MISSOULA – A University of Montana anthropology professor’s research is helping to fill holes in the history of indigenous peoples living in the Pacific Northwest during the Fur Trade period.

Through excavations of a semi-subterranean dwelling in southern interior British Columbia, Anna Prentiss reveals ancestors of today’s St’át’imc people were actively engaged in maintaining traditional lifestyles while making the best of new opportunities for trade and intergroup interaction. Her research is outlined in the newly released book The Last House at Bridge River.

“This is the first complete excavation and study of an aboriginal household from the early- to mid-19th century in the interior Plateau region,” Prentiss said. “The deeper floors span circa 1,000 to 1,500 years ago and are providing unprecedented insight into the unfolding of household and village history.”

The single home, known as Housepit 54, includes the longest fully documented occupation sequence in the Pacific Northwest region – one of the longest single house sequences found anywhere – 17 superimposed floors. Prentiss’ book details the home’s final occupation during the late Canadian Fur Trade period.

“Our data suggest that this was the last pithouse occupied at the Bridge River site just before the region was overrun by thousands of miners associated with the Lillooet Gold Rush of 1858 to 1861,” Prentiss said.

UM anthropologists excavate the Fur Trade floor of Housepit 54 in 2012. (UM Photo)
UM anthropologists excavate the Fur Trade floor of Housepit 54 in 2012. (UM Photo)

The Bridge River archaeological site is an ancient village containing remains of 80 housepits. By partnering with the Xwísten, the Bridge River Indian Band, and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Prentiss initiated the Housepit 54 project’s first excavation in 2012, with additional digs in 2013, 2014 and 2016. According to the team’s research, the village’s population peaked at about 1,000 residents between 1,200 and 1,300 years ago.

“Our research has focused on understanding relationships between demographic change, economic activities and socio-political complexity, including social inequality measured as material wealth differentiation,” Prentiss said.

A rich ethnographic record enhanced the anthropologists’ interpretations of the site, in particular, James Teit’s early 20th-century writings regarding the St’át’imc or Upper Lillooet people of the Middle Fraser Canyon, Prentiss said. Housepit 54 was chosen as the best housepit at the site to provide evidence for resilience in how the families managed a long-lived household.

Excavations produced 8,000 animal bones – dominated by salmon and deer remains – and 12,000 stone artifacts from the Fur Trade period deposits alone, including more than 230 hide scrapers and over 130 arrow points.

“We are employing cutting-edge science to tease out patterns previously impossible to recognize – a recent example includes extracting and sequencing ancient DNA from a stone hide scraper,” Prentiss said.

Research now focuses on reconstructing life on the 16 older floors from Housepit 54 using distributions of hearths, storage pits and post-holes, as well as stone, bone, artifacts and food remains.

The Last House at Bridge River published by The University of Utah Press, is available for preorder online and will be on bookstore shelves in August.

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