The Northwest Coast of North America is a crucial region for the reconstruction of the peopling of the Americas, since North Pacific coast was probably a preferential route for at least one of the migration waves that from Asia, through Beringia, reached North America.
Archaeologists indicate three possible migration movements along the Pacific coast. The first, for which there is scant evidence, argues that people moved down the coast by 16,000 BC. The second is contemporaneous to the Clovis complex and the third occurred after 9800 BC.
Before 12,000 BC there is limited evidence of human occupation of the Northwest Coast. Two sites in the Cascadia region, Wilson Butte Cave and Fort Rock Cave, have produced radiocarbon dates earlier than 12,000 BC. However, these data are not completely accepted, since some archaeologists have argued that the deposit was mixed with later materials and samples may not be reliable.
Clovis and Nenana Complexes
Clovis , artifacts are rare in the Northwest Coast. Sporadic finds include materials recovered along the Oregon coast and a Clovis cache from Washington. The latter, the Richey-Roberts cache, is not a real residential site but a pit where Clovis bifaces and other objects were buried.
Almost contemporaneous with Clovis is the Nenana complex, widespread in the Alaska interior. This stone industry includes smaller projectile points than Clovis.
Archaic Period (10,500 - 4400)
A final movement into North America through Beringia occurred after 9,800 BC, just before the Beringia Land was flooded. This final migration wave marked the expansion of the Dyuktai complex from Asia to America, where it is called Denali complex. In Alaska, this complex replaced Nenana. Denali is a microblade industry and spread all over Northwest Coast by 7600 BC. Typical of Archaic stone industry are microblades, often mounted on bone and antler handles.
Important sites of the Archaic period include: Ground Hog Bay, probably the earliest indisputable site on the Northwest Coast, Hidden Falls, Thorne River site, Chuck Lake, Namu, Bear Cove, Glenrose Cannery, Kasta, Milliken site, Five Mile Rapids, Windust.
Pacific Period (4400 BC - AD 1775)
The Pacific period spans almost 6000 years and is divided into three main sub-period: Early, Middle and Late Pacific. This period is comprised between the emergence of the traits of complex hunter gatherers on the Northwest Coast and the spread of the first smallpox epidemic linked to the European contact.
- Early Pacific (4400 - 1800 BC)
The Early Pacific period is characterized by the stabilization of the sea levels which allowed a more sedentary lifestyle, based mainly on coastal, and riverine resources. Typical of this period are pithouses, in the interior regions, and huge shell middens, on the coast, where shell debris were piled up after consumption creating massive deposits. Burials are also frequent within shell middens. Microblades disappear from Early Pacific stone tool kits, whereas bone and antler tools, celts, and harpoons became more frequent. Important sites include: Namu, Hidden Falls, Boardwalk, Paul Mason, Glenrose, St. Mungo.
- Middle Pacific (1800 BC - AD 200/500)
By 1800 BC, the Pacific Ocean reached its modern levels and in the coastal rainforest the typical red and yellow cedar species were widespread. To this period dates the first evidence of plank-house villages and the emergence of social inequality, mainly visible in burials goods, and architecure. More specialized fishing tools, such as net weights and composite harpoons are now used to catch salmon, sea otters, seals. Woodworking is represented in high quality products, like cedar boxes, fishing equipments, and canoes. Important sites include: Hidden Falls, Blue Jacker's Creek, Ozette, Marpole, Locarno Beach, Paul Mason, Boardwalk, Glenrose, Palmrose, Pender Island.
- Late Pacific (AD 200/500 - 1775)
The climate during the Late Pacific period was basically the same as it is today. Archaeologists believe that there is a strong continuity between the Late Pacific populations and the Native Northwest Coast people encountered by the European. This period marked important changes in technology, burial pattern and settlement organization. Population size may have reached its peak by AD 1000 and then declined. Interment and cremation supplant now the typical midden burials. Important sites include: Ozette, Minard site, Wakemap Mound, Yakutat, Tebenkof Bay Sites, Greenville, Hopetown, Meier, Whale Cove, Hamilton Island, Crescent Beach, Shoemaker Bay, Yuquot, Boardwalk.
- Modern Period (AD 1775 - present)
The Modern period spans between the first European contact, the development of the fur trade in the Northwest Coast and the creation of the first reservations. Most of the Northwest Coast art masterpieces are from this historic period. Excavations have focused mainly on Early Modern houses along the coast as well as fur trade posts.
This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to North American Prehistory.
Ames Kenneth M. and Herbert D.G. Maschner, 1999, Peoples of the Northwest Coast. Their Archaeology and Prehistory, Thames and Hudson, London
Dixon, James E., 2001, Human colonization of the Americas: timing, technology and process, Quaternary Science Review, 20, pp. 277-299