Carlson responds to work criticizing her 1992 New England salmon hypothesis

  • This is the type of Atlantic salmon officials of the now-defunct Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Restoration Project dreamed of anglers catching on New England’s longest river after they re-established a large enough viable seasonal run to support sportfishing.. atlantic salmon federation photo

  • Anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Catherine Carroll Carlson, a retired archaeologist whose 1992 dissertation identified Atlantic salmon (above) as a short-lived phenomenon of the Little Ice Age and nearly vacant from New England’s archaeological record, is shooting back at recent critics of her hypothesis. atlantic salmon federation photo

Recorder Staff
Published: 11/21/2016 10:54:02 PM

What? An attack on the New England Atlantic salmon argument developed by archaeologist Catherine Carroll Carlson in her controversial 1992 UMass-Amherst Ph.D. dissertation: “The Atlantic salmon in New England prehistory and history: social and environmental implications?”

You betcha! Dr. Carlson’s often-referred-to thesis has indeed been challenged. Which doesn’t mean Carlson is buying the arguments of an obscure 2013 UMass research paper’s critical assessment of her conclusions. No sir. She’s firing back.

But first, a refresher on the Carlson theory, which shook the New England salmon-restoration establishment, and particularly those involved in the now-defunct Connecticut Valley program.

Based on the archaeological record from 75 known prehistoric Northeastern fishing sites nearly absent of Atlantic salmon remains from Newfoundland to Long Island, Carlson concluded that salmon came here with the Little Ice Age (1300 to 1850) and were never here in the great numbers reported by the earliest historical accounts. In fact, she went so far as to argue that some of the reports were intentionally exaggerated as real-estate marketing tools to attract new settlers to infant New England. Plus, another factor contributing to overstating the salmon population was the misnaming of American shad as “white salmon” often mentioned in primary reports filed by early explorers and chroniclers who were not familiar with American shad, the staple of anadromous fish stocks in southern New England rivers like the Connecticut.

And now the appearance of this 2013 report written by three UMass/Amherst researchers who conclude that the archaeological evidence Carlson based her thesis on was invalid because the screens used to sift the excavations were not fine enough to detect salmon remains. Thus, they argue, the archaeological record is unreliable and should not be and never should have been used to evaluate the feasibility of restoration projects, such as the failed, expensive state and federal Connecticut River Atlantic Salmon Restoration Project discontinued after nearly 50 years in 2012.

“Thank you for contacting me on this,” Carlson wrote to conclude a recent response to an email alerting her to the report she had no knowledge of. “It’s curious that the authors and/or reviewers didn’t think to contact me. What does this say?”

Who knows? But it’s true that one would assume anyone critiquing a scholarly report written by a respected anthropologist/archaeologist from the same university would have had the courtesy to bring their conflicting interpretation to the author’s attention for potential feedback and discussion?

The 2013 UMass report titled “The use (and misuse) of archaeological salmon data to infer historical abundance in North America with a focus on New England” is the collaboration of S.F. Jane and A.R. Whiteley of the Department of Environmental Conservation, and K.H. Nislow of the U.S. Forest Service’s Northeast Research Station. The authors list three reasons for their new conclusion debunking Carlson’s findings:

1.) salmon bones were rare or absent at sites that still hold large salmon runs;

2.) the lack of salmonid bones in general at archaeological sites suggests poor preservation and/or recovery of bone relative to other fishes;

3.) given the presence of many non-salmonid andromous fish at sites where people fished and deposited bones, power to detect salmon bones in studies to date have been generally low.

To support these claims, the authors say they “present reliable historical accounts that help build a convincing case that salmon were historically abundant in New England rivers. We suggest that rarity of salmon bones in existing archaeological data should not have unwarranted influence on present-day conservation decision-making in New England.”

Hmmmmm? Doesn’t this new interpretation beg the question: Since when do “historical accounts” trump scientific research in such matters? Haven’t many historical accounts written by early explorers and colonists been proven by modern research to be biased, self-serving and unreliable? Worse still, think of the early “interpretations” that have by now been dismissed as pure rhetoric and propaganda peddled by victorious military, governmental and theological spokesmen and land speculators. So why should we believe without question the obviously fanciful folklore about walking across rivers on the backs of salmon, while dismissing the absence of archaeological salmon evidence at deep-history fishing sites where other fish bones and even fish scales 7,000 years old were recovered?

“Also,” wrote Carlson, recently retired Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Douglas College outside Vancouver, B.C., “I would continue to argue that Atlantic salmon had a brief increase in numbers in New England as a result of the Little Ice Age (LIA), then disappeared when the climate warmed.

