Between A Rock and A Soft Place: Using Optical Ages to Date Ancient Clam Gardens on the Pacific Northwest

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Rock-walled archaeological features are notoriously hard to date, largely because of the absence of suitable organic material for radiocarbon dating. This study demonstrates the efficacy of dating clam garden wall construction using optical dating, and uses optical ages to determine how sedimentation rates in the intertidal zone are affected by clam garden construction. Clam gardens are rock-walled, intertidal terraces that were constructed and maintained by coastal First Nation peoples to increase bivalve habitat and productivity. These features are evidence of ancient shellfish mariculture on the Pacific Northwest and, based on radiocarbon dating, date to at least the late Holocene. Optical dating exploits the luminescence signals of quartz or feldspar minerals to determine the last time the minerals were exposed to sunlight (i.e., their burial age), and thus does not require the presence of organic material. Optical ages were obtained from three clam garden sites on northern Quadra Island, British Columbia, and their reliability was assessed by comparing them to radiocarbon ages derived from shells underneath the clam garden walls, as well as below the terrace sediments. Our optical and radiocarbon ages suggest that construction of these clam garden walls commenced between ~1000 and ~1700 years ago, and our optical ages suggest that construction of the walls was likely incremental and increased sedimentation rates in the intertidal zone by up to fourfold. Results of this study show that when site characteristics are not amenable to radiocarbon dating, optical dating may be the only viable geochronometer. Furthermore, dating rock-walled marine management features and their geomorphic impact can lead to significant advances in our understanding of the intimate relationships that Indigenous peoples worldwide developed with their seascapes.
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Neudorf CM, Smith N, Lepofsky D, Toniello G, Lian OB (2017) Between a rock and a soft place: Using optical ages to date ancient clam gardens on the Pacific Northwest. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0171775. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0171775.
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Between a rock and a soft place: Using optical ages to date ancient clam gardens on the Pacific Northwest
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