The Earliest Inhabitants
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The first Europeans to set eyes on Canada’s west coast were gold-seeking Spanish traders who sailed through the Strait of Georgia in 1790. Although the forested wilderness they encountered seemed impenetrable, it had been inhabited by humans since becoming ice-free some 12,000 years earlier. The ancestors of these earliest inhabitants had migrated from northeast Asia across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. During this time, the northern latitudes of North America were covered by an ice cap, forcing these people to travel south down the west coast before fanning out across the ice-free southern latitudes. As the ice cap receded northward, the people drifted north also, perhaps only a few kilometers in an entire generation. They settled in areas with an abundance of natural resources, such as around the mouth of the salmon-rich Fraser River.
Known as the Coast Salish, these earliest inhabitants lived a very different lifestyle from the stereotypical “Indian”—they had no bison to depend on, they didn’t ride horses, nor did they live in tepees, but instead they developed a unique and intriguing culture that revolved around the ocean and its bountiful resources. The Coast Salish hunted in the water and on the land—harvesting salmon in the rivers, collecting shellfish such as clams and mussels along the tide line, and hunting bears, deer, and elk in the forest. They formed highly specialized societies and a distinctive and highly decorative artistic style featuring animals, mythical creatures, and oddly shaped human forms believed to be supernatural ancestors. Like other tribes along the west coast, they emphasized the material wealth of each chief and his tribe, displayed to others during special events called potlatches.
The potlatch ceremonies were held to mark important moments in tribal society, such as deaths, marriages, puberty celebrations, and totem-pole raisings. The wealth of a tribe became obvious when the chief gave away enormous quantities of gifts to his guests—the nobler the guest, the better the gift. The potlatch exchange was accompanied by dancing, entertainment, feasting, and speech-making, all of which could last many days. Stories performed by hosts garbed in elaborate costumes and masks educated, entertained, and affirmed each clan’s historical continuity.
Within the Coast Salish nation were many distinct bands. The largest of these on the mainland was the Musqueam band, 3,000 of whom lived in a village beside the Fraser River (near the south end of present-day Pacific Spirit Regional Park). The Squamish lived on the north side of Burrard Inlet and along Howe Sound. At the southern end of Vancouver Island, the groupings were less distinct but are now divided cleanly into three groups by linguistics: the Songhees, the Saanich, and the Sooke.
The oldest archaeological sites discovered on the site of modern-day Vancouver are ancient middens of clam and mussel shells, which accumulated as garbage dumps for native villages. The largest known of these is the Marpole Midden, in southern Vancouver, which at three hectares (7.4 acres) in area and up to five meters (16 feet) deep represents a thousand years of seasonal living beginning around 2,500 years ago. The end of the “Marpole Phase” coincided with prehistoric technological advances, which made living in larger, more permanent communities more practical.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition