Scientists debate when the first humans migrated into the Columbia River Basin. According to John Eliot Allen, author, geologist and long-time professor at Portland State University, there are two well-accepted theories: the early arrivers and the late arrivers. The early arrivers would have come across the Bering Strait, or a land bridge, known as Beringia for its locale, from eastern Asia more than 30,000 years ago. The late arrivers theory holds that humans made this journey about 12,000 years ago.
Evidence of human settlement uncovered near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1930s prompted the theory of the “Clovis People” who are believed to have migrated by land from Asia about 25,000 years ago or earlier. The Clovis People would have been early arrivers. The Bering Strait land bridge, which the Clovis People might have used, appeared and reappeared over time as the glaciers of the last Ice Age periodically grew and retreated. Allen believed that humans were living south of the ice during the late Wisconsin time (20,000-30,000 years ago), the period of maximum ice advance, thus siding with the early-arrivers theory. But he also wrote that the only evidence in the Northwest was a campsite containing charred bones and stone artifacts that was discovered at the site of The Dalles Dam. Also, a single stone artifact believed to be from the era was discovered in a gravel bar at the mouth of the John Day River.”
The late-arrivers theory gained favor following the discovery in 2003 of a change in the DNA sequence of the Y chromosome of Siberian men that is estimated to have occurred 15,000 to 18,000 years ago. American Indians have the same DNA marker, dating to approximately the same time. This suggests the Americas first were settled 15,000 to 18,000 years ago. Also, other researchers have documented similarities in the rich profusion of native languages among peoples of the northeastern and northwestern Pacific coasts.
Immigrations at that time likely would have been by land over the Beringia bridge. Some of the most intriguing evidence of land migrations and shore-based cultures of that era has been uncovered in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia. More precisely, it came from about a mile offshore in Juan Perez Sound. The evidence was a small, triangular-shaped piece of basalt that had been shaped into a blade. In 1998 researchers for the Geographical Survey of Canada, who had been mapping the sea floor for four years, identified the basalt blade in a bucket of muck winched up from the sea floor. The blade was at least 10,000 years old, and its discovery is consistent with Haida Indian legends that the islands once were at least twice as large as they are today and that people lived along the shore, probably to be close to salmon, seals and other foods from the sea. Then according to the Haida, a “flood tide woman” forced them to move to higher ground. This is consistent with the geologic record. Some 9,000-10,000 years ago, Ice Age glaciers melted, the islands shrank and Beringia disappeared.
The stone blade may mark the site of an ancient village. It might have been left by ancestors of the Haida, or it might have been chiseled by a much earlier people. While the origin of the blade is not clear, it is nonetheless evidence of human habitation of the islands and seashore in the vicinity of present-day British Columbia at a time when the sea level was much lower and travel between Siberia and North America was possible by land.
Humans appear to have taken up residence along the river at a later time, perhaps about 1,000 years later according to artifacts. This would have been about 8,000 to 10,000 years before the present time. Archaeological evidence suggests salmon were not a primary food source for these people. Salmon are seasonal in the river, and these early inhabitants lacked the technology to catch, prepare and preserve fish — techniques that would be developed by later, and less nomadic, generations. Nevertheless, the first Columbia River residents, harvested salmon and left the remains for modern archaeologists to ponder.
Near the historic fishing site known as the Long Narrows of the Columbia River, in the area of present-day The Dalles, Oregon, archaeologists dug into 10,000-year-old deposits that yielded 125,000 salmon vertebrae, large numbers of stone and bone tools and a great variety of bird and mammal bones. There also is evidence that humans lived in the Marmes Rock Shelter along the lower Snake River at about the same time. The Marmes site now is under water behind Lower Monumental Dam.
Archaeological evidence suggests that by about 3,000 years before the present time, humans had discovered and mastered the art of preserving fish by drying or smoking it. This increased the economic value of salmon by allowing the fish to be captured and preserved during periods of abundance and consumed later during times when other foods were scarce, as in winter and early spring. A stable food supply such as dried and packed salmon allowed humans to be less nomadic and establish permanent settlements.
The ancestry of these early inhabitants remains something of a mystery, although archaeologists believe many migrated from Asia via Beringia. However, the accidental discovery of a human skull in the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, in July 1996, a skull that proved to be 9,300 years old, suggests that at least some of the earliest inhabitants of the Columbia River Basin migrated here from eastern North America. That’s because the skull, and related skeletal remains found near it (there was a stone projectile embedded in the pelvis), had distinctly Caucasian — as opposed to Asian — features. Because the remains were found in the river, within the pool created by McNary Dam, underwater and just off shore — a boy discovered the skull by stepping on it — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam and reservoir, took possession of the remains. A legal battle ensued as Indian tribes attempted to claim the remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in order to prevent further testing and bury the remains according to tribal customs.
Numerous historical and scientific examinations were conducted as the legal claims were litigated. Ultimately, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February 2004 that the remains were not unequivocally Native American and therefore would not be given to the tribal litigants, and that testing of the remains could continue. In July 2005, a team of scientists from around the country studied the bones, which remain in the Burke Museum in Seattle and legally are the property of the Corps of Engineers.