Zooarcheology of a 3,500-year-old Fishery on the Katmai Coast

Rhea Hood, National Park Service
An archaeological site on Amalik Bay.
Amalik Bay and archeological excavation units at the Little Takli Island site in 2009.


The heaps of fish bone were coated in a black greasy residue. Most of the bones were Pacific cod, the others were sculpins, Pacific halibut, and only a smattering of vertebrae from salmon and Pacific spiny dogfish (Table 1).

Table 1. Percentage of fish bones uncovered by family.
Family of Fish Number of Bones Percent
Gadidae (Pacific cod and walleye pollock) 11,595 55.77
Cottidae (sculpins) 1,935 9.32
Pleuronectidae (Pacific halibut and other flatfishes) 1,228 5.89
Salmonidae (salmon and trout) 154 0.74
Hexagrammidae (greenlings) 140 0.67
Squalidae (Pacific spiny dogfish) 50 0.24
Sebastidae (rockfishes) 35 0.17
(bones too fragmented to conclusively identify)
5,657 27.20

The salmon bones were so rare that each vertebra was a surprise when it materialized out of piles of fish bones on melamine lunch trays in the zooarcheology lab. It was exhilarating to know that I was working with a collection of food leftovers so old that it predated the salmon surplus revolution. It was a surplus of cod.

These cod and halibut were so large they had to have been caught in the open sea. I had proof in my hands that by 3,500 years ago, members of this ancient Alaskan society regularly ventured far from the Katmai coast in boats to deep sea fish, and they knew exactly what they were doing. These bones would teach us more about the ingenuity of people who were in Alaska long before us.

Little Takli Island

Over 20,000 soot-covered fish bones and fish bone fragments were unpacked from an archeological excavation that was only 6.5 square feet (2 m2), and in a layer tightly compressed to roughly 16 inches (40 cm) thick. Much more of this larger refuse pile already eroded into the bay as sea level has risen, and the remainder is still unexcavated (National Park Service 2010).

The Little Takli Island site (XMK-031) produced unexpected findings—almost no fishing tools among all the fish bones. The site has two distinct layers of artifacts from two different periods. The first layer of artifacts dates to 3,570 calibrated years before present (cal BP; 1620 BC; laboratory identification number Beta-256599) and the second layer has a later date of 1,010 cal BP (AD 940; laboratory identification number Beta-256600). The island is over half a mile (1 km) long and has three other archeological sites on it.

Amalik Bay Archeological District National Historic Landmark

The Little Takli Island site is one of 28 pre-contact archeological sites in the Amalik Bay Archeological District National Historic Landmark. Amalik Bay seems to overflow with islands, small and large, that are dotted with archeological sites. These sites are the ancient remains of villages, middens, and scatters of stone tools.

The Amalik Bay Archeological District National Historic Landmark is part of Katmai National Park and Preserve. National Park Service archeologists, and their academic counterparts, are salvaging what data they can from a handful of the most endangered sites as bit by bit the stone and bone artifacts erode into the ocean. The Little Takli Island site is one of only four archeological sites in the National Historic Landmark that have been examined in detail. Their research pieces together a story that goes back well over 6,000 years (Clark 1977, Dekin and Green 1993, Schaaf 2007 and 2009, National Register of Historic Places 2005).

When Cod Was King (and Not Salmon)

The first step any zooarcheologist must take is to identify the animals present and get an idea of their relative distributions. I identified the taxonomic classifications of the fish bones present by using modern fish skeletons from a reference collection to compare with the archeological fish bones. I found that 55.77 percent (n=11,595) of the fish bones were from the Gadidae family—cod. Most of these were Pacific cod (n=7,790) with just a handful of walleye pollock (Theragra chalcogramma, n=108; Hood 2013). This high frequency of a single species paired with much lower frequencies of a wide variety of animal species (other fish, sea and land mammals, and birds) shows that Pacific cod was the main food for the people who stayed at the Little Takli Island site.

I followed three lines of evidence to identify fishing methods and techniques used to catch all these cod: the size of the fish told me their age and, thus, their habitats; the frequency of each taxonomic class of fish told me where people spent most of their efforts; and ethnographic and historical records of fishing methods for these same fish provided other information.

Catching the Big One

To find how big the Pacific cod were when they were alive, I used comparative formulae to estimate their length and weight based on the size of their head bones. The constants in the formulae were developed by measuring live Pacific cod then dissecting them and measuring their bones (Orchard 2003). The variables were measurements of a specific selection of bones from the archeological collection (Hood 2013).

To estimate the cod’s length, I used the equation: Y = α + βX. A fish’s length has a linear relationship to the size of its bones. Y is the fish’s length, α and β are constants from modern fish, and X is the measurement I took of the archeological specimen (Orchard 2003). A fish’s weight has an exponential relationship to the size of its bones, instead of a linear relationship as with its length. So, the linear regression needed a logarithmic transformation to resolve this exponential relationship which gives us Y = αXβ (Orchard 2003).

