What is the archaeological evidence of resource management of fish in our territory?

This is a challenging question, one that is not currently answerable from an analysis of fish bones found at archaeological sites. We know that Tsimshian people transported fish across their landscapes for many reasons: trade, exchange, and, perhaps most significantly, because their fishing territories were distant from their residences.

Archaeologists produce collections of fish remains (usually bones, and sometimes otoliths and scales) from archaeological sites. UBC has a set of these remains and has access to collections held at the University of Toronto. We are working with these collections to see if we can answer this question using molecular analyses.

We know that First Nations communities all along the Pacific coast have been fishing for Pacific salmon since time immemorial. The seven Pacific salmonid species (pink, sockeye, coho, chum, chinook, cutthroat, and steelhead/rainbow trout) all spawn at different times, and in different habitats and locations. The diversity of these salmon lifeways and behaviours has important impacts for understanding where and at what time of year Indigenous communities obtained their fish, as well as for documenting the range of resources and regions utilized by communities in the past, i.e., their resource management practices.

While salmon bones are frequently found in large quantities in ancient village sites and other archaeological locations, the bones themselves are difficult to assign to particular species of salmon or to specific natal streams or harvesting regions. As a result, most bones are assigned only as ‘salmonid’, making it difficult to make a detailed reconstruction of which species were used throughout the year, and where they may have been obtained. This is true of the archaeology within Nine Tribes (represented by the Lax Kw'alaams and Metlakatla First Nations) territory. A lot of archaeological research has collected salmon bones, but patterns of salmon resource management from archaeological data are unclear.

We are proposing to expand the understanding of salmon from archaeological contexts using new methods for: 1) identifying species of salmon from bones (ZooMS), and 2) investigating salmon diet and ecological conditions (light isotopes). Both of these techniques are well-established, but no one has yet applied them in combination to Pacific fish from the archaeological record. Both methods are destructive – they destroy salmon vertebrae to get results. Our proposal is to apply these methods to a small sample of salmon vertebrae bones (700) from a range of sites in the Prince Rupert Harbour (PRH) to test if we can tell what the range species are and to start describing their ecology.

Both of these approaches will help us describe patterns of resource management and fish ecology represented in the archaeological record, and help us learn about avenues and limitations of this approach. Currently, we know that in many PRH archaeological villages, salmon represents more than 90% of the fish, but we do not know much else. This proposal should help us tell a more detailed story. Since we already have access to archaeological collections that have been well documented, we do not need to do any new field work to conduct this study. We also have funds to do this work.

A key part of this research is reciprocal: we hope that we can work with staff from Metlakatla Fisheries Officers to learn about the modern, historical, and traditional fishery. We’d also like to share how these new methods work. 


For this proposed research, we will apply an emerging high-throughput molecular technique for the taxonomic identification of archaeological vertebrate remains: Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (or ZooMS) (Collins et al. 2010; Buckley 2018). ZooMS is a form of peptide mass-fingerprinting that provides a taxonomic identification based on differences within the amino acid sequence of an organism’s bone collagen protein sequences.

Differences in the collagen amino acid sequence of various species produce a distinct ‘peptide mass fingerprint,’ based on their respective mass-to-charge (m/z) ratios. Thus, mass spectra from unknown samples can be taxonomically identified through comparison with collagen fingerprints from a known reference database. At a fraction of the cost of traditional ancient DNA-based approaches, ZooMS fingerprinting is being increasingly applied in archaeological contexts as a rapid and cost-effective method for the taxonomic identification of zooarchaeological assemblages. This technique has already been developed and tested for Pacific salmonid species by LOA members (Korzow-Richter et al. 2020), providing a rapid and cost-effective identification screening approach often to the species level.

Light Stable Isotopes

To investigate salmon diet, behaviour, and long-term environmental change, we will measure isotopic compositions (δ13C, δ15N, δ34S) of bone collagen of fish species identified via ZooMS. Stable isotope analyses are well-established as a method for reconstructing diet, ecology, and environmental conditions for fish populations (Guiry 2019). For instance, isotopic compositions of fish bones and scales have been used to assess differences in the behaviour and mobility of each salmon species today and in the past (e.g., Guiry et al. 2020a; Satterfield and Finney 2002). This method has the potential to provide insights into broad-scale patterns in fish ecology that may, in turn, shed light on long-term Tsimshian resource harvesting strategies.

