This Centuries-Old Geoduck Shell May Rewrite the Rules About Who Can Harvest the Fancy Clam

A remnant from a meal long gone, the find in British Columbia could give the region’s indigenous communities an important legal claim

A geoduck shell found scatted among other shells discarded by the Tseshaht peoples 500 to 1000 years ago suggests that the community had been harvesting and eating geoduck for centuries. (Lorraine Boissoneault)
smithsonian.com

Whatever Hollywood may have led people to believe about the glamor and intrigue of archaeology, in practice it is a slow science. A sliver of brown bone emerges over days as dirt and stones are gently brushed away. A tiny white bead hidden among thousands of other fragments appears only when water on a fine screen makes it visible. Uncovering artifacts takes months of digging. But very occasionally, the earthbound equivalent of a lightning strike occurs, and something remarkable appears in an instant.

Around midafternoon on a recent July day, on a small island called Kakmakimiłh or Keith Island, the sounds of trowels crunching on shell middens and hoses pouring water on screens was interrupted by a series of excited shouts (and a few expletives).

“Holy—That is huge.”

“It’s like a kneepad.”

“Guys, holy cow. That is so exciting.”

“This is a big f—ing deal. Sorry.”

Watching the clamor from the edge of the pit, Denis St. Claire, co-director of the Keith Island Archaeology Field School, wryly summarized the find. “Funny how an old shell can create such excitement.”

After three years of digging on the island, the team discovered an enormous geoduck shell—the first of its kind found in a coastal archaeological site in British Columbia. Located about a meter deep in the sediment, the hand-sized clam shell had been just another bit of refuse left behind in what essentially served as a communal garbage heap, full of shells from clam bakes past, all of them undisturbed for anywhere from 500 to 1000 years. Identifiable not only by its size, but also the straight edge along one side, the geoduck shell became the day’s star.

Geoduck Shell Site
Archaeologists working at a site near the coast of British Columbia discover a geoduck shell, suggesting the people who lived here between 500 and 1000 years ago ate the large clam. (Lorraine Boissoneault)

Pronounced “gooey-duck,” the species is the world’s largest burrowing clam. Its tubular siphon, which can grow to be 3 feet long, is an easy target for anatomical jokes. No matter how unappetizing it may appear, the delectable meat is worth around $20 per pound, making it significantly more valuable than the average clam.

“Where’s my phone, I want pictures, too,” said Anne Salomon, a biologist visiting the site for the weekend. “This is huge. This is why we need to transform fisheries governance in Canada yesterday.”

What’s a 1,000-year-old shell got to do with modern fisheries management? Everything, as it turns out. The students and professors digging on the island were working in Tseshaht First Nation territory, with permission and support from the Nation. One of the team’s main goals was to better understand how earlier indigenous people lived for millennia on the island. What did they eat, in what quantities, and how did they manage the natural resources?

These are more than merely academic questions. In Canada, indigenous rights to hunting, fishing and gathering traditional foods are protected by law. But which resources are included on that list depends largely on the traditions of different groups, and archaeological data is sometimes required to confirm oral history.

“First Nations fisheries objectives (both cultural and livelihood) are rarely taken into consideration on par with industrial commercial interests,” Salomon said later by email, even though “most First Nations in British Columbia have not ceded rights to their territories nor the resources and ecosystems within them.”

The Tseshaht have experienced government and industry reluctance to recognize their rights firsthand. In 2009, the Nuu-chah-nulth, a collection of 15 First Nations including the Tseshaht, won a case before the British Columbia Supreme Court that acknowledged their constitutional right to fish in their territory. The decision wasn’t just a matter of subsistence fishing; it also offered a chance for the community to build businesses. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), which manages this activity for the whole country, “dragged their feet in meeting with Nuu-chah-nulth representatives for meaningful negotiations,” St. Claire explained. The delay led to a second Supreme Court decision in 2018 that ruled DFO had one year to establish a commercial fishery for the Nations.

But geoducks were specifically excluded from the list of species that could be harvested. Commercial operations to harvest the clams today use scuba diving gear and high-pressure water jets, so the judge felt earlier inhabitants wouldn’t have been able to access the food source. But geoducks can also live in shallower intertidal waters—and now we know the ancestors of Tseshaht did indeed successfully retrieve them.

Though St. Clair doubts the discovery of a geoduck shell will be enough to overturn the decision, “It does introduce doubt into the previously accepted position that First Nations could not have harvested this species,” he says. “It is something to build on for sure.”

For Iain McKechnie, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria and the other co-director of the Kakmakimiłh field school, the geoduck shell is more than just an exciting piece of the past. It also marks a shifting perspective in how to practice archaeology.

“In the big picture over the last 50 years, what archaeologists really wanted to find is amazing artifacts,” McKechnie says. “Because we’re digging through shell, we don’t always look at all the shells with great care.” But in the case of this site, one of the goals was to look for different species of shellfish rather than focusing solely on artifacts, which were traditionally seen as the prizes.

Given those objectives, Darrell Ross, research and planning associate for the land and resources department at Tseshaht, was a bit less surprised by the geoduck discovery—though he didn’t expect one to be found quite so soon.

“Prudent stewardship (hishokishsawalk) of sea resources such as geoduck has sustained Tseshaht for thousands of years,” Ross said by email. His hope is that the community will gain the rights to harvest geoduck and that they might build a crew to collect them commercially. The revenue from such an industry could be used for community projects, like a “going home initiative” that takes people back out to the islands where the Tseshaht lived until government policies forced them out in the 1950s.

For now, McKechnie, St. Claire and their team will send the shell off for carbon dating and other analyses. They’ll write a paper and find a journal to publish it. Science will continue its inexorable path forward. But there’s plenty of reason to look back as well.

“We need to pay attention to the knowledge that was shared with anthropologists and government agencies about geoduck harvesting in the past,” McKechnie says. “We probably haven’t done enough to really understand the range of knowledge people shared. Now that we’re back from the field, we can spend the winter honing our perspectives on what we’re going to be finding next.”

Editor’s Note, August 28, 2919: This story has been updated to clarify that the indigenous community could gain geoduck harvesting rights through channels beyond the courts, such as working directly with the DFO.

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