Richardson Island

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Culture(s) Early Holocene
Temporal Period(s) Paleo-Indian Period

Summary Details

Location: Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada (Approx. 52° 41' 22" N, 131° 47' 19" W)
Period: Paleo-Indian Period
Date Range:


The site of Richardson Island is the most studied early Holocene site in the region. Its earliest occupation dates to 9,300BP (Mackie et al., 2011). It belongs to a class of archaeological sites known as raised beach sites located in relation to maximum Holocene sea levels (Fedje et al., 2004); there are a few others in the region with similar topographic characteristics including in Lyell Bay and the Arrow Creek site (Fedje et al., 2005). Richardson Island is in southeastern Haida Gwaii. The site is known for its incredibly deep and rich stratigraphy.

Research History

Deep auger testing characterizes the excavation portion of this site, with Parks Canada conducting this work in 1995. An excavation unit at this time failed to reach the bottom of the cultural layers, and when archaeologists returned in 1997 they discovered over 5 meters of stratified cultural deposits including over 10,000 lithic artifacts and a bit of calcified bone (Fedje et al., 2004). The stratigraphy has been complicated by millennia of relative sea level rising and falling, with nearby marine and terrestrial processes interacting together; this includes mud flow, rain wash, and alluvium (Fedje et al., 2005).

Major Finds/Insights

Current Investigations

Material Culture

Lithic Assemblage

The noteworthy component of the Richardson Island site is its unique lithic assemblage which showcases the region’s transition from bifacial technology to the use of microblades, known as the Moresby tradition. Aside from this, the rest of the technological toolkit does not change that much. All material, like other coastal sites in Haida Gwaii, is locally acquired and includes siltstone, basalt, rhyolite, andelsite, and dacite (Fedje et al., 2005). The reasons behind the change from bifacial to microblade focus are unknown, as is the reason why this component of the toolkit changed while others remained continuous for over a millennia, but neither cultural nor environmental factors can be ruled out. The lower levels of the site produce numerous bifaces (Mandryk et al., 2001). These layers demonstrating bifacial technology, including a number of bifacial tools and a great deal of detritus from their construction, are associated with the Kingii complex and occur between 9,300BP and 8,750BP (Mackie et al., 2011). Spokeshaves, gravers, and scarper planes are also common. Around 8,750BP microblade technology associated with the Northwest Coast Microblade Tradition is added to the existing toolkit, which already includes discoidal and unidirectional cores, and bifaces fall out of favour and are then lost altogether within 500 years (Ames, 2006). The latest strata of the site dates to 8,490BP. The change from bifacial to microblade technology occurred gradually and peak microblade use coincides with early Holocene sea level stabilization. On this, Magne writes,

In-situ technological change could relate directly to stabilization of key subsistence resources whose use is facilitated by microblades, loss of resources through flooding that led to a refocus of extractive strategies (such as loss of access to stone sources or various plant species), a combination of those, or other reasons.

Interestingly, Magne also notes that microblade technology may have been a desirable strategy during times of higher sea levels because raw materials are an inherently terrestrial resource and may have been more difficult to acquire (ibid, pg 115).

Floral and Faunal Assemblage

Richardson Island site floral and faunal preservation did not fare as well as other sites in Haida Gwaii. Acidic soils have destroyed all organic carbon, with only charcoal and calcined bone remaining. A small flotation was able to discover palynolgical assemblage including pine, western hemlock, rose family, sedge, blueberry/huckleberry, Saskatoon, goosefoot, and grass (Jackman (1998) in Fedje et al. 2005). This float sample picture of the surrounding paleolandscape around Richardson Island during the early Holocene.

Species in the faunal assemblage include rockfish, halibut, and caribou; other than those most remains could only be typed to fish (NISP 383), large mammal (NISP 10) or small mammal/bird (NISP 17). Different preservation conditions and excavation techniques at Richardson Island and Kilgii Gwaay are thought to be the two major reasons these sites are presenting unlike faunal assemblages  (for a more detailed comparison of this assemblage to Kilgii Gwaay, see Steffen (2006)).

Overall, Richardson Island assemblage demonstrates fully adapted marine resource procurement strategies, though again the early bifacial spear tips are thought to be associated with winter bear hunting strategies (Mackie et al., 2011).

General Notes

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