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Guide to the Prehistoric Cultures of the Northwest Coast

North American Northwest Coast Prehistory


Guide to the Prehistoric Cultures of the Northwest Coast

North America Map, with Northwest Coast region highlighted


The Northwest Coast of North America is one of the widest and more diverse regions of the Americas in terms of cultures and languages.

Geographical Setting and Environment

Of the highest importance for the inhabitants of the Northwest Coast was the marine environment. Open sea waters, islands and coastlines were the main resource and represented the everyday landscapes for these people. On its continental lands, the Northwest Coast cultures include an area extending from the Arctic and Subarctic regions near the Copper river in Alaska toward the North and roughly into the Cascade Mountain range towards the East. The southern border coincides with the southern border of Oregon state. Towards the West, the Northern Pacific ocean, with its different climatic zones and life forms, was a pivotal aspect for the region's inhabitants.

Abundant rain and temperate climate in the region has created an environment characterized by a coastal rainforest of western hemlocks, spruces and the precious red cedar. A drier climate is typical of the southern regions, along the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Characteristics of the Northwest Coast Cultures

Archaeologists tyically divide the Northwest Coast into a northern, central and southern sub-areas. This is based on the recognition of internal environmental, cultural and linguistic differences. The following is an outline of some of the principal characteristics common to the entire region.

Northwest Coast Settlement and Subsistence

  • Salmon constituted the main food resource for the people of the Northwest Coast, integrated with other fish and sea mammals such as herring, halibut and cod, and seals, sea otters and whales. Other resources included birds, plants, roots, seaweed and land mammals like deer, goat and elk.
  • Trade along the coast was important for the exchange of everyday goods, as well as valuable items and raw materials. Native copper, for example, originating from southern Alaska, was a highly valuable material exchanged to produce prestige goods, such as ceremonial plaques, called coppers.
  • Food preservation and storing was accomplished through drying and smoking.
  • The Northwest Coast people made hunting and fishing tools like harpoons, nets, weirs, spears and hooks. Woodworking tools included: stone hammers, adze blades, celts; and sewing artifacts included needles, bone points and antler objects.
  • Whaling was an important activity, not only for the value of whale-derived dietary products (i.e. meat, bones, grease), but also as form of social bonding and status display, since only expert and well-off hunters could afford to sponsor it.

Social Organization of the Northwest Coast

  • Complex social organization of the Northwest Coast were primarily based on kinship. Northwest Coast people were organized in tribes, but had social classes and slave labor, elements unusual for general hunter-gatherers but typical of complex hunter gatherer societies.
  • Warfare was important and widespread among the different Northwest Coast tribe. Often, war was the means to obtain slaves. Elaborate armor and helmets were used and weaponry included daggers, bow and arrows, spears, and clubs, often decorated with fantastic images of bears, wolves, or human faces.
  • Northwest Coast settlements were both seasonal, with larger groups gathered during Winter and smaller, dispersed groups in Spring and Summer, as well as year-around villages.

Northwest Coast Ceremony and Artistry

  • Red cedar tree bark and wood was important for a number of things, including basketry, cordage, storage boxes, mats, canoes, planks for houses, in addition to ceremonial objects, such as poles and masks.
  • The Northwest Coast people had a rich ceremonial life, involving sophisticated dressing and equipment, which often symbolized status level, such as blankets, nose rings, labrets, and potlatch hats.
  • During historic times, potlatch was a widespread ceremonial feast where redistribution of foods and goods occurred. Only the most prominent members of the community could afford to organize a potlatch, and these people were distinguished by typical woven hats with on top as many rings as the number of potlatch offered.
  • Finally, Northwest Coast art is famous for its diverse and sophisticated products. These include a wide array of forms and motifs, probably the most famous are totem poles, which, however, are a quite late introduction in Northwest Coast. Painted plank houses, canoes and wooden masks are fine examples of Northwest Coast painting and woodcraft. Further types of artifacts are stone or bone and antler figurines, rock paintings, cedar boxes, stone bowls with human and animal shapes. Motifs included animals important to Northwest Coast subsistence, as well as mythological creatures and humans.

Historic Cultures of the Northwest Coast

Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Haisla, Nisga’a, Nuxalk, Kwakwaka’wakw (previously known as Kwakiutl), Gitksan, Coast Salish, Makah, Quileute, Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Tillamook, Chinookans, Kalapuyans,Takelma, Alsens, Coosans.

Archaeological Research in the Northwest Coast

First interest in Northwest Coast archaeology arose at the end of the 19th century, with the earliest systematic excavation along the Fraser River in 1895 by Charles Hill-Tout. Harlan Smith was the archaeologist in the expedition led by Franz Boas at the beginning of the 20th century. Archaeological research in the Northwest Coast grew after World War II. Among the many archaeologists who have conducted research in the Northwest Coast, we can cite: Arden King, Frederica de Laguna, Carl Borden, Kenneth Ames, Stephen Samuels, Gary Coupland, Dale Croes, Knut Fladmark, Brian Hayden, Herbert Maschner.

Northwest Coast History Timeline

Northwest Coast Sites


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to North America, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Ames Kenneth M. and Herbert D.G. Maschner, 1999, Peoples of the Northwest Coast. Their Archaeology and Prehistory, Thames and Hudson, London

Gibbon, Guy, 1998, Northwest Coast Culture Are, in Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia, edited by Guy Gibbon and Kenneth M. Ames, Garland Publishing., pp: 575-584

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