What 13,000 year old human footprints on a BC beach taught me about living in the moment

This, from the latest issue of Coast Mountain Culture, which can be hard to find on the ground – being such a luscious piece of print yumminess that it gets scooped up quickly. So, here’s one of the pieces I penned for the Holy issue.

Ancient human footprints unearthed on British Columbia’s Central Coast challenge the orthodox theory of the colonization of the Americas, and put a modern family’s stresses into perspective

Photo courtesy the Hakai Institute.


A Step Back in Time from Hakai on Vimeo.

Over the boy’s ruffle of white-blond hair, my husband is glaring at me. We’re engaged in the daily battle of unfinished to-do lists and who should do bed-and-bath duty in the last productive hours of the waning day.

The tag-teaming, crisis-managing, toddler-whispering, boss-appeasing, garden-tending, dinner-prepping daily cycle leaves us routinely scratching our heads. What are we doing wrong? Life can’t be this complicated, stressful, frazzled.

It’s less fraught at our secret place — tucked between two rivers — neither off the grid nor true wilderness, but off the radar, without running water, out of the fray of our increasingly edge-frayed lives.


There, if we bathe at all, it’s in river water warmed up on the stove. We read books by headlamp instead of skimming the endless ephemera of the internet. We sit on the beach and dig our fingers and toes idly into the sand as the boy plays games of his own making with driftwood and river-worn stones. We cook over open flame, our clothes and hair perfumed with smoke. We track the salmon runs. The alarm centres of our brains stand down, stop spurting hormones, cease triggering crisis mode.

Four hundred kilometres north of this place, along the same fissured coast, archaeologists with the Hakai Institute and University of Victoria have just found what might be the oldest human footprints in North America.

Hakai Institute and University of Victoria archaeologists Daryl Fedje (background, in red) and Duncan McLaren (foreground, in orange) at the dig site. Photo by Joanne McSporran.

Two adults and a child around a fire, over 13,000 years ago, left this tantalizing record of their existence in the soft clay off Calvert Island, a protected area where the shoreline and sea level have remained unusually constant for the 15,000 years since the last Ice Age.

The discovery goose pimples the flesh of the archeologists who found it, methodical professionals who rarely get glimpses of a human story, sifting more commonly for clues in rock, charcoal, animal bones, or seeds.

It enforces the cultural wisdom and historic relationship of the coastal First Nations to the land since time immemorial.

If the initial carbon dating proves out, it builds the case for a coastal migration theory of colonization of the Americas. The orthodoxy of hunter-gatherers crossing the Bering land bridge down along an ice-free corridor along the Rockies, would be replaced by an upstart theory that earlier coastal sea-farers, possibly paddling along a kelp highway, chased fish and whales, and travelled in small family bands, to settle and inhabit villages clustered up and down the coast: the original Cascadians.


For me, it is a text message from the past, a reminder from someone with the same evolutionary-selected physiology as me, to simmer down, little sister. All of my insomnia-inducing scorch-the-earth striving to live a noteworthy life, make some kind of mark, warrant a Wikipedia entry, leave a legacy, or just put the bloated memory sticks of iphone photos into some coherent order, matters for naught.

All that matters is here: this man, this child, this beach, this fire, this moon, this moment.

Add another stick to the fire. The hungry beasts will come prowling soon enough. Hunker down, tell some stories, find a way to be a family.


And just maybe one day, 10,000 years hence, when the next Ice Age has risen and wiped the earth clean again of our follies, a confused future naked ape with a mate and a child and a fire to tend will see this footprint of mine, and feel, somehow, grounded again; will think, for a fleeting second, “Look now, we have been this way before.”

This article first ran in the winter 2015–16 issue of Coast Mountain Culture magazine.

Coast Mountain Culture magazine — everything that’s fine about the planet Cascadia.

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