Caveman finds buried treasure

May 16, 2002, vol. 24, no. 2
By Carol Thorbes

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There are some days when Brent Ward (left) wishes he were anywhere but several feet down a dark, dank sea cave, coated up to his shoulders in mud.

“It can be disgusting,” says the Simon Fraser University earth scientist.
But buried in gravel beneath the clay that Ward and his colleagues are extracting from a raised sea cave near Zeballos on the west coast of Vancouver Island is a treasure trove of geological information.

Ward has uncovered 100 to 200 bone fragments that are 16,000 to 18,000 years old, a time period that predates the last time glaciers covered coastal B.C.

“It's rare to find sediments that survive glacial periods because glaciers usually erode them,” notes Ward.

The constant pounding of waves along an exposed coastline as long as 100,000 years ago formed the sea cave encasing the sediment found by Ward.

During the ice age, glacial buildup deposited mud in the sea cave and sealed it off. Movement in the earth's crust eventually pushed the cave above sea level, turning it into a floating time capsule.

Ward is the first scientist to use sea cave analysis as a means of dating geological deposits in North America. The technique was developed in Norway.

The information gathered about flora and fauna could help scientists make projections about future climate changes.

“The sediment in the sea cave we discovered contains the bone fragments of the oldest Vancouver Island marmot, Townsends vole (mouse) and Savannah sparrow found in B.C.,” says Ward. “Interestingly, the Vancouver Island marmot survived the last glaciation but is near extinction now. Our find indicates that B.C.'s coastline could have supported the migration of early North American natives from Asia.”

Ward is excited about the prospect of his work contributing to the resolution of the longstanding mystery - how did prehistoric man get from Asia to North America?

The prospect of solving such a mystery makes being blasted by water from a fire hose after a hard day's work all the more bearable.
Ward would like anyone with information about other raised sea caves along the west coast of Vancouver Island or off the Queen Charlottes to contact him at 604-291-4229, or email him.

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