The average length of the archeological Pacific cod is 28 inches (71 cm). At this length they are over three years old and mature. From late winter to early spring, mature Pacific cod migrate nearshore and by mid-summer they move to deeper water where they dwell near the ocean floor. The largest cod in the sample was 39 inches (99 cm) long and 27 pounds (12 kg) when it was caught (Hood 2013).

A study of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) capture methods conducted in 2000 was used as an analogue to compare with the Little Takli Island archeological collection. In this study, the researchers found that 90 percent of the Atlantic cod caught with hook and line fishing were between 22 to 33 inches (56-84 cm) long (Huse et al. 2000). The Little Takli Island cod lengths had a strikingly similar distribution of fish sizes and 86 percent of them were between 24 and 35 inches (61-89 cm) long (Hood 2013).

Another big fish from the deep sea is Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis). Nearly six percent (5.89%; n=1,228) of the fish bones in the collection were Pleuronectidae (flatfishes; Hood 2013). Many were smaller, nearshore species of flatfishes, like flathead sole (Hippoglossoides elassodon; n=19), butter sole (Isopsetta isolepis; n=17), northern rock sole (Lepidopsetta polyxystra; n=135), and others. Almost half of the flatfish bones were halibut (n=590), and they were observably much larger than all other fishes in the collection. This told me they were mature and came from deeper waters, probably around 980 feet (300 m) deep (Mecklenburg et al. 2002) in Shelikof Strait.

Catching a Slew of the Big One

A whopping 75 percent (n=20,794) of the animal bones from the archeological site were fishes. Over a third (n=7,790) of the fishes were Pacific cod. Because of the fragility of fish bone, 27.20 percent (n=5,675) of the bones in the collection were broken fragments that could not be identified (Hood 2013). If the unidentified fish bone fragments are “discounted,” then Pacific cod were 51.46 percent of the fish.

The other Gadidae species were walleye pollock, but there were only 108 of their bones in the entire collection. They were estimated to have an average length of 21 inches (53 cm). This would put them in the same habitat zones as Pacific cod. This told me that the pollock were bycatch, used as bait, or had arrived in the stomachs of larger prey such as seals or even larger fish.

The same stories could be told of the greenlings and spiny dogfish in the collection. They too were less than 1% each of the fish bones (Hood 2013) and they live in the same habitat zones as Pacific cod during the spring and summer.

The sculpin bones show the variation in people’s diets and ways of getting food. Sculpins prefer living in rocky tidepools nearshore, and catching them requires different tools than deep-sea fishing. Sculpins were the second-most frequently identified fish in the collection (9.32 percent), and were mostly red or yellow Irish Lord species (Hemilepidotus spp.; Hood 2013).

The salmon bones are trickier to interpret. Salmon bones are soft and can become even softer after spawning, making it likely that only their vertebrae will survive in the archaeological record. Still, there were only 154 salmon bones (0.74 percent), much fewer than sculpin (Hood 2013). The low frequency was evidence that the salmon were caught as bycatch, came to the site in the stomachs of larger prey, or were only occasionally targeted while Little Takli Island was occupied.

an ancient bone hook used for fishing.
Composite fishhook shank carved from bone from the Little Takli Island site.


Fishing Tackle

Fishermen and women can control the type and size of fish they catch by where and how they fish. The evidence for fishing equipment at the archeological site is sparse. Fishing lines decompose and hooks carved from bone wear down, break, and disappear from the archeological record. But one bone composite fishhook shank was uncovered during excavation and a handful of large plummet-style weights sculpted from cobblestones were scattered around the site (National Park Service 2010). Were these the tools used to catch cod here 3,500 years ago?

Documentation of traditional method for catching cod, flatfishes, and sculpins in Alaska, describe a method of placing fishhooks along a single hand-thrown fishing line or along a horizontal bar attached to the fishing line (Stanek 2000). Plummets are fastened to key points along the fishing line (Stanek 2000).

The large stone plummets could also have been used to catch Pacific halibut in the past. In the Pacific Northwest, halibut hooks are usually U-shaped or V-shaped, and the stones hold the fishing line in the water column so that the hooks are just a few inches above the seafloor (Stewart 1982). The plummets might have also come in handy for bottom-dwelling sculpins, rockfishes, and small flatfishes.

The only way to find more fishing tackle would be to excavate more of the site. However, that wouldn’t guarantee that artifacts would be preserved whole or have not been lost to the sea.

What if it was just this small part of the Little Takli Island site that held a lot of cod? I needed to find other archeological sites in Alaska that had similar faunal collections that had already been studied. I found three of them.

