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Oyster shell middens

Hakaimagazine.com

by Evan Lubofsky

Indigenous peoples in the Chesapeake harvested oysters sustainably for thousands of years—until the introduction of new techniques by Europeans decimated the stocks.

As long as 3,200 years ago, Indigenous peoples living along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay harvested oysters in vast quantities. They extracted the meat and piled the shells into mounds known as middens. Archaeologists have long studied these shell mounds—some of which are meters deep—for a window into the lifestyles of these peoples: what they ate, how they hunted, and the tools they used. Now, clues unearthed in these mounds also suggest they likely knew a thing or two about how to sustainably harvest oysters.

“Despite the significant role oysters played in the Native American diet back then, they weren’t overexploited,” says archaeologist Alex Jansen, leader of a recent study analyzing the middens.

“Even though it is possible that these early societies may not have been practicing sustainable harvesting intentionally, it appears they were able to balance management with fishery needs,” Jansen adds. “That’s something we need to get back to.”

Since the early 1900s, overfishing in the Chesapeake Bay has led to steep declines in oyster stocks. Around 1990, oyster harvests across the bay were less than one percent of historical levels. Harvesting techniques introduced by European colonists during the 18th and 19th centuries, such as dredging and tonging, were responsible for much of this enormous toll. These destructive techniques rip living oysters from the reef, often before they’re fully grown, reducing the size and damaging the structure of the reef.

Given that oysters play an important role in filtering algae, plankton, and other particles from the water, the depletion of the bay’s oysters caused the water quality to suffer. The destruction of wave-buffering oyster reefs also reduced the protection they offered to the shoreline.

Examining shell middens near Chesapeake Bay showed Jansen that the Indigenous peoples’ harvesting practices were much less destructive, which is what allowed them to exploit oysters for thousands of years.

Jansen also found tools such as ceramics, projectile points, and stones used for heating water at the study site. But based on his analysis, these tools were not used for oyster harvesting, which, he says, was mostly done by hand. He also noted the large sizes of the oyster shells, which suggests the oysters were given time to grow and reproduce before being snagged.

Throughout the thousands of years captured in the shell middens, “the oysters were largely consistent in shape and size,” Jansen says. He says the oysters were likely harvested from the water close to shore, rather than from deeper waters where reefs form. “By leaving the reefs alone and intact, Native American harvesters were able to give the oysters a chance to reproduce and restock the bay.”

Today, after years of restoration efforts, oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay are showing signs of a rebound. Carmera Thomas, a program manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says that over the past few decades, millions of baby oysters attached to recycled oyster shells have been placed on sanctuary reefs throughout the bay, contributing to the restoration of oyster reefs on target tributaries. In 2017, a bill proposed by state officials and watermen in Maryland to open more than two million square kilometers of oyster sanctuary to harvest did not pass.

Despite the momentum, Thomas says pressure on wild oyster populations will continue unless we learn lessons from the past and put some ancient practices into play.

“If we as a population were more diligent about restoring what is taken out of the bay, using less invasive tools, and not harvesting as much … it would put less stress on the population,” Thomas says.

Jansen agrees. Even though we no longer have the same technological limitations as our ancestors, that doesn’t mean we can’t heed the lessons of the past and leverage simpler approaches. Only this time, the act of conservation would undoubtedly be intentional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Piles of clamshells with a stone structure above them are seen at an excavation site at the Sakatsuji Shell Midden in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

Original Article:

japantimes.co.jp
Jan 22, 2018
An ancient heap of shells at Sakatsuji Shell Midden in the city of Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, most likely served as a clam processing site in the latter half of the mid-Jomon Period, approximately 4,500 years ago, an investigation conducted by the city’s board of education has revealed.
While there are ruins in eastern Japan that indicate organized production during the mid-Jomon Period — including the Nakazato shell midden, or mound, which is a national historic site in Tokyo’s Kita Ward — it is extremely rare to find one in the Chubu region or further west. This latest discovery will provide important clues about the culinary lifestyle and economic activities conducted in the Jomon Period.
The Sakatsuji shell mound is one of the Muro cluster of seven shell middens in Aichi Prefecture.
An excavation conducted in the 1970s showed a rough scale of activities there, but details had remained unknown.
The mound is located approximately 3.5 km inland of what is now Mikawa Bay. But prior to the bay being filled in to create rice fields in the Edo Period the shell mound had faced the sea, along a stretch of coastland where the shores are shallow.
As a land consolidation project is scheduled to start in the area that includes the mound, the board of education had been excavating approximately 1,000 square meters of land since May.
The mound, made almost entirely of clamshells, measures roughly 1.6 meters high, about 6 meters wide and more than 24 meters long.
At least four layers have been identified, sandwiched between soil streaked with charcoal.
The team also discovered around 55 objects that looked like furnaces assembled from stones, and the members expect to find more as they continue excavating.
“We believe that the clams were boiled in the furnaces, and their meat stripped from the shells. Afterward the shells were piled up, then the ground was leveled and made into a processing site again,” said a member of the excavation team. “That kind of process must have been repeated again and again.”
The excavation team was not able to find any evidence of residences nearby, so it was likely the workers who dug and processed the clams lived in another area.
The volume of shells discovered was so huge it is hard to believe that they were consumed within the region, and the excavation team has said there is a possibility people dried the clams after they were boiled so that they would last longer and could be used for trading.
The shells are of various sizes. “We found many large shells similar to those seen in high-class Japanese restaurants. The clams must have become quite salty when boiled in sea water, so maybe they were used to make soup stock,” a member of the excavation team said. Several hundred furnaces have been found in the other six shell mounds in Muro. They share the same features as the Sakatsuji midden, which indicates the whole area was bustling with clam processing at the time.
However, the other six shell middens were from the late Jomon Period — approximately 2,300 to 3,800 years ago — which means the clam processing site of Sakatsuji was much older.
Most of the furnaces found in the other shell middens were also without stone structures, and were constructed in such a way that earthenware was placed directly on the floor.
“Perhaps they changed to a simpler furnace in order to meet the growing demand for clams,” said one of the team members.
The excavation will continue until the end of March and an on-site briefing is expected to be held in mid-February.
According to Tomonari Osada, a part-time lecturer specializing in archaeology at Chubu University, the Tokai region during the mid-Jomon Period is believed to have been less socially developed compared to the period immediately before the beginning of the Yayoi Period.
“I would be surprised if the production conducted at the Sakatsuji shell midden was for the sake of trading and distribution to other regions. We need to focus on this site and conduct further analysis to determine whether the objects made of stones were indeed furnaces for boiling (clams).”

Piles of clamshells with a stone structure above them are seen at an excavation site at the Sakatsuji Shell Midden in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

 

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