Summary Prehistory and Ethnography of Olympic National Park, Washington
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Most of the Olympic National Park is very wet, rugged, heavily vegetated country; these qualities give the Park its unique character, which has been preserved as wilderness or restored to its natural state by the National Park Service. The same attributes have hampered archeological endeavors in the Park, so that except for on the coastal strip, few investigations have been undertaken. Highly significant research, however has been carried out at the Ozette Village Site on the Ozette Reservation immediately adjacent to the Park, and also at the mouth of the Hoko River and at the Manis Mastodon Site (near Sequim northeast of the Park). Data from these sites have provided much of the basis for this summary prehistory.

I have divided the prehistory of Olympic into several arbitrary time periods, since there really is not enough data at this time to warrant a more sophisticated breakdown. The Early Prehistoric Period (12,000—6000 B.P.) marks the presumed first arrival of human beings on the Olympic Peninsula. Evidence from the Manis Site indicates that people were in the area shortly after glacial recession at the close of the Pleistocene Epoch. At Manis, they apparently butchered a mastodon, (a now-extinct species of elephant) which had died at the edge of a glacial pond. They and their descendents (or other human groups) may have stayed or returned periodically to the area, since there are several cultural layers at the site spanning a 6000 year time period. Until more detailed evidence is found, we must assume that those early human residents of the Peninsula were hunting and gathering generalists who lived in small foraging groups and took whatever food whenever they could find it. One other site on the Peninsula, possibly dating to the Early Prehistoric Period, has been investigated at Quilcene near the mouth of Hood Canal. There, numerous chipped stone tools were found which support a hunting/gathering interpretation.

The Middle Prehistoric Period (6000—3000 B.P.) is poorly known on the Peninsula, perhaps because many sites have been inundated or destroyed by rising Holocene sea levels or lie buried and hidden in the closed forest. Several Peninsula sites may date to that period including the Deer Park Site in Olympic and the nearby Van Os site in Port Angeles. Well-dated findings from the Glenrose Cannery Site in British Columbia suggest that the Middle Prehistoric Period was one in which human populations were becoming progressively better-adapted to their environment. There is evidence for increased technological sophistication over the preceding period in the form of ground stone and shell adzes which indicate developed woodworking. Other lines of evidence, admittedly controversial, from Puget Sound and British Columbia suggest that both red cedar stands and Pacific salmon runs became well-established sometime during the Middle Prehistoric Period, and that regular and sustained exploitation of those important resources was then possible.

Because of certain technological traits, I have divided the Late Prehistoric (3000—200 B.P.) into two portions—the Early Maritime (3000—1000 B.P.) and the Prehistoric Northwest Coast Pattern (1000—200 B.P.). Both periods are characterized by a subsistence orientation undoubtedly very similar to that of the ethnographic period. Evidence shows that late prehistoric people on the Peninsula were engaged in deep sea and riverine fisheries, were gathering intertidal resources intensively, and were generating food surpluses for use during the winter.

The Hoko River site is a particularly important Early maritime site since normally perishable artifacts have been found there which greatly aid site interpretation. Net and weir fragments and bentwood fishhooks attest to highly developed fishing technology. Numerous simple chipped stone tools were found at Hoko, some still hafted into split cedar handles.

The final period for this long prehistoric continuum is the Prehistoric Northwest Coast Pattern. This period set the stage for the early historic cultural patterns observed at the time of white contact. Most of the shell midden sites on the Park's coastal strip date to the latter portion of the Late Prehistoric Period, and many have historic components as well. Here we see the full development of most, if not all, aspects of the Northwest Coast pattern, and see the virtual demise of chipped stone technology. All of the subsistence pursuits of the later period are evident by this time, including whaling. Large winter villages of cedar plank houses had become common. At Ozette, the waterlogged houses which have been excavated contain complete household assemblages composed largely of normally perishable artifacts, as well as a few metal tools. The patternings of artifacts indicate status differences. What is clearly evident is that the Northwest Coast Pattern was stable and showed long continuity from the past. It was a pattern which was flexible, highly adapted and which persisted into the historic, or ethnographic period.

Finally, in the ethnographic sketches, we have seen that several native groups lived and worked within the area now enclosed by the boundaries of Olympic National park. Aboriginal use of present-day Park lands included not only the coastal margin but also the interior river valleys and high elevation country.

The native people of the Olympic Peninsula possessed patterns of culture which were similar at certain very basic material and non-material levels. That is, they lived in cedar plank houses, used dugout canoes for transportation, and fished, hunted, and gathered wild food for a living. They were concerned with prestige and with getting into correct relationships with a spirit world which animated and directed their own lives and abilities and which intersected strategically with the resources around them. Beyond those very basic material and non-material levels, we see that the cultures of the native people of the Peninsula were as diverse as the rich and varied environment in which the people lived.

There was significant linguistic diversity on the Peninsula within which the several native groups found their particular ethnic identities. The Makah living in the Cape Flattery area were the southernmost Wakashan-speaking people and were in other ways more closely aligned culturally to native groups on Vancouver Island than to their neighbors on the Peninsula. The Chemakuan-speaking Hoh, Quileute and Chimacum were relatively small populations whose language family was restricted to the Olympic Peninsula. Chemakuan-speakers may have once been more widely distributed on the Peninsula. Finally, the Salish language family is represented by several groups, including the Klallam, Twana, Quinault and Queets people. Salish languages are widely distributed throughout the Southern Northwest Coast.

The economic strategies of Olympic Peninsula native groups were determined largely by the food resources available within their particular territories. Thus, we see that whaling and halibut fishing were mainstays of the Makah economy, while elsewhere on the Peninsula salmon fishing was preeminent. A wide variety of other animals and plants were available for exploitation although their distribution was not uniform across the environment. Such uneven distribution both in time and space was in part responsible for the generally fluid social and political structure of most Olympic Peninsula groups.

Land mammal hunting was also important in the subsistence strategies of several Olympic Peninsula groups such as the upper Elwha Klallam, the Skokomish and Vance Creek Twana, the Quinault, the Queets, the Hoh and the Quileute. Among the latter four groups, it is clear that land mammal hunting was of particular importance to the people living upriver.

What were the reasons for upriver movement? One possible explanation is that population growth supported by the generally abundant downstream food resources required the establishment of new settlements when the population of an older settlement became too large for its sustaining area. Another possible motivation for the settlement of marginally productive upriver areas might have been the desire to escape the immense stresses brought on by white contact. Upriver areas on the Peninsula were less accessible and (initially at least) were not of particular value to the whites. Whatever the causes, upstream settlements and their economic orientation provide a glimpse at how a human population can become progressively articulated to its environment and experience culture change in the process of adapting to that environment.

Anthropological research is currently being undertaken in Olympic National Park which is intended to enhance our understanding of how, when, and where prehistoric and early historic native people used the Park land and its resources. Enhanced understanding is not only a boon to the anthropological community, it is of interest to the public. Greater understanding of aboriginal land use should help sensitize Park Service personnel to the values of cultural resources and augment the Park's interpretive programs.

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Last Updated: 03-Nov-2009