The discovery of ancient remains suggests that humans have been catching salmon for thousands of years during the Ice Age.
Recent research suggests that ice age hunter-gatherers ate more than just wooly mammoth meat – in fact, they even had a taste for fish. According to a report from CS Monitor, archeologists have recently discovered salmon bones in Alaska that date back nearly 11,500 years. They provide the earliest evidence of human consumption of the staple fish in North America.
According to Ben Potter, an archaeologist working at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “Salmon use seems to have deep use in northwest North America. The implications are quite profound.”
The discovery that salmon were a food staple during the ice age offers insight into some of the hunting methods and migratory patterns of early humans tens of thousands of years ago.
The bones were unearthed at a site that was centered on a cooking hearth and burial ground. The salmon bones are by far the oldest yet found by researchers, trumping the previous record by roughly 5,500 years. The study’s findings were published this Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The bones were found in a structure that archaeologists believe used to be a home, roughly 11,500 years old.
The previous oldest evidence of salmon fishing was discovered on the North American coast, as opposed to the interior. The recent find was nearly 870 miles inland from the mouth of the Yukon River. The salmon ventured far inland on their migratory paths from the Pacific Ocean, where they return to spawn before they die each year.
Today, salmon are just as present as they were tens of thousands of years ago in the ice age. Researchers identified the bones as belonging to the chum salmon using DNA and stable isotope analysis. The chum salmon travel unthinkable distances up the rivers and streams where they were born, and it stands to reason that people of the era would have followed them as a steady source of food.
The foraging population very likely traveled the same path as the salmon when they were spawning, and archaeologists believe it provides promising leads for future dig sites. Potter says that the pattern suggests “a mapping onto the environment.”
The discovery also suggests that people have been fishing for salmon even earlier than 11,500 years ago. Rivers that were freed from the clutches of crawling glaciers likely had salmon in them, and would have been easy to catch for foragers in the area.
According to the study’s co-author, Carrin Halffman from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “It’s a tantalizing possibility that salmon might have been important. We don’t know what that early salmon use might have looked like.”
With a lack of available data about ancient fishing methods in the northwest North American region, archaeologists don’t quite know where to start looking for more clues. The Yukon River and its tributaries are likely a good start; if early humans followed the salmon runs they could have left clues thousands of miles inland as to what they were doing and how they made the most of the resources they had available.