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SFU archaeologist seeks clues to ancient migration route in B.C. waters and beyond

February 18, 2021
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Simon Fraser University marine archaeologist Rob Rondeau is preparing to scour the seafloor off B.C.’s west coast, in search of ancient underwater archaeological sites that may hold clues about the earliest migration route between Northeastern Asia and North America.

While there is a longstanding debate over which route First Peoples took from Siberia to arrive in North America—an interior continental route (between ice sheets) or a coastal migration route—Rondeau says there is increasing evidence supporting a coastal migration route, which is now the focus of his PhD research.

“I’m looking for evidence of the First Peoples who came to the Americas from Siberia across what was Beringia as early as 15,000 years ago,” says Rondeau, who this month begins a three-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) PhD scholarship to carry out his research.

Rob Rondeau

The First Peoples who arrived in the Americas lived in a vastly different world than today. Sheets of ice covered the interior of the province and a tundra-like plain covered much of what was then the coast of British Columbia, in some places extending 40 kms west of the present-day shoreline. When the ice sheets receded around 10,000 years ago, sea levels rose and this part of coastal Beringia was plunged underwater.

Searching for evidence of this ancient world will involve using computational modelling to identify undersea locations with the highest potential of containing early archaeological sites. Rondeau also plans to use the latest in multibeam sonar, and augmented reality and holographic technologies to visualize the landscape underwater. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) will also be used to photograph the seafloor.

“Beringia underwater is 2.5 million square kilometers in size. I need ways to narrow down the survey area in deciding where ‘X’ marks the spot”, he notes.

Once potential sites are identified, Rondeau and colleagues will extract sediment core samples from the ocean floor, attempting to uncover buried archaeological materials.

“What we are really hoping to find is evidence of human occupation, such as stone tools, bits of burnt bone, wood or charcoal from a campfire for example, that will allow us to date the time period,” says Rondeau, who has most-recently shared his archaeological expertise, including studies of shipwrecks, on the Discovery Channel’s Mysteries of the Deep.

“Understanding how and when people first moved down the Pacific Northwest Coast will allow archaeologists to better understand the ‘peopling process’ of the Americas,” he explains.

Gaining a better understanding of the offshore underwater landscape can also provide insight regarding the future of B.C.’s coastline. At the end of the last Ice Age, melting ice sheets caused a dramatic rise in sea levels. Human-caused climate change is altering the coastal environment. The technologies being developed from Rondeau’s research can also be used to monitor and study rising sea levels, coastal erosion and other environmental threats.

“I think it’s really important to understand the past because it’s the old saying, ‘if we don’t know where we’ve been we don’t know where we're going,’” he says.