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1 June 2009
'Kelp highway' theory proposed for coast settlement

The Pacific coast of the Americas was settled starting about 15,000 years ago during the last glacial retreat by seafaring peoples following a 'kelp highway' rich in marine resources, a noted professor of anthropology theorized. Jon Erlandson, director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon, suggested that especially productive 'sweet spots,' such as the estuaries of Fraser and Stikine rivers, served as corridors by which people settled the interior of the province. Erlandson said these migrating peoples were already sophisticated in harvesting from the sea and would have worked their way down the coast in search of new sites.
     "I think as much as anything it was an exploratory urge," he said at an international conference on the history of marine mammals at the University of British Columbia. "Populations were gradually growing and people kept moving. What's around the next bend? If there were no people there, it must have been a really powerful draw to keep exploring."
     The kelp highway theory runs up against the long-held belief that the first humans entered the Americas on a land bridge that spanned the Bering Strait. Erlandson said the kelp highway represented a diverse ecosystem and would have extended from what is today Japan past Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and Alaska's Aleutian Islands all the way down the west coast of North America to Mexico's Baja peninsula and then continuing again in the waters off Peru, Ecuador, and Chile in South America. "These kelp forests would have provided a migration corridor near shore with no major barriers," he said. "It would have been a very similar ecological zone to follow and a rich one." It's hard to know what kind of vessels carried these early seafarers, although dugouts (perhaps carved from driftwood) and skin boats are possible, he said.
     The first seafarers would have over-exploited resources initially amidst a windfall of marine life, but over time would have learned to live sustainably off the ocean, Erlandson said. Erlandson is part of research on California's Channel Islands that has found evidence of human occupation - the Chumash people - spanning 13,000 years, evidence that they must have found a way to live sustainably from the ocean around them.

Source: The Vancouver Sun (28 May 2009)

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