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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Long-term human-environment interaction on dynamic coastal landscapes : examples from 15,000 years of shoreline and settlement change in the Prince Rupert Harbour area Letham, Bryn


This dissertation explores the intersections of past human settlement and the dynamism of coastal landscapes in the Prince Rupert Harbour area, in Tsimshian territory on the northern Northwest Coast, British Columbia. Taking relative sea level (RSL) and shoreline change as a major physical force in coastal people’s lives, both past and present, I explore how coastal fisher-hunter-gatherers occupied this transforming landscape and ultimately consider ways in which people’s engagement with the shores they lived upon may have been generative of new relationships to place and people. A reconstruction of the history of RSL change over the last 15,000 years is developed and presented. This is used to design a predictive model for landforms ideal for human habitation associated with raised paleoshorelines. A field survey of several of these targets identified three archaeological sites dating between 9500 and 6000 BP, pushing the archaeologically-recorded occupation of the area back 3000 years. These early Holocene sites indicate persistent use of places into the later Holocene as shoreline positions shifted with regressing RSL; it is proposed that this is associated with notions of territorial proprietorship acquired through historical precedence of use. The second half of the dissertation presents a study of the developmental history of several large late Holocene village sites associated with massive anthropogenic shell-bearing components. It is argued that these sites themselves are significant anthropogenic transformations to shorelines, and it is demonstrated that there are instances where shell was very rapidly accumulated to raise, extend, or level landforms, and likely to buffer against foreshore erosion. I contend that many of the landscapes of the Northwest Coast are ‘fisher-hunter-gatherer built environments’, and argue that increased physical investments in modifying coastlines may be associated with a transformation in the way territorial proprietorship is conceived. Specifically, I suggest it is associated with the formalization of institutionalized proprietorship systems similar to the rigid systems observed ethnographically for the Tsimshian, and that this may have resulted from the arrival of large numbers of newcomers to the region over the last 3000 years. The institutionalization of systems governing access to territory and resources enhanced social inequalities.

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