.
Bear hunting and bear ceremonialism,
which have been documented across
northern Eurasia and northern North
America (Hallowell, 1926), were a part of
the lifeways of the early island inhabitants
of the northern Northwest Coast. These
practices may have been less an adaptation
to the environmental conditions of the
Northwest Coast than a continuation of
ancestral bear hunting traditions by the
earliest human settlers of this region.
Bear-hunting strategies benefit from certain
predictable aspects of bear behavior.
Knowledge of the location of bear dens
provides those willing to hunt a bear in
mid-hibernation a potential mid-winter
source of food, fur, and bone. While
roaming in warmer seasons, grizzly and
black bears are known to habitually make
and follow trails, particularly in forested
areas. This reuse of the same travel
corridor allows hunters to predict the
movements of bears and thus set traps or
hunt them along those trails. Ethnographic
data show that the practice of bear hunting
was pan-boreal, across the northern
hemisphere. They indicate that winter
hunting was often conducted with spears,
which were either wielded by the hunter or
set in a stationary position at which the
bear was provoked or tricked into charging.
In warmer weather, when bears were no
longer in their dens, they were typically
hunted through the use of traps and snares.
As a result, the frequency of spear points at
a site may provide insight into the
seasonality of bear-hunting activities.
Bear Hunting on the Northwest Coast 23
Zooarchéologie canadienne 22 (2005)
Ethnographic observations of Northwest
Coast peoples document multiple economic
uses of bear remains as food, raw material
for tool manufacture, and clothing. Bears
were also venerated and accorded special
ceremonial rites.
Evidence from three cave sites – On-Your-
Knees, K1, and Gaadu Din – on the north-
ern Northwest Coast suggests that the
practice of bear hunting may date back to
the Pleistocene/Holocene transition in this
region. As these archaeological sites are
the earliest discovered in this region thus
far, it appears that bear hunting was an
activity of its earliest inhabitants. The
focus on cave sites may bias our
knowledge of this period, limiting it to a
narrow view of what was likely a broad
subsistence economy.
At the open-air wet site of Kilgii Gwaay,
the faunal assemblage and a lack of spear
points indicates that its early Holocene
inhabitants engaged in the hunting of bear
in the warmer seasons. Bear was the only
terrestrial mammal recovered, and the
remainder of the assemblage shows that
these inhabitants had a marine-oriented
subsistence economy. The frequency of
burnt bear bones and the differential
transport of bear elements suggest that the
inhabitants of Kilgii Gwaay practiced some
aspects of bear ceremonialism. This
evidence, combined with the marine focus
of the subsistence activities, indicates that
bear hunting may have been as important in
ritual terms as it was for economic reasons.
The archaeological data from this region
show evidence of bear hunting and
ceremonialism dating to its earliest human
occupation. These data add a temporal
dimension to the ethnographic observations
of the pan-boreal continuity of ancestral
bear hunting traditions. Together, the
archaeological and ethnographic data
provide evidence for a pattern of bear-
human interaction on the Northwest Coast
of North America dating back to the
Pleistocene/Holocene transition.
Many people helped in formulating ideas
and tracking down sources for this paper.
Many thanks to Roy Carlson, Jacques
Cinq-Mars, Regna Darnell, Richard Davis,
Leland Donald, Paul Griffiths, Tim Heaton,
Phil Hobler, Cynthia Lake, Yin Lam, Al
Mackie, Trevor Orchard, Carolyn Ramsey,
Nicholas Rolland, and three anonymous
reviewers. Ariane Burke kindly provided
the translation of the abstract.
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... They are likely from animals that were killed in the cave or brought in as prey. McLaren et al. (2005) cite evidence for predation on denning bears by other bears, and the introduction of food into caves by non-denning bears. ...
... These frequencies are quite distinct from those seen at the 10,700 years ago open air Kilgii Gwaay archaeological site where black bear long bones and skulls were abundant but vertebrae and foot bones virtually absent. Kilgii Gwaay, interpreted as a summertime base camp, skulls and choice elements were brought to the site by humans (Wigen, 2003;McLaren et al., 2005). ...