Mink Island Site (XMK-030), Amalik Bay; Horseshoe Cove Site (KOD-415); and the Rice Ridge Site (KOD-363), Kodiak Island

The Mink Island site provides an intriguing comparison. The fish bones from this large village site were extensively examined by a doctoral student for her dissertation. McKinney (2013) found many of the same fish species as those found on Little Takli Island and she estimated the size for Pacific cod in that collection, too.

The islands in Amalik Bay are heavily eroded. The Mink Island site is only 109 yards (100 m) west of the Little Takli Island site, and it is likely that both islands were once part of a larger Little Takli Island before rising sea levels created the smaller islets in the bay (Crowell and Mann 1996).

The two layers of occupation at the Mink Island site both predated and postdated the occupation I was studying from the Little Takli Island site. Mink Island was used from 6,300 to 4,000 cal BP (Schaaf 2007 and 2009). The early occupation at Little Takli Island was from 3,570 to 3,370 cal BP (Hood 2013). After a break, the Mink Island site was used again in 2,000 to 500 cal BP (Schaaf 2007 and 2009) and the Little Takli Island site was used again during that period around 1010 cal BP. Together these sites span the archeological eras known as the Ocean Bay traditions I and II (7,500 to 4,000 years ago), the Early and Late Kachemak traditions (4,000 to 800 years ago), and the Koniag tradition (800 to 300 years ago, Table 2; Clark 1974, Clark 1977, Dumond 2011, Fitzhugh 2003, Saltonstall et al. 2006). This allows for comparisons of the average size of cod caught, and the number of cod relative to other fish, over a long time. During the Ocean Bay period of occupation at Amalik Bay, the main source of protein were sea mammals caught nearshore. The fish species found from that period—sculpins, small flatfishes, and smaller Pacific cod—can be found in the same nearshore areas where sea mammals were harvested (McKinney 2013). As the Kachemak tradition progressed, there is a marked increase in Pacific cod bones in Amalik Bay archeological sites that correlates with a decrease in harvesting sea mammals. The frequency and length of Pacific cod harvested peaks during the Early Kachemak. Pacific cod is then gradually replaced by an increase in salmon and sculpin. The increase in salmon harvest continues through the following Koniag period. The changes in size and quantity of Pacific cod captured around Amalik Bay over time may reflect environmental changes or differences in fishing methods.

Table 2. Archeological tool traditions of the Gulf of Alaska.
Archeological Tool Tradition Time of Existence
Ocean Bay I 7,500 to 5,500 years ago
Ocean Bay II 5,500 to 4,000 years ago
Early Kachemak 4,000 to 2,700 years ago
Late Kachemak or Norton (Katmai area) 2,700 to 800 years ago
Thule (Katmai area) or Koniag (Kodiak area) 800 to 200 years ago
Western contact Over 200 years ago

The Rice Ridge site (KOD-363) on the eastern coast of Kodiak Island was used between 6,000 and 3,900 cal BP. Sea mammals, Pacific cod, and salmon were important parts of the diet (Kopperl 2003). The results of the Rice Ridge study reflected the increase in harvesting Pacific cod around the same time that the Little Takli Island site was occupied (Kopperl 2003).

The Horseshoe Cove site (KOD-415) is across the strait from Amalik Bay on Uganik Island in the Kodiak Islands. Hays (2007) examined the fish bone from the 3,850 to 3,400 cal BP occupation. Like the Little Takli Island site, Pacific cod dominated other species in the collection. What made the site even more fascinating was the discovery of large fire pits lined with cobble stones and filled with wood charcoal. The archeologists who excavated the site wonder if these were large earth ovens for smoking fish (Hays 2007, Saltonstall et al. 2006).

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Zooarcheology of Amalik Bay Archeological District reveals a broad range of sea and land animals that were gathered over thousands of years. Through their bones we can see patterns in the animals’ sizes, ages, and abundance. There are no clear-cut answers when trying to unravel events from so long ago, but archeological interpretations can become more precise over the course of time as archeologists and other scientists gather more information about people and the environments of the past.

The animal bones from archeological sites around the Gulf of Alaska show that the people who settled the region more than 7,000 years ago practiced a distinct sea mammal hunting tradition. Gradually, people concentrated their efforts on catching more Pacific cod, which seemed to peak during the Early Kachemak tradition (between 4,000 to 2,700 years ago; Hays 2007, Hood 2013, Kopperl 2003, McKinney 2013). The Late Kachemak and Koniag traditions that followed (between 2,700 to 800 years ago and from 800 years ago to after Western contact) are well known as the period of developing the salmon surplus traditions that Alaska thrives on to the present day.

People depended on Pacific cod long before the salmon surplus. It’s still one of the most popular seafoods distributed all over the world. You probably have some in your freezer right now and there’s a good chance it’s from Alaska.


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Part of a series of articles titled Alaska Park Science - Volume 19, Issue 1 - Below the Surface: Fish and Our Changing Underwater World.

Katmai National Park & Preserve

Last updated: May 29, 2020