Previous work with archaeological salmonids has been limited to small scale analyses due to difficulty with identifying species from salmon bones. This has meant that long-term isotopic studies have never been able to assess the extent to which salmon and other fish behaviour today reflects recent changes or long-term trends. By combining ZooMS and isotopic approaches, our analyses of archaeological fishbones will overcome earlier obstacles to provide the first deep-time and multi-species perspective on salmon ecology.

Isotopic approaches to understanding salmon behaviour and environmental changes are especially well suited to building long-term datasets that link both past and contemporary fish communities (Guiry and Hunt 2020). These approaches are thus powerful tools for exploring how recent changes in fisheries management practices (e.g., those associated with industrialization) and environmental changes (e.g., climate change, soil erosion) have altered long-term patterns in ecosystem health (e.g., Braje et al. 2017; Guiry et al. 2020b). Therefore, in order to connect our archaeological perspective with salmon behaviour today, our proposal for isotopic analysis of fish includes both baseline data from contemporary populations (fishbone and scale) and a pilot assessment of samples from archaeological contexts.

In this proposal, we will apply ZooMS to ca. 700 archaeological salmonid remains from four Metlakatla archaeological sites spanning 1,000-5,000 cal yr BP: GbTo-04 (Metlakatla Pass), GbTo-28, GbTo-31, GbTo-46 (Inner Harbour). Following ZooMS, we will apply isotopic analysis to 100 salmon samples from each identified species. These combined biomolecular and geochemical analyses will allow us to 1) reconstruct the relative importance of different salmon species obtained within the nearby Skeena river watershed; 2) identify broad patterns in marine habitat, salmon ecology and Tsimshian resource harvesting strategies through time; and 3) determine how Nine Tribes salmon fishing strategies developed and even responded to suspected oscillations in climate. 

This combined biomolecular and geochemical approach would be refined methodologically in the Nine Tribes region for application in other coastal regions, contexts and fish species.

Natal Streams

The identification of salmon natal streams, which has been raised to us as a priority of research by several Indigenous communities, is genetically and chemically complex. Salmon are anadromous fish and their high homing fidelity to their natal streams provides an isolating mechanism that allows genetically distinct populations to evolve within and between river and tributary systems.

Although distinct spawning populations can be identified using DNA, genomic stock identification techniques developed for some modern salmon populations (e.g., Beacham et al. 2018) require refinement for archaeological remains, as well as baseline genomic data from multiple local spawning populations. Additionally, different natal streams can potentially have unique biogeochemical "signatures" that could be used to link a fish from an archaeological context to its origin point. This potential connection needs to account for the tremendous ecological and inter-individual variation that these fish experience both before and after they leave their natal stream — being anadromous, salmon bones carry a significant chemical signature of their time in the ocean that can dilute the signal from their natal stream.

We propose a pilot project to develop natal stream analysis by 1) applying genomic analyses to a subset of archaeological salmon remains; and 2) investigating biogeochemical patterns in smolts (young fish) collected from relevant streams, to develop a proof-of-concept trial in this application.


  • Beacham TD, et al. 2017. Population and individual identification of Chinook salmon in British Columbia through parentage-based tagging and genetic stock identification with single nucleotide polymorphisms. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci., 75(7), 1096–1105.
  • Braje TJ, Rick TC, Szpak P, et al. 2017. Historical ecology and the conservation of large, hermaphroditic fishes in Pacific Coast kelp forest ecosystems. Science Advances, 3(2), e1601759.
  • Buckley M. 2017. Zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) collagen fingerprinting for the species identification of archaeological bone fragments, in: Giovas, CM, LeFebvre MJ (Eds.), Zooarchaeology in Practice: Case Studies in Methodology and Interpretation in Archaeofaunal Analysis. Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp. 227–247.
  • Guiry E. 2019. Complexities of stable carbon and nitrogen isotope biogeochemistry in ancient freshwater ecosystems: Implications for the study of past subsistence and environmental change. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 7: 313.
  • Guiry E, Hunt BPV. 2020. Integrating fish scale and bone isotopic compositions for ‘deep time’ retrospective studies. Marine Environmental Research, 160: 104982.
  • Guiry E, Royle TCA, Matson RG, et al. 2020a. Differentiating salmonid migratory ecotypes through stable isotope analysis of collagen: Archaeological and ecological applications. PLOS ONE, 15(4): e0232180.
  • Guiry E, Buckley M, Orchard T, et al. 2020b Deforestation caused abrupt shift in Great Lakes nitrogen cycle. Limnology and Oceanography, 65(8): 1921-1935.
  • Collins M, Buckley M, Grundy HH, et al. 2010. ZooMS: the collagen barcode and fingerprints. Spectroscopy Europe/World, 22(2): 6-10.

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