... Along with scattered charcoal and dog remains, the hunting-butchery evidence suggests that people were hunting bear at the cave mouth (cf. Hallowell, 1926;McLaren et al., 2005). A hearth feature near the cave entrance raises the possibility of brief use of the chamber by people around 11,400 years ago. ...
Karst cave investigations in the south of Haida Gwaii have opened a small window on human and paleontological components of the early post-glacial landscape. At three cave locations (K1, Gaadu Din 1 and Gaadu Din 2) our investigations recovered a paleontological record extending from ca. 13,400 to 11,000 years ago and a small number of human artifacts dating from ca. 12,600 to 11,000 years ago. The animal bones recovered are dominated by black and brown bear remains, revealing that these caves were being used for winter dens. Other species present include deer, caribou, and salmon. Domestic dog remains with a direct radiocarbon age of 13,100 years ago are the earliest indicator of human presence from the cave assemblages, and are also the earliest known domestic dog remains reported on in the Americas. Brown bear and deer disappear from the paleontological record at the end of the Pleistocene, but other species persist into the Holocene, most of which continue to thrive on the islands to this day, with the exception of caribou which were extirpated in the early 20th Century. The stone tools that we found are predominately spearpoints and fragments thereof, which were used to hunt denning bears. Additional stone tool types from the Gaadu Din Caves reveal that they were occasionally used by humans as temporary shelters. As sea level was lower than today between 13,400 and 11,000 years ago, the caves provide an alternative target for late Pleistocene archaeological prospection that does not involve subtidal work. Our research demonstrates that karst caves on Haida Gwaii provided ecological and cultural focal points during the early post-glacial period. These caves remained sufficiently stable to preserve the residues of activities including bear denning and bear hunting. With the commencement of the Holocene, the record of animal and human use of the three caves diminishes.
... The literature on hunter-gatherers occasionally refers to adults removing body odors through bathing, which is usually confined to special occasions. Among hunter-gatherers of the northwest coast of North America, such occasions include preparing for a bear hunt, searching for a guardian spirit, ending a period of mourning, or being initiated into a secret society [51] (pp. 12-13), [52] (pp. ...
... Raiding parties were typically young men who saw warfare as their only way out of celibacy [67] (pp. [50][51]. A cross-cultural survey has shown that "polygyny is associated with warfare for plunder and/or female captives" [68] (p. ...
Full-text available
As hunter-gatherers, humans used their sense of smell to identify plants and animals, to find their way within a foraging area, or to distinguish each other by gender, age, kinship, or social dominance. Because women gathered while men hunted, the sexes evolved different sensitivities to plant and animal odors. They also ended up emitting different odors. Male odors served to intimidate rival males or assert dominance. With the rise of farming and sedentism, humans no longer needed their sense of smell to find elusive food sources or to orient themselves within a large area. Odors now came from a narrower range of plants and animals. Meanwhile, body odor was removed through bathing to facilitate interactions in enclosed spaces. This new phenotype became the template for the evolution of a new genotype: less sensitivity to odors of wild plants and animals, lower emissions of male odors, and a more negative response to them. Further change came with the development of fragrances to reodorize the body and the home. This new olfactory environment coevolved with the ability to represent odors in the mind, notably for storage in memory, for vicarious re-experiencing, or for sharing with other people through speech and writing.
... In the early 2000s, we undertook karst cave investigations at elevations above the early to mid-Holocene +15-m high stand (Fedje, McLaren, and Wigen 2004, 2011a, 2011bMcLaren et al. 2005;Ramsey et al. 2004). Part of the rationale for these investigations was to avoid the challenges associated with researching deeply submerged landscapes. ...
... Small archaeological assemblages were also recovered from three caves, including stemmed points (Figure 3), butchering tools, tool maintenance debitage, and hearth features. These sites likely represent winter bear hunting activities at cave hibernacula (Fedje et al. 2011a;McLaren et al. 2005). The cave archaeological components date from ca. 12,800 to 10,000 cal yr BP. ...
