Archaeologists discover that ancient Native American village survived five tsunamis
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Posted: April 25, 2019

Archaeologists analyzing the remains uncovered from an ancient Native American village in present-day Port Angeles, Washington, found evidence that the village was hit by as many as five tsunamis.

A team of researchers from Portland State University, Western Washington University and the University of Rhode Island found that households were rebuilt and reoccupied after tsunami inundations, a sign of their resilience in the face of earthquakes, climate change and other forces.

 The researchers say their findings shed new light on local earthquake impacts and can help prepare the public for future seismic events.

"When you have direct evidence of a community that experienced these tsunamis and earthquakes, you better believe that Port Angeles should be ready because they're in the zone," said Virginia Butler, a professor of anthropology at PSU and the project's principal investigator.  "But the other lesson is that if you're prepared, you can come back."

The 2,700-year-old traditional village and burial ground of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, known as Ciwicen (also named Tse-whit-zen and pronounced ch-wheet-son), was rediscovered in 2003 by excavators during construction of a large dry dock. It's one of the largest Native American villages ever discovered in Washington and holds great significance to the tribe. Native peoples occupied the site area until the early 20th century when they were forced to move to the recently created reservation. The state eventually abandoned the costly construction project, but the discovery turned into one of the most important archaeological finds in the Pacific Northwest and provided the Tribe a chance to re-connect with their traditional village.  

In the first major research project to come out of the excavation, archaeologists from PSU and other universities analyzed 1.2 million animal remains and reconstructed plank houses from remnants of posts, walls, hearths and trenches. The large, diverse sample gave them new insights into the ways that the animals, and in turn, people responded to recurring catastrophic events. The team's findings were recently published in a special section of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, "Tracking human ecodynamics at Čḯxwicən, a 2700 year old coastal forager village in Northwest North America."

"Perhaps the simplest takeaway message here is one of resilience in the socio-ecological system," Butler said. "After each natural disaster, people returned, rebuilt and adapted to changed environmental and social circumstances.

"They were able to live there for close to 3,000 years and the only thing that broke their occupation periodically were these earthquake and tsunami events," she continued. "To have a community live sustainably for that long is a testament to their relationship with the local world."

Among the team's key findings:

  • The Klallam people relied on more than 100 species of shellfish, fish, birds and mammals for millennia. The breadth of resources available to them and their knowledge about where and when to get certain creatures contributed to their resilience.
  • Records show that the village was overtopped by tsunamis five times. Despite analysis showing that shellfish and fish were acutely affected, the people were extremely adaptable. There's evidence that a tsunami caused one plankhouse to collapse, only for people to rebuild a new one at the same location with a slightly different floor plan.

Butler said a major goal was to determine how the people socially negotiated environmental challenges. Animal records from two households allowed the team to compare whether the tsunamis led people toward more cooperation or more independence in their quest for food.

 After the tsunami, the two households appeared to have worked more cooperatively gathering shellfish than before, while fishing practices became more autonomous between the two. Of all the animals, use of birds changed the least after the tsunami. People in one household liked to catch inshore birds, while the other household favored offshore birds. The pattern continued after the tsunami, suggesting the two households maintained a distinct identity or cultural knowledge about which birds to pursue, even after a tsunami and house rebuilding.

Butler said the findings can help provide context for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe's planned curation facility that will eventually house the artifacts from the excavation. She said the animal histories can also help tribal biologists and state wildlife agencies as they look to restore some habitats in the severely degraded Port Angeles Harbor and surrounding coastal areas.

More broadly, the study provides coastal communities with more detailed knowledge about local earthquake impacts than existed before. 

The project team also included Sarah Sterling from PSU, Sarah Campbell and Michael Etnier from Western Washington University, and Kristine Bovy from the University of Rhode Island. The team will be in Port Angeles May 3 to give a talk about their findings. The lecture, scheduled for 7 p.m. in Peninsula College's Little Theater, is free and open to the public.

Photo captions: At top, Portland State University students work in a lab analyzing some of the fish bones unearthed at the Ciwicen site. At bottom, an up-close look at a herring vertebrae. (Photograph by Anthony Hofkamp, courtesy of the WSDOT, Ciwicen Site, Cat # WS-9144.99.99.23)