Coast Salish Clam Gardens

Screenshot of Jude Isabella's Archaeology Magazine Article.

U.Vic graduate student Jude Isabella – interdisciplinary between Anthropology and Writing – has written a fascinating article for the high-profile, general-interest magazine Archaeology.  Her topic is recent archaeological research in the Salish Sea, with an emphasis on “Clam Gardens”, a traditional practice of mariculture, or cultivation, of shellfish.

These gardens may take a variety of forms, but a classic one might be a line of large rocks running along the very lowest tidal line, forming a wall between two points of land.  This wall would act, perhaps over a period of decades, to trap fine sediments and create more habitat for intertidal shellfish.  The result is to turn a mediocre shellfish beach into a high quality, productive one.  And once built, these gardens could enhance the environment for years or even centuries with minimal human intervention – as the productive, yet untended ones of today show.  In some ways, they exemplify the practice of “permaculture,” a permanent legacy to their communities which persist to the present.

Archaeologists are a little bit late to the recognition of these gardens.  In part this is because they tend to be visible only at the very lowest tides, and in another part to a historical reluctance to think outside  conventional Anthropological categories, such as “Hunter-Gatherer”.  There is considerable emerging evidence that First Nations on the Northwest Coast practiced sophisticated resource management of various kinds.  An archaeologist who was overly committed to working towards the “Hunter Gatherer” category might never find the mental space to accomodate features such as these clam gardens.

So, all credit to the researchers involved, and congratulations to Jude Isabella for an important and prominent piece of public writing.  In addition to an Anthropology graduate student, Jude is a professional writer,  and Managing Editor of  YesMag, a science magazine for children.  You can read another of her recent articles here, on the crisis in the BC salmon fishery.


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