“Dam-building began at the end of the LIA, after salmon had almost disappeared due to climate change,” she added. “So, dams are not the cause of the salmon demise. There’s so much new research on the effects of climate warming on Pacific salmon stocks that I am at a loss to understand why the authors won’t accept the LIA hypothesis. I completely disagree with their statement that archaeological data on salmon should not influence conservation decision-making.”

Carlson is no clueless hack. A native of British Columbia, where she now lives and completed her B.A. Honors in Archaeology at Simon Frazier University in 1978, she’s a respected professional with a long list of impressive archaeological credits. After graduating from Simon Frazier, Carlson moved to the Royal British Columbia Museum, where for three years she worked in the bone lab, identifying thousands of fish and other vertebrate bones from archaeological midden sites on her Canadian province’s coast. She went on to do graduate work at the University of Maine/Orono, where her 1986 Masters of Science thesis involved the analysis of more than 30,000 fish bones from coastal middens near the Sheepscott and Damariscotta rivers. She then moved to UMass/Amherst, where she earned her Ph.D in anthropology and wrote her ground-breaking salmon dissertation.

Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., was her first stop as a teacher, working for 16 years as an associate professor of anthropology before settling in at Douglas College for the completion of her teaching career. She made a name for herself with her New England salmon dissertation, which was greeted by catcalls from the struggling state and federal Connecticut River Atlantic salmon-restoration proponents, including the prestigious Atlantic Salmon Federation and virtually everyone committed to bringing salmon back to the Connecticut and Merrimack rivers, while also working to protect and enhance existing salmon runs in Maine and beyond.

Carson’s dissertation addressed the question of why Atlantic salmon bones were absent at prehistoric sites across New England in places where historical accounts suggested that salmon were once abundant. She argued in favor of a climate explanation pertaining to the LIA, which would have shifted the southern extent of the Atlantic-salmon migration range to the Connecticut and, less so, Hudson rivers. Her report was the last thing supporters of salmon-restoration wanted to hear, and many officials tried to keep her findings hidden from the press. Then, when the press discovered it, the same officials did their best to discredit Carlson as wet behind the ears.

In recent discussion about the absence of salmon remains in the New England archaeological record, archaeologist Dr. Peter A. Thomas — who also received his Ph.D. from UMass/Amherst and played a key role in three Riverside/Gill archaeological digs that yielded no evidence of salmon — speculated that there may be hidden reasons why salmon remains are so rare. He said it was possible that indigenous people held Atlantic salmon in the highest esteem and thus disposed of their bones differently than other fish. He hypothesized that hunter-gatherers who attach special and maybe even sacred status to the king of gamefish may have thrown their bones back into the water rather than dumping them into riverside garbage pits, thus the absence or remains in riverside middens like those at the known Riverside/Gill site. But Carlson isn’t buying that hypothesis, either, saying she has heard it before; that the issue was raised, pondered and rejected during her dissertation process under the supervision of late UMass anthropologist/archaeologist Dr. Dina F. Dincauze, who died in August at 82.

Then, she focused on her own Pacific Northwest, where she said salmon remains are ubiquitous in the archaeological record at ancient fishing sites. “Why would salmon be viewed any differently there?” she asked. “Out here they used to celebrate the first salmon of the season caught and eaten with a ceremony during which they threw the bones back in the river. Does that mean they threw every salmon’s bones in the river? I don’t think so.”

Still, in her mind, Thomas’ query was worthy of consideration because she had respect for him as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist with a long, impressive list of field-work credits and published reports. The same cannot be said of the UMass triumvirate that authored the 2013 report challenging her dissertation’s findings.

“They arrogantly claim I’ve misinterpreted the archaeological data, but that’s not even their field of expertise!” she emphasized, referring to the two environmental conservationists and a forester throwing harpoons her way.

“It’s true there have been are a few new sites in Maine with a very few salmon, which might suggest a very small number of pioneering pre-Little Ice Age colonizers, which makes sense,” she added. “The quantities of salmon bone are miniscule compared with other fish bone found in New England, not to mention comparison to sites in the Pacific Northwest.”

As for the 2013 Jane-Whiteley-Nislow report’s claim that the archaeological evidence Carlson’s dissertation was based on is invalid because the ¼-inch screen used to sift and collect remains was too coarse, Carlson is skeptical at best, even though more-recent excavations in Maine using 1/16th-inch screen did pick up some salmon remains.

“At first glance, it’s same-old, same-old,” she wrote, referencing the triumvirate’s criticism, “Sampling, bone preservation, screen size, etc., all of which I can refute. …

“I should probably write a rebuttal, and will seriously consider that.”

Stay tuned. It sounds like this argument is far from over, the Jane-Whiteley-Nislow report far from the final word.


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