Full-text available
The Pacific coast of North America is a hypothesized route by which the earliest inhabitants of the Americas moved southwards around the western margin of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet just after the last glacial maximum. To test this hypothesis, we have been using a stepwise process to aid in late Pleistocene archaeological site discovery along the coast. The steps involved include: (1) creating localized sea level curves; (2) generating detailed bare earth digital elevation models; (3) creating archaeological predictive models; (4) ground truthing these models using archaeological prospection; and (5) demonstrating that archaeological materials found date to the late Pleistocene. Here, we consider the use of these steps and how they have been employed to find late Pleistocene archaeological sites along the Pacific Coast of North America.
... Sea levels were lower prior to formation of the Kilgii Gwaay archaeological record (Fedje et al. 2005a;Mackie et al. 2018), which would place Kilgii Pond further inland than during the known shoreline occupation. This would make Kilgii Gwaay a less desirable site for fishing or intertidal harvesting of shellfish, but the pond and its surroundings were likely important sites for fresh water, berry-producing plants, and hunting of terrestrial animals such as black bears, the remains of which are abundant at Kilgii Gwaay (McLaren et al. 2005). The earliest well-documented archaeological sites on Haida Gwaii are three bear hunting sites in karst caves (Fig. 1) located 35 km (Gaadu Din caves) and 135 km (K-1 cave) to the north of Kilgii Gwaay (McLaren et al. 2005;Fedje et al. 2011). ...
... This would make Kilgii Gwaay a less desirable site for fishing or intertidal harvesting of shellfish, but the pond and its surroundings were likely important sites for fresh water, berry-producing plants, and hunting of terrestrial animals such as black bears, the remains of which are abundant at Kilgii Gwaay (McLaren et al. 2005). The earliest well-documented archaeological sites on Haida Gwaii are three bear hunting sites in karst caves (Fig. 1) located 35 km (Gaadu Din caves) and 135 km (K-1 cave) to the north of Kilgii Gwaay (McLaren et al. 2005;Fedje et al. 2011). These hunting sites date from 12,700 to 10,000 cal bp and demonstrate familiarity with inland landscapes by that time and, by extension, use of other inland resources such as food plants and game animals living around areas such as palaeo-Kilgii Pond. ...
Full-text available
Kilgii Gwaay is an early Holocene archaeological wet site located in the intertidal zone of Ellen Island in the southern Haida Gwaii archipelago of coastal British Columbia, Canada. The Kilgii site includes one of the oldest shell middens in western North America and provides evidence of early maritime adaptations by humans. Radiocarbon-dated cultural deposits that surround a small palaeopond (Kilgii Pond) include hearth features, abundant lithic, bone and wood artifacts, and a diverse fossil fauna and flora. The known occupation dates between 10,800 and 10,500 cal bp, when relative sea level was 1–3 m lower than today. The site was submerged and capped by marine deposits by 10,500 cal bp as relative sea level rose. We conducted multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental analyses (magnetic susceptibility, pollen, charcoal, macrofossils) on Kilgii Pond sediments from a core taken beneath the coarse intertidal deposits. Pollen analysis indicates establishment of herb–shrub tundra by 14,500 cal bp, followed by pine-dominated communities after 13,800 cal bp and spruce forest with abundant ferns from about 13,250 cal bp. Macroscopic charcoal in the core is most abundant during the period of confirmed human occupation; however, significant peaks in charcoal abundance are present well below the known occupation horizon. Since lightning and natural forest fires are infrequent in this wet hypermaritime setting, we consider that the charcoal peaks from Kilgii Pond may serve as a proxy for human presence, potentially as early as 13,000 cal bp, approximately 2,200 years earlier than indicated by the AMS-dated cultural deposits and artifacts.
