Resilience of an ancient people
Author: Cristina Rojas
Posted: September 24, 2019

Archaeologists explore the remains of a Native American village in Washington that survived multiple tsunamis.

FOR ALMOST 3,000 years, the Native American village of Čḯxwicәn was washed away by as many as five tsunamis. Yet, its people rebuilt each time.

Archaeologists from Portland State University, Western Washington University and the University of Rhode Island have studied the remains of the village located near present-day Port Angeles, Washington. They 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," says 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."

Čḯxwicәn (pronounced ch-wheet-son) is the 2,700-year-old ancestral village of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe—first built at approximately the same time Rome was founded. A traditional village, it included a sacred burial ground, which holds great significance for the tribes’ descendants. Native peoples occupied the site until the early 20th century, when they were displaced and eventually forced to move to a reservation in the Elwha Valley west of Port Angeles.


In 2003, excavators uncovered the village during construction of a large dry dock. It was one of the largest Native American villages ever discovered in Washington. The state eventually abandoned the costly construction project, but the discovery turned into one of the most important archaeological finds in the Pacific Northwest with more than 12,000 artifacts and over a million animal remains discovered, as well as the remnants of large plank houses. More than 300 human remains were also unearthed and have since been reburied by the tribe on the site.

"We didn't set out to find the largest village in Washington state; we happened to come across it," says Sarah Sterling, an assistant professor of anthropology who, at the time, was hired as a project geoarchaeologist at the excavation site.

There were signs of possible past tsunamis during the initial analysis, but it wasn't until Butler and Sterling secured funding from the National Science Foundation in 2012 that they could take a deep dive into those findings.

IN THE FIRST major research project to come out of the excavation, faculty and students from Portland State, Western Washington University and the University of Rhode Island analyzed the animal remains and the evidence of plank houses: 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 published in a 2019 special section of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, "Tracking Human Ecodynamics at Čḯxwicәn, 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 says "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 adds. "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 forage for certain creatures contributed to their resilience.

Analysis shows that shellfish and fish were acutely affected by the tsunamis, but the people were extremely adaptable. There's evidence that a tsunami caused one plank house to collapse, only for people to rebuild a new one at the same location with a slightly different floor plan. One house was discovered to have been occupied for 800 years and another for 500 years during obviously less volatile ecological times.

There were multiple indicators of tsunamis, says Sterling. “The clearest was a layer of sand.” The marine sand washed over wrecked houses and hearths and was preserved when the village was rebuilt on top of it.

The researchers submitted 102 samples from the site for radiocarbon dating. They noticed there were periodic gaps in the dates they got back. Sterling says those gaps correlate with known major earthquakes in the geologic past.

Previous research by geologists in the local coastal marshes found evidence of big tsunamis every 200 to 800 years with the first happening around 1,600 years ago, which correlates with the evidence at Čḯxwicәn.

"It's rare to be able to see how a place evolves over 2,700 years," says Sterling.

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

After a tsunami, the two households appeared to have worked more cooperatively gathering shellfish than before, while their fishing practices became more autonomous. Of all the animals, the 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 that the two households maintained a distinct identity or cultural knowledge about which birds to pursue, even after a tsunami and house rebuilding.

 Butler says 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 says 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.

Butler says the project and their collaborations with the tribe created an opportunity for cultural healing.

"Archaeology, when done right and with respect, can help heal the hurt that came about through colonialism," she says. "They were reunited with their own heritage. Archaeology is the physical evidence that they were there, and the scale of the project brought to the fore that tribal primacy that had not been in people's consciousness."

Cristina Rojas is a media relations specialist in the PSU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Captions: Plank houses depicted in a mural at the Feiro Marine Life Center in Port Angeles, Washington.