Study finds evidence of prehistoric salmon fishing in Alaska

Spring-run Chinook salmon, photographed in Butte Creek, upstream from Centerville, Calif., may become extinct in the future due to warming waters. (Allen Harthorn, Friends of Butte Creek/photo) .
Salmon may have been a key food source for early North Americans. Photo courtesy USGS.

‘We now know that salmon have been consumed by North American humans at least 11,500 years ago …’

Staff Report

Digging deep into the remains of an ancient kitchen, archaeologists say that early residents of North America likely fished for salmon starting at the end of the last ice age, just as they started colonizing the continent.

The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the earliest known evidence that Ice Age humans in North America used salmon as a food source and shows that those settlers were not just big game hunters.

The excavation at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska also revealed human dwellings, tools and human remains, as well as the salmon bones.

“Salmon fishing has deep roots, and we now know that salmon have been consumed by North American humans at least 11,500 years ago,” said lead author Carrin Halffman, a University of Alaska, Fairbanks anthropologist.

The findings also suggest that salmon spawning runs were established much earlier and much farther north than previously thought, at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, also known as the last Ice Age.

“We have cases where salmon become landlocked and have very different isotopic signatures than marine salmon. Combining genetic and isotopic analyses allow us to confirm the identity as chum salmon, which inhabit the area today, as well as establish their life histories,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks anthropologist Ben Potter. “Both are necessary to understand how humans used these resources.”

 

Fish remains pose a challenge to archaeologists because their bones are very small and fragile and typically do not preserve well. Because of these challenges, their remains are likely underrepresented in global archaeological studies and findings.

The findings show that ancient Beringian diets were broader than earlier thought and that Ice Age humans used complex strategies and specialized technology to obtain their food, Potter said.

There is no evidence to suggest that salmons runs weren’t also present in the area a few thousand years prior to the time when people were living at the Upward Sun River site.

“This suggests that salmon fishing may have played a role in the early human colonization of North America, he said.

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