A True Canadian Fish Story

Story: Archaeological Food for Thought

William A. Fox

July, 1982

It was one of those typical July days in southern Ontario - a sultry heat, only relieved by cool lake breezes as Dr. Michael Spence and I headed out on Long Point Bay with Corporal Varden and Constable McCallum of the Ontario Provincial Police, Norfolk Detachment (Fox 1982:12). The previous October, the London Office of the Ministry of Culture and Recreation had received yet another shipment of unidentified human bone from the office of the Provincial Forensic Pathologist in Toronto. As it seemed likely that the remains were of First Nations individuals, Chief Wellington Staats of Six Nations had been contacted and consulted as to process. Little did we realize that this would be the beginning of a multi-year program of site survey and rescue excavation activities on Long Point (Fox 1986, MacDonald 1986, Fox and Molto 1994).

Tip of Long Point, looking west.

The previous July, a fishing party from Buffalo, NY had stumbled upon a human skull and reported the occurrence to Con. McCallum. As our boat rounded Pottohawk Point and headed to the discovery site, sparsely vegetated dunes and sand beaches stretched before us . Gliding into the warm shallows, we disembarked to begin our investigation. Dark organic layering was immediately evident in the eroding face of a low dune surmounted by a lone pine tree. 

Notched pebble net sinker.

Soon we found notched pebble net sinkers  flint flakes and a flint knife, pottery cooking vessel fragments and abundant fish bone.


We made a tape and compass sketch map and recorded several bank profiles. Profile 1 documented what appeared to be a pit feature extending 17cm below the bottom of a black surficial stratum, some 17 to 20 cm in thickness. No human remains were discovered along the exposed bank, although a few skeletal elements were recovered from under the sand just off shore (Molto 1983) The ceramics suggested that this fishing camp dated to about 1000-1200 years ago. But, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the site was the abundance and excellent preservation of the fish bone. Fully articulated vertebral columns exposed in the bank! In my twenty years of Ontario field experience, I had never seen anything like this.

Figure 4    Mike Spence surveying the lake bottom off the Varden site. (Credit: Bill Fox)We left the Varden site with mixed feelings later that afternoon. No intact burials had been found, and it appeared likely that any further human remains would be discovered only in a disturbed context in the lake shallows. On the other hand, we had documented the first archaeological site located on Long Point - an 1100 year old encampment remarkably near the present tip of the point. This raised some interesting questions concerning the genesis and rate of growth of Long Point itself. But the question most begging for an answer was, why were those people discarding virtually intact fish of a fairly large size on this site? Were they filleting these fish? Exactly what species were they? Rosemary Prevec (1983) was able to supply some of the answers in her faunal report.

Rosemary’s analysis of the 237 faunal elements recovered during our investigation indicated that a little over 70% derived from fish. This was no surprise.Figure 5    A burbot. eelpout jpg (Credit: Doug Stamm at www.stammphoto.com) The surprise was the fact that over 97% of the identified fish bone were from burbot - a species which prefers a cold water habitat! Burbot are members of the cod family - Gadidae and have a circumpolar distribution (Scott and Crossman 1973:640) . They are known also as eelpout, ling, lawyers (odd, they’re not bottom feeders), loche, and made (in Finland).

Long Point Bay is not a noted cold water habitat. What was the answer? The only time that these deep water fish would be available in the Long Point shallows would be when they spawned at night in late March (Clemens 1951). Early spring could be pretty chilly out near the east end of Long Point and travel by (dugout?) canoe at that time might be precarious, yet the evidence for such visits was suggestive, if not convincing. I pictured warmly clothed people in canoes playing out nets by torch light with chilled fingers, and then drawing the nets into shore to expose a writhing mass of fresh water cod on the beach.

I "reeled back" to the winter of 1974 in Quetico Provincial Park; snowshoeing across French Lake on a crisp -30 C. starry night, to find our fishing lines held fast by 3 cm of newly formed ice. That day, we had ventured out on foot and by dog sled to try our luck at catching a meal of lake trout. The exercise had been entertaining, but unproductive. As my axe sliced through the ice to free the first line, it jerked down - there seemed to be a fish on! Soon a fish lay flopping upon the snow - a trout? No, a ling or burbot lay there in all its comparative ugliness! Figure 7    Frozen burbot. (Credit: Jukka Halonen) Back into the hole it went. The same scenario was played out hole after hole, until finally the last line had been drawn in to expose....another burbot. Remembering that the Park Naturalist, Shan Walshe, had spoken of the good quality of the meat, I "swallowed my fisherman’s pride" and kept the final fish. It flipped a couple of times at the end of the line and then froze into a gentle arc. Returning to the lodge, I dropped the fish in the stainless steel kitchen sink with a clatter. As the sink filled, the fish thawed and began to swim around! Alas, its life was ended and the filleting completed to expose a gelatinous strip of meat - not the most appetizing sight.

So, the Varden site fishermen had been harvesting large numbers of burbot. What could be the attraction, given the relatively low meat to body weight ratio of the species and the likelihood that fishing at the end of Long Point had not been particularly comfortable? Figure 8    Burbot drawing. (Credit: Virgil Beck) Furthermore, burbot meat is generally of lower nutritional value than the flesh of many of the species which could have been harvested along Long Point at warmer times of the year and at sites closer to the mainland. A hundred grams of burbot meat provides only 89.9 calories of food value, as compared to 93.2 calories for walleye, 95.1 for channel catfish and 119.1 calories for the same portion of trout (CNN Food Central WEB site). Could this have been a food source that was only used when the inhabitants of the Long Point area were faced with winter starvation? These fish are relatives of the salt water cod, I mused, and cod liver oil is a highly regarded vitamin A and D source. Perhaps the articulated vertebral columns signaled filleting activity, or perhaps some fish were being gutted for the liver alone. Ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources have documented the importance of fats and oils (ie. nut oils - Ozker 1982:35-37) in Native diets, particularly over the winter period. Would this have justified the discomforts and potential risks of an early spring trip to the tip of Long Point? I thought this a possibility and suggested it to the faunal analyst (Prevec 1983:4).

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