M.A. Theses: Andrew John Barton, 1994

Fishing for Ivory Worms: A Review of Ethnographic and Historical Recorded Dentalium Source

This study reviews and examines historic and ethnographic written documents that identify locations where Dentalium shells were procured by west coast Native North Americans. The occurrence of Dentalium shell in archaeological sites in western North America has been used by archaeologists to construct trade routes and to comment on contact between different prehistoric groups as well as discuss the development of complex stratified societies on the northwest coast. Source locations have usually been determined by reference to a limited number of historic and ethnographic documents.

The thesis begins by reviewing the biological information on scaphopod molluscs to determine the availability of species of this class on the west coast of North America. Dentalium pretiosum is one of several different species of marine scaphopod molluscs found along the coast of North America that would have been procurable by Native people. An examination of historic fur trade documents indicates that Euroamerican fur traders were using the shell as a trade good and were obtaining it at a diverse number of locations along the coast. Native geographical place name information, and ethnographic accounts of the procurement methods and technology also identify a number of different source locations for the shell. This review indicates that during the historic period Dentalium shell was procured at numerous locations along the west coast of North America with the highest number of source locations recorded on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The results of this study have three implications for the interpretation of Dentalium shell from prehistoric archaeological sites. There were at least two species of scaphopod mollusc, and possibly more, in use during the prehistoric period. The volume of shell traded during the historic period may not be indicative of the trade that occurred prehistorically. Construction of exchange networks that identify the west coast of Vancouver Island as the main origin point of the shell may be inaccurate.