Oldest Fish Trap Ever Found in North America Discovered in Alaska

by Emily Morgan
Photo by: BriBar

Scientists in Alaska recently found the oldest fishing trap, dating 11,000 years ago. The team from both robotics company Sunfish Inc. and Sealaska Heritage Institute discovered the fishing trap in Shakan Bay on the west side of Prince of Wales Island. The weir was first found using sonar in 2010 but has now been confirmed as a former fish trap.

In addition, scientists have discovered other stone weirs around southeast Alaska. However, this discovery marks the oldest one ever found and the first to be confirmed underwater in North America.

Indigenous peoples in Alaska first used these fishing traps to catch fish with the use of low arched walls made of boulders or wooden posts. The fish would swim over the walls at high tide and get themselves trapped as the tide retreated.

This was one of the many hunting techniques used by the first humans. They entered America after hunter-gatherers entered North America from the North Asian Mammoth steppe with the Beringia land bridge.

“We established the date of the weir based on our current sea level reconstruction. The weir only functions when it is intertidal, and our current reconstruction of sea level changes has the depth as intertidal approximately 11,100 years ago,” said Kelly Monteleone. She is one of the researchers and an archaeologist at the University of Calgary.

She added: “Identification of the weir on the continental shelf also confirms that archaeological sites are preserved in this submerged environment.”

According to ThoughtCo, before this discovery, the oldest fish weir was the Sebasticook Fish Weir in Maine. There, a wooden stake was radiocarbon dated and found to be around 5,770 years old. In southeastern Alaska, others dated back 3,000 years ago.

Fishing trap discovery changes when researchers believe people first came to North America

“The entire vessel was bouncing with excitement when we realized it was indeed a weir,” Monteleone said. “Personally, I felt relief after a decade of saying this was a weir. Finally confirming the location was satisfying and exhilarating.”

This discovery is groundbreaking because researchers thought humans only crossed over from Asia into the Americas around 10,000 years ago. They concluded this based on DNA testing on the ancient remains of a young Native man. However, the new discovery of the weir combined with age means that we arrived around 1,100 years earlier than researchers first thought.

Some now believe Native residency may have been much older than that, as it would have taken time for people to understand their environment and find ways to catch fish.

“The extrapolated 11,100-year date is actually quite late,” Monteleone said. “I anticipate we will find evidence in Southeast Alaska that dates it to at least 16,000 years ago.”