Around 600 AD, hunter-gatherers built pit houses in Fraser Canyon in south-central British Columbia.
Some 80 pit houses were dug into the ground, with mounded roofs and packed floors. The homes were then occupied continuously for around 350 years, their occupants packing new floors and rebuilding roofs every few decades.
The layers are recreated on the wall of the University of Montana Anthropology Department in a large-scale diorama of dirt and stone floors stacked on top of each other over hundreds of years.
“You can imagine generation upon generation adding more sedimentary layers,” Professor Anna Prentiss said.
One pit house in particular has been Prentiss’s focus of study. It sat empty for around 800 years before descendents moved back in. The last time it was used was in the 1850s.
“The styles of tools and sources of stone are identical from 600 years ago to 160 years ago,” Prentiss said. She could pinpoint this by dating Venetian beads (circa 1851) found in the house.
These ancient methods lasting for hundreds of years are what fascinate Prentiss, an archaeologist and anthropologist who was named the newest Regents Professor by President Seth Bodnar this month.
“I think the Regents Professors are a useful resource for the president and provost,” Prentiss said. “We’re a source of feedback and ideas as people who’ve dedicated ourselves to this university.
“And, of course, it’s lovely recognition.”
Prentiss has been at UM since 1995, becoming a full-time professor in 2009. She’s written six books, is the editor of the Society of American Archaeology magazine and is well known for her collaborative research with Native American groups in British Columbia and Montana.
Her interest in ancient peoples began during her childhood in Florida.
“My parents encouraged me to do anything I wanted, so it was either going to be dinosaurs or early humans, and early humans won out.”
Her interest in tribes and ancient peoples in the Northwest and Arctic regions has extended to climate change study in Greenland and Alaska. But the pit house village in Fraser Canyon has been her main study since 1999, with team after team of students accompanying Prentiss to the site.
It began with the early 20th century writer James Teit, whose observations of the tribe included their highly unusual class system.
“What we’ve been studying is why that came to be,” Prentiss said. “We’ve been, in a nutshell, studying what we call the evolution of complex hunter-gatherers.”
Most people think of hunter-gatherers as small bands of people who work together to hunt and gather food, which is shared democratically.
But at the Fraser Canyon site, where the population ballooned into the thousands due to the huge salmon run through the region, the wealth created classes in the society.
“They had clans and ranking among houses,” Prentiss said. “It’s measurable in material wealth.”
That hierarchy between rich and poor manifested itself in access to the best fishing, hunting and berry-picking sites.
But it all fell apart, with the village slowly abandoned over a century as the salmon stopped coming, likely due to climate change, Prentiss said.
The Xwisten tribe, who are the descendants of the hunter-gatherers who lived in Fraser Canyon, have worked with Prentiss and her student groups on research and building historical sites out of the pit houses.
The tribe is planning on building walkways and a dome ceiling around the pit house village so it can be viewed as part of a tour that includes traditional salmon fishing techniques and a model pit house reconstructed to look like it would 1,000 years ago.
The salmon fishing, by the way, also hasn’t changed much, aside from some of the materials used to make the nets, which hang at the end of 20-foot wooden handles.
“They pretty much fish the same way,” Prentiss said. “These guys will tie themselves off, lean into the roaring rapids, and sweep for salmon.”
Prentiss is going back one more time before they close the site off.
“Very typical of archaeologists, we didn’t dig everything,” she said. “There’s still more to do.”