... Although harvesting of grizzly bears occurred on the Central Coast in historic and modern times, we infer from data described below that its influence on genetic structure was minimal, and thus, we did not consider its potential effects in our analyses. An analysis of animal remains recovered in archeological sites suggests that black bears were killed during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition in Haida Gwaii (McLaren et al. 2005), and the only excavated archaeological site in the study area with identified bear bones contained a small number of remains from black bears only (Cannon 1991). In the 1800s, the Hudson Bay Company had trading posts on the coast. ...
Full-text available
Landscape genetic analyses of wildlife populations can exclude variation in a broad suite of potential spatiotemporal correlates, including consideration of how such variation might have similarly influenced people over time. Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) populations in what is now known as coastal British Columbia, Canada, provide an opportunity to examine the possible effects of a complex set of landscape and human influences on genetic structure. In this collaboration among the Nuxalk, Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/ Xai'xais, Gitga'at, and Wuikinuxv First Nations and conservation scientists, we characterized patterns of genetic differentiation in the grizzly bear, a species of high cultural value, by genotyping 22 microsatellite loci from noninvasively collected hair samples over a 23,500 km² area. We identified three well-differentiated groups. Resistance surfaces, which incorporated past and present human use, settlement, and landscape resistant features, could not explain this pattern of genetic variation. Notably, however, we detected spatial alignment between Indigenous language families and grizzly bear genetic groups. Grizzly bears sampled within an area represented by a given language family were significantly similar to those sampled within that language family (P = 0.001) and significantly divergent to those sampled outside the language family (P = 0.001). This spatial co-occurrence suggests that grizzly bear and human groups have been shaped by the landscape in similar ways, creating a convergence of grizzly bear genetic and human linguistic diversity. Additionally, grizzly bear management units designated by the provincial government currently divide an otherwise continuous group and exclude recently colonized island populations that are genetically continuous with adjacent mainland groups. This work provides not only insight into how ecological and geographic conditions can similarly shape the distribution of people and wildlife but also new genetic evidence to support renewed, locally led management of grizzly bears into the future.
... Naturalists Suckley and Cooper (1860) stated that grizzly bears were not known to occur near the Northwest coast, although they observed that the Chinook people of the lower Columbia River had seen them in their territory and had a separate name for them (esiamb), differentiating them from American black bears (Gibbs 1863). There is no evidence of extensive direct killing of grizzly bears by indigenous people, but ethnographic records leave little doubt that they were hunted and occasionally killed in defense of life or food (Smith 1988, Bedal Fish and Bedal 2000, Sappington and Schuknecht-McDaniel 2001, McLaren et al. 2005. ...
The North Cascades ecosystem of north-centralWashington State (USA) and southern British Columbia, Canada, has been identified as 1 of 6 recovery zones for grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) that were at one time distributed across a nearly continuous range of western North America. The current small number of grizzly bears, along with an apparent scarcity of historical observations, obfuscates the extent to which the mountain range and its surrounding lowlands previously supported grizzly bears. We reviewed and synthesized what is currently known about the historical distribution of grizzly bears in and around the North Cascades to better inform possible future restoration actions. Archeological, ethnographic, and incidental evidence confirm the prehistoric and historic presence of grizzly bears in the ecosystem and surrounding lowlands. Successful implementation of grizzly bear restoration and management in the North Cascades is dependent in part on the perception that they are an integral component of the ecosystem’s historical benchmark. Education and outreach efforts that focus on the influence of human perceptions and correcting misinformation about the history of bears in the ecosystem and their interactions with humans may improve long-term restoration success in the North Cascades.
... There are 64 communities adjacent to the Northern Shelf Bioregion, including 32 First Nation communities [22]. Indigenous peoples have occupied this region for many thousands of years; recent research has dated archaeological sites on the B.C. coast to as far back as 14,000 years before present [23][24][25]. The health and wellbeing of coastal First Nations has always been tightly linked to the health and productivity of the marine environment [26]. ...
