The Archaeological Understanding of Northwestern Plant Cultivation in the Third Paper of Northwest Coast

In the third chapter of Northwest Coast: Archaeology as Deep History, Madonna Moss creates a discourse on the culturally subjective anthropological classification of resource utilization methods in the Pacific Northwest, along with an in depth study of these methods. Moss claims that the notion of labeling the Northwestern peoples as a “complex hunter gatherer” society comes from an ideological belief in linear social evolution – an outdated Anthropological notion, stating that because the people of the Pacific Northwest were mostly sedentary and utilized advanced maritime technology, they could not simply be classified as a “hunter-gatherer” culture.

However, this ideological notion also asserts that they lacked the merits of a people classified one spot further in this model of social evolution, because they were not considered an agricultural society by Eurocentric standards (Moss 2011). One cannot gauge the complexity of pre-contact Northwestern culture without using a completely culturally subjective lens. Yet, different variants and traditions of ingenuitive sustenance production methods can be witnessed all throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Pre- contact Native peoples displayed fine-tuned systems of fishing, food storage, and plant cultivation – systems that can be understood as “complex” when weighed among “hunter- gatherer” methods of foraging and hunting, through an ideological model of linear cultural evolution.

Quentin Mackie writes about how “cultural complexity has been defined by employing abstract definitions or by developing trait lists” (Moss 2011) – abstract Eurocentric definitions that fail to correctly assess a true mastery of resources as displayed by the Pacific Northwest people, and in particular, their mastery of fishing and fishery management.

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Moss discusses how through a system of complex social relations and controlled resource management, they were able to maintain their mastery of the fishing stocks over generations upon generations – a natural resource, often in abundance, that acted as a cornerstone piece of their culture (Moss 2011).

Proof of this fishing mastery, or “stewardship” of the sea, can be seen throughout the Pacific Northwest Coast – evidence manifested in the archaeological remains of gill net stake traps and weirs – some of which were estimated to be able to catch up to 80,000 salmon annually (Moss 2011). On top of this, houses used systems of multi- linear labor to store and dry food and fish products – creating systematic inequality around the culture of food storage, because through this system, the bigger the house, the bigger the labor force, thus making bigger houses more wealthy and prestigious (Ames 2003: 28).

This archaeological proof of fishing and food storage ingenuity in the Pacific Northwest absolutely disclaims any subjectively Eurocentric model from which the “complexity” of Northwestern culture can be judged upon. The Tlingit, Haida, and Kwakwaka’wakw peoples, among many others, were not just fishermen, but were advanced cultivators of marine life and food storage. Moss writes, “In my view, they were not hunter-gatherers content to meet material subsistence needs, they were institutionally sophisticated salmon ranchers who actively sought and proudly achieved prosperity” (Moss 2011).

Although Kenneth Ames does tend to use certain language that Moss resists in her writing, such as the term “complex hunter-gatherer”, he does discuss an important connection between the development of Pacific Northwest cultures and the variability of resources throughout the region (particularly salmon). Much of the “complexities” of Pacific Northwest culture, as discussed by early Anthropologists such as Suttles, Fladmark, Burley, and Schalk, pertain to the Northwestern peoples’ sedentism and specialization of resources (although all of these Anthropologists seem to argue about specialization).

Ames, as do most of these other Anthropologists, makes a direct correlation between sustenance storage (wooden box storage systems used to dry fish/plants and to procure oil), the specialization of resource management and tool production (e.g. the weir and other fish traps), gargantuan longhouses and ownership of storage – that often split people up through systems of class and prestige (Ames 2003: 28), and most importantly, the variability and instability of natural resources to the development of complex socio-political systems and permanent social inequality throughout the entire Pacific Northwest (Ames 1994: 210).

These models do enforce notions of euro-subjective ideologies of cultural evolution, as they are judged against the weight of a very classificatory system. However, Ames succeeds at conceptualizing an actual “motor for change” (McGuire 1996: 24-25) in Northwestern society – that a people surrounded by abundant yet constantly varying resources will develop into a society of deep and complex societal inter-relations.

The archaeological understanding of Northwestern plant cultivation serves as another example to how blind mid-century Anthropologists were blind to horticulture and sustenance production in the region. The Native peoples of the Northwest were not only masters of root vegetable and wild berry cultivation, but they were also quite literally small plot marsh farmers and horticulturists. The mass of evidence that supports these claims was once wildly overlooked in Anthropology due to “European ideas of what agriculture ‘should’ look like” (Moss 2011).

However, the reality of the situation is that the Northwestern peoples were highly specialized cultivators and horticulturalists of a very diverse range of plant resources. The Tsimshian, Haida, Nuu-cha-Nulth, and many others used burn techniques for wild berry cultivation, while the Nuxalk and Kwakwaka’wakw farmed acres of massive communal estuarine root gardens to cultivate silverweed and clover (Moss 2011). The Chinook of the lower Columbia were in fact so successful in their cultivation of Wapato that they formed highly profitable trade networks and an intra-connected economic network with other tribes (Moss 2011). These highly specialized forms of horticulture were practiced throughout the Pacific Northwest, and archaeological data supporting this fact completely refutes any claim contesting the “complexity” of the Northwestern people.

A true sense of hylozoism existed in the Pacific Northwest. The Native people of the Northwest did not necessarily have a symbiotic relationship with their resources; however, they took on the position of a “resource steward”. They not only possessed a mastery of accumulating resources, but also a deep technical understanding of how those resources worked, along with an understanding of their own place in the ecosystem and natural world. Moss writes, “Changes are not from simple to complex, as a more modern world-view would have it, but from complex to complex, from equal to equal, from one life-form to another” (Moss 2011). As an incredibly specialized and advanced microcosm of the hylozoic world, the peoples of the Pacific Northwest cannot simply be categorized by any Anthropological model, especially one of linear and culturally subjective proportions.

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The Archaeological Understanding of Northwestern Plant Cultivation in the Third Paper of Northwest Coast. (2023, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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