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A 5,000-year-old BC site shows pandemics have visited the West Coast before

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Stephen Hume

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VALERIE PATENAUDE was a newly-minted 26-year-old archaeologist in 1978 and in charge of an important excavation at Duke Point in Nanaimo where the provincial government was planning a new ferry terminal.

But she was sent to supervise a high priority rescue dig in Port Coquitlam where the Province planned a new highway bypass at Mary Hill near the mouth of the Pitt River.

What Patenaude uncovered was what stalks the dreams of every archaeologist, evidence of a lost civilization.

 

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A  pandemic on the coast around 1750 is suggested by examination and carbon-dating of material found in archaeological excavations near Port Coquitlam

 

At first the archaeologist noticed many shallow depressions which, on more detailed examination, proved the remnants of a large food-processing complex. Locally abundant deer berries were cooked down to extract juice which was used, it’s thought, as a preservative for fish and game meat.

As she explored further, Patenaude found that the food-processing factory supported a concentration of residential structures. A huge site, it sprawled well over a kilometre along the banks of the Pitt River. Radiocarbon dating identified two extended periods of occupation reaching back almost 5,000 years from the present. It proved, in fact, only one of a series of such sites which extended all the way to Pitt Lake, 20 kilometres to the North.

How many people lived there is a matter of scholarly conjecture, but it was a large number.

The site, in the territory of the Katzie First Nation, was exciting, not least because it opened a window into the ancient past of peoples who first settled the rich Fraser Valley floodplain.

Yet it also brought a darker inkling. The site was abruptly abandoned sometime around 1750 and never reoccupied. Whatever happened there had ended the world as they had known it for 160 generations.

Now, as media abounds with prognostications about a world turned upside down by the fallout from the current Covid-19 pandemic—whatever equilibrium we find in its aftermath, economists, social psychologists and politicians warn, our old conceptions of normal have been forever swept away—Patenaude’s discoveries from more than 40 years ago remind us that the world has been irrevocably changed more than once in British Columbia’s past.

As the young archaeologist’s dig expanded, it began revealing something strange. In the level bags were all kind of artifacts that weren’t supposed to be there.

There were scores of labrets, a kind of lip ornament worn by women that were seldom found in grave sites because they were bequeathed within families from one generation to the next, from mother to daughter to granddaughter to great-granddaughter.

Labrets might be made from wood, bone, stone or shell and were sometimes decorated with inserts. Grant Keddie, curator of archaeology at the Royal BC Museum, says that labrets appear to have been crucial signifiers of social relationships, particularly with respect to marriage ties.

“But at the Pitt River site we found hundreds of labrets,” Patenaude told me when I talked to her about it while researching a book on the first European contact with peoples on the Lower Fraser River.

There was something else about the ornaments. They were all blackened by fire. For some reason, the ancient cycle of maternal inheritance had been disrupted. The women who wore the labrets had, instead of passing them to their daughters, been burned in massive funeral pyres, probably in the big wooden houses in which they lived.

Who were the forgotten people of this lost world? Patenaude said that, too, was conjecture.

“It was probably a smallpox epidemic,” she told me. “Yet neither the Katzie nor the Coquitlams claimed descent from those people. It’s a strong possibility that site was used by people from South Vancouver Island who just never came back after the catastrophe.”

Next time, a look at the pandemic which reconfigured the West Coast before Europeans came to stay and, in fact, shaped the settler attitudes which bedevil us all today.

Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

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