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For more than a decade, marine spatial planning has been used around the world to advance objectives for conservation, economic development, and ecosystem-based management. Ecosystem-based management (EBM) in British Columbia began with the development of land use plans in the 1990s to address coastal and land use issues related to terrestrial land management. Managing marine resources is challenging on Canada’s Pacific coast because of multiple, overlapping jurisdictions, unceded indigenous territories, and lack of coordination amongst governments in the region and their agencies. The Marine Plan Partnership for the North Pacific Coast (MaPP) was formed in 2011 and was a co-led partnership between 18 First Nations’ and the Province of British Columbia governments. The purpose of the MaPP Initiative was to develop and implement marine plans for 102,000 square kilometers of coastal and offshore water in northern British Columbia. A co-led governance framework included the member First Nations and the Provincial government structured into multiple levels of decisions making, conflict resolution, and technical support. Integral to the planning process was broad and continual stakeholder engagement through multiple advisory committees as well as public engagement. The planning process made use of multiple information sources including traditional, scientific, and local knowledge and was completed in 3.5 years. The result was the development and signing into policy of four sub-regional marine plans (one for each of the four MaPP sub-regions: Haida Gwaii, North Coast, Central Coast, and North Vancouver Island) and a Regional Action Framework. The sub-regional plans delineate protection, special, and general management zones for multiple objectives and will inform future policy decisions for marine protected areas, tenures, resource management and coastal development through an EBM approach. The plans will inform permits for marine tenures including aquaculture, offshore renewable energy siting, contribute to Canada’s marine protected areas network, and improve coastal infrastructure. The Regional Action Framework highlights activities to occur across the entire region through five main activity areas (Regional Governance, Ecological Integrity and Human Well-being, Compliance and Enforcement, Cumulative Effects Assessment, and Zoning Recommendations). Funding for planning was through a public-private model that also supported the development of the plans and decision support tools (e.g. planning and mapping portal). Discussions regarding implementation began during the planning phase to ensure long-term commitment from the Partners and continuity to improve decision making and management within the MaPP area. The process design and methodology created by MaPP can be a model for planning in areas that involve multiple authorities, complex geographies and jurisdictional arrangements that can be scaled up for regional, cross border, and transboundary marine spatial planning.
... However, the customary practices of using fire and smoke to force bears out of their dens are known from various written ethnographic sources in other parts of Eurasia and North America, where ignited twigs or torches were thrown inside the den and the emerging bear was subsequently speared to death (Dali 1898, Hallowell 1926, Barnett 1975. A few archaeological cave sites in North America show indications of such forms of bear hunting in the form of charcoal flecks in the deposits (McLaren et al. 2005). Further more, a c. 13,600-year-old spectacular find in Switzerland has shown evidence of the practice (Morel 1993). ...
Karst caves have received little archaeological attention in Norway to date and little is known of their potential role in Scandinavian prehistory. The authors present the finds, observations, and analyses of an archaeological and faunal historical survey of a karst cave in Brønnøy Municipality in northern Norway. The aim of the survey was to assess the archaeological and faunal historic potential of the karst caves in the area. The authors focused on one of those caves, which contained some of the oldest known Holocene bear bones in Norway and large amounts of charcoal, but no other traces of human activity. Three samples of charcoal, from deep within the cave, were dated to three distinct events during the Pre-Roman Iron Age. The authors discuss the site in relation to bear biology, rock art and other cave findings, and ethnographic sources. Although there is no direct link between the bear bones and the charcoal, the site is interpreted as a potential hunting site for cave dwelling bears or other animals, where smoke was used to force out the creatures. The practice of hunting of bears in dens is well known from various sources, but the sites themselves are rarely found. By seeing the examined site in a broader perspective, some aspects of prehistoric activities connected to caves and prehistoric bear hunting are highlighted. Karst caves represent a largely unexplored type of site, which has the potential to reveal interesting new insights into poorly known prehistoric activities in Scandinavia.
