Burial site finds not unexpected

People can expect to stumble upon more First Nations burial sites as B.C.'s population rises.

People can expect to stumble upon more First Nations burial sites as B.C.’s population rises.

Eric Forgeng, an archaeologist with the B.C. Archaeology Branch, said as B.C.’s population spreads into formerly undeveloped regions and more people venture into wilderness areas for recreation, they will come across ancient remains of First Nations people more often.

People happened upon two sites containing human remains south of Nanaimo in the past month.

The first was in Jack Point Park May 21, discovered by a group of geocachers. On June 5, hikers found an intact human skull wedged between rocks on the beach at Roberts Memorial Park in Yellow Point.

The remains from Jack Point Park have since been put to rest.

“They were returned to the Snuneymuxw [First Nation] and they have been appropriately repatriated and reburied at a site where previous bones from various other sites have been repatriated,” said William Yoachim, a band councillor.

Forgeng said the area where the remains were found was catalogued several decades ago, but because of its cultural and archeological sensitivity, its exact location is kept secret.

No carbon dating was done to determine the exact age of the remains, but Forgeng said the individual was interred prior to European settlement.

Forgeng did not have information about the skull from Yellow Point, which is still in the hands of the B.C. Coroners’ Service.

Const. Gary O’Brien, Nanaimo RCMP spokesman, said the skull appeared to be a historical artifact, but police are awaiting the coroner’s findings for confirmation of possible age and origin.

First Nations people historically migrated between fishing, hunting and foraging grounds with the seasons, and territories used by various First Nations would often overlap.

Forgeng said people would inter their dead are they happened to be at a given time of year. With human settlement of Vancouver Island dating back possibly 9,000 years, a lot of people have lived and died here.

“People would be interred in various ways,” Forgeng said. “Sometimes the bones survive, but mostly they don’t because the ground’s pretty acidic and the coast is a very abrasive environment with salt air, sand and various things, so human remains don’t survive very often.”

Human bones are more often found in caves and crevices or shell middens, where soil is more alkaline and preserves bone. Burial in middens, Forgeng said, ended about 1,000 years ago.

The dead were also interred in trees on platforms, under cairns and in caves or crevices, based on family preferences, traditions and other factors.

Forgeng said in areas as heavily used as Jack Point Park, it is difficult to protect and preserve historic information and artifacts.

“There was a very large population of First Nations in B.C. prior to European contact for a very, very, very long time, so there’s lots of remains around,” Forgeng said.

A steady stream of finds are reported to his office from across B.C. as communities develop.

In 2007 a condominium project was halted in Departure Bay – the historical winter home for several Snuneymuxw families that maintained villages there – when a First Nation burial site containing the remains of dozens of people was discovered.

“It’s not small villages scattered throughout the coast with people hunting and gathering anymore,” Forgeng said. “It’s people out recreating and building condos on it. It’s a totally different use of the land and I think we have to try to find a balance. I think public education is a huge part of this, making people aware that these things are out there and if they do find something not to disturb it.”

People who find human remains are advised to not pick up or move items, but call the RCMP, which works directly with First Nations and the B.C. Archaeology Branch.

“There’s a protocol that the RCMP and the coroner’s office have with these things and they will contact our office and then we will try and determine the best management for it,” Forgeng said.