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27 May, 2011

Backroads: The Kelp Highway

On the Kelp Way in Clallam County, looking over at Vancouver Island.
How about instead of a backroad, I follow the first road this time? The stream so main that it was traveled by the first people to head east into the Western Hemisphere. For most of my life, this was presumed to have been the Bering Land Bridge, the rim of Beringia, a tectonic plate where some dry land peeked up when glaciers borrowed the ocean's topmost fathoms. People followed game across the arc of dry land, and ended up in the New World, where they made big fluted spearpoints for the convenience of archaeologists, who would name them after the town of Clovis, named after the first King of the Franks, who never conquered anything within a few kilomiles of New Mexico. What these people called themselves, nobody knows, but it was probably the same as nearly every other culture that has had the sense to avoid citification: "People."

It does not much matter, since Clovis people came along after others. Earlier sites have emerged over the years, and though plenty of people argue against the 40,000 year old dates in Monte Verde, hardly anybody disputes that 15,000 or so (feel free to give or take on the order of a millenium or two) is OK. In the old days, this was a problem because the period when the land Beridge was exposed was later. But now we know that people lived here before they could walk here. It already looks ridiculous and bigoted to espouse such an utterly baseless theory as "People could not get here except on foot. The land route was not available until 11,000 years ago. Ergo the hemisphere was settled after 11,000 years ago. Oh, and aren't these spearpoints cool?"

Sure, Clovis points are cool, but you know what's cooler? This:

This is an older type of point that has been found along the Pacific Coast. In the California islands, it was found along with a lot of bird bones, and is presumed to have been used for hunting them. The most common name for these is "crescent points," because they have that shape, sorta. What they look even more like is half of the bottom of a cowry shell, but the point is that they are every bit as beautiful as a Clovis point, and from a functional standpoint may be even more elegant (there are a bunch of Clovis points that would be useless for hunting, they are so big). 

The photo comes from an article here: Link

I don't know a lot more about this than you (maybe less), but the idea in that article and elsewhere, that the people who made these artifacts settled the New World by boat, is hard to resist. Kelp grows continuously enough along the shores of the North Pacific that long open-water voyages are not necessary (also: not precluded) to get all the way to California. Kelp forests are incredibly rich in food, and their wave-dampening fronds offer canoe people the respite of smoother water. They offer access to shellfish clinging to rocks that would be extremely difficult and risky to get at on foot. They take People alongshore until they find a nice place to stop for a while. Or even stop forever, set up a village and stay. Even those People, however reluctant they may be to set out on a thousand mile trip, venture back into kelpy waters regularly for everything from the kelp itself to fish, birds, molluscs, pinnipeds, crustaceans, and all the other orders of life stacked in the deep larder of a kelp forest. 

Kelp Highway Off-Ramp.
Glaciers plan to return still more of the water they borrowed during the Pleistocene, and we can look forward to more drowned land. By the time we run out of petrochemicals, we may have difficulty walking between hills that have become islands. Kelp and kin will still be there, topography will become bathymetry, and the seaweeds will cling to it. Even if (OK, when) the big one hits, the Subduction Zone quake that drops pieces of crust deep below sea level, then kelp thallus will respond with prodigious growth; the kelp forest will just get taller, more fecund. If we adapt to reality, and don't insist on living by some back-asswards theory, we'll be alright too.

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