... One of several with intact deposits is Kilgii Gwaay. The site was discovered by Haida archaeologist Captain Gold and contains a rich assemblage of stone, bone, and perishable artifacts, the latter including split spruce root technology, splitting wedges, a wooden plank, wooden hafts, and three-ply braided cordage (Cohen 2014;Fedje, Mackie, Wigen, Mackie, and Lake 2005;Fedje et al. 2001;McLaren et al. 2005). The faunal assemblage consists of abundant black bear, and a wide range of marine fauna including fur seal, sea otter, harbour seal, lingcod, halibut, rockfish, whale, and albatross. ...
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Overview of approaches to finding archaeological sites on paleoshorelines of B.C.
We review the history of underwater archaeological investigations of submerged prehistoric remains on the North Pacific Coast of North America, divided into three phases: Phase 1 (1960s–1981) – hypotheses and “wet-site archaeology”; Phase 2 (1981–1994) – operationalized scuba explorations of submerged anchor stone accumulations and the Montague Harbour Underwater Archaeology Project; and Phase 3 (1995–present) – refined modeling of regional sea beds for areas of high archaeological potential on submerged relict shorelines with limited testing and identification of late Pleistocene and early Holocene archaeological deposits on near-shore intertidal and interior upland strandlines. The latter part of Phase 3 also saw the potential for submerged prehistoric cultural resources integrated into consideration of development project assessments. Finally, the Coastal Migration Route for early migration to the Americas shifted from a peripheral proposition to a central complimentary paradigm. These multiple streams of theory, modeling, and pragmatic effort are poised to converge in a new era of practical underwater archaeological research on the North Pacific Coast.
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This article continues the discussion of unique finds recovered in the Siberian High Arctic during excavations (1989 and 1990) at a site located on Zhokhov Island (76° NL). Radiocarbon dates show the unexpectedly early human occupation of this area. Excavated materials exhibit the developed technological level of the ancient aboriginal culture, which has distinct Mesolithic features. Thanks to the preservative aspects of permafrost, the wooden artifacts - including a fragment of a sledge-runner - were in exceptionally good condition. An added focus of this article is the faunal remains, which allow us to comment on the survival strategy, butchering procedures, and seasonality of the site.
The controversial role of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) as a biological refugium on the northwestern coast of North America has been widely discussed for more than fifty years. The presence of morphologically divergent subspecies on Haida Gwaii is one of the major lines of evidence suggesting this archipelago's role as a refugium during the Wisconsin. However, since morphological distinction can be derived postglacially as well as in extended isolation, such evidence is ambiguous. To examine this question, we did a phylogenetic analysis of cytochrome b sequences (719 bp) of black bear (Ursus americanus), one of the distinctive endemics of Haida Gwaii, and compared these with conspecifics from across North America, focusing primarily on the northwestern coast. We found that the Haida Gwaii bear are indistinguishable from coastal bear of British Columbia and Vancouver Island, but are highly distinct from continental bear. Coastal and continental bears differ by 24 synapomorphies and an average sequence divergence of 3.6%. The coastal mitochondrial lineage occurs in each of the three recognized coastal subspecies suggesting that the morphological characteristics differentiating these taxa may be postglacially derived. The data are consistent with recent suggestions that a glacial refugium existed on the now submerged continental shelf connecting Haida Gwaii, Vancouver Island, and the coastal fringe of mainland British Columbia. This refugium would have been an additional source for postglacial recolonization of northwestern North America.
Hibernation in the Ursidae has been extensively researched over the past 30 years. This paper reviews findings of that research in the areas of general physiology and energetics; protein, fat, and bone metabolism; metabolic endocrinology; reproductive physiology and lactation; serum chemistry and hematology; and the ureaxreatinine ratio. Bears in hibernation exhibit several characteristics distinct from the deep hibernation of rodents, such as a lesser reduction in body temperature, protein conservation, lack of defecation and urination, and normal bone activity. The physiological constraints of hibernation are coupled to adaptations in reproductive physiology, such as delayed implantation and lactation. I argue that ureaxreatinine is not a reliable indicator of hibernation, although ongoing research is searching for an opioid-like hibernation trigger. Study of hibernation physiology will continue to bear fruit, especially in the areas of evolution, physiology, and medicine.