Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - A team of scientists exploring an underwater region of southern Southeast Alaska has discovered what might be the oldest stone fish weir ever found in the world.
The existence of the fish trap, which is thought to date to at least 11,100 years ago, was confirmed earlier this year by a group of university academics and Sunfish Inc., a robotics company specializing in undersea exploration and inspection.
The scientists, in partnership with Sealaska Heritage Institute, are using artificial intelligence to explore ancient, submerged caves in the region and to seek evidence of early human occupation.
The age of the weir, which was found in Shakan Bay on the west side of Prince of Wales Island, pushes back Native occupation of the region by more than 1,000 years, said SHI's Dr. Rosita Worl, noting previous scientific studies have confirmed that Indigenous people lived in Southeast Alaska at least 10,000 years ago.
“It further substantiates the great antiquity of Native people in Southeast Alaska. It also demonstrates that Native people had acquired knowledge about salmon behavior and migrations, then developed the technology to harvest a significant number of salmon,” Worl said.
“I am excited that we are able to use science and technology to substantiate our beliefs and oral traditions that say we have lived in Southeast Alaska since time immemorial and to incorporate our knowledge into these narratives,” she said.
One scientist affiliated with the project said she suspects that people were in Southeast Alaska a few thousand years prior to the construction of the weir.
Stone weirs, or tidal fish traps, were typically low arced walls made of boulders and sited across gullies. The weirs were built so that during high tide, the fish would swim over the stone walls, and as the tide ebbed, the fish would be trapped behind them, allowing fishers to catch them with nets, spears and other means.
Fish weirs — which also were made of other materials, such as reeds or wooden posts — were commonly used around the world in ancient times, and other stone weirs have been documented in Southeast Alaska. However, this is by far the oldest one ever found, and it is the first one ever confirmed underwater in North America.
The structure was first found in 2010 by use of side-scan sonar technology, which detects and images objects on the seafloor. Scientists suspected the vague image to be that of a stone weir, but mostly due to funding constraints, the team was not able to confirm their hypothesis through underwater exploration until earlier this year, said Dr. Kelly Monteleone, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary.
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