Native Cultures Flourish on the North Pacific Coast Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The northern Pacific coast was a fertile ground for the mixing of peoples from a number of different areas: Siberia, China, and Oceania. The linguistic differences among the various groups that currently inhabit the coastal area provide clues to the speakers’ origins.

Summary of Event

From 7700 to 1000 b.c.e., the cultures of the northwestern coast of North America advanced, eventually rivaling those of ancient Greece, thousands of years before the rise of Western civilization. Their technologies were remarkably sophisticated and provide the oldest and most varied substantial evidence for flaked stone technological traditions in North America. More than one hundred tribes lived in the Northwest Coast culture area in prehistoric times. Their cultures and civilizations ranged from simple fishing camps to advanced and diverse population centers in which thousands of people lived and worked together, engaging their neighbors in both war and trade.

The first people to enter this area appear to have come from Siberia. The theory that the entire population of the pre-Columbian Americas descended from peoples who migrated across the Bering Land Bridge through the ice-free corridor thirteen to twenty thousand years ago has long held sway. The most current archaeological evidence is causing this theory gradually to be revised.

The peoples originating in Siberia spoke a language known as Athapaskan. The distribution of this language and its relatives across North America indicates that it indeed came from north Asia. However, the distribution of languages along the northern Pacific coast suggests a more complex migration pattern for that area. Athapaskan is spoken only the northern areas of this region, where evidence indicates that its speakers have lived in the far north since the last glacial retreat ten thousand years ago. In contrast, the first people to populate the Canadian coastline south of Alaska, in the area now known as British Columbia, spoke a completely different language known as Salish. Current evidence places the origin point for this language along the coast of northeastern China.

During the glaciation, the ocean’s waters were bound up in ice that covered the earth from the North Pole to central Oregon, and retreat of the waters uncovered a coastal plain along the western edge of North America. Like the Athapaskan speakers, the Salish speakers migrated along the continental shelf from northeastern China, moving west across the north Pacific. Later, as the oceans later rose again, inundating the coastal pathway, the Salish-speaking population of North America became cut off from its Asian parent culture. Evidence indicates these peoples have lived in their coastal homelands in isolation from others for only about five thousand years, since 3000 b.c.e.

To the south of the Columbia River, now the boundary between the states of Oregon and Washington and the southern limit of Salish-speaking peoples, another group of languages called Penutian is spoken. This language family spreads from the Columbia River south, all the way down the West Coast to the Yucatan Peninsula in Central America. This southernmost member of the Penutian language family is known as Mayan. Evidence suggests that the Penutian speakers came from Oceania across the Pacific Ocean by way of Easter Island to Central America. They then followed the coastline northward until they reached the Columbia River. There are no Penutian speakers north of that boundary, although there are related tribes and languages upriver to the east, including the modern Yakima and Nez Percé.

There were many different peoples, languages, and dialects in the Northwest. Over time, a trade language called Chinook developed, which was spoken by as many as 300,000 people at the height of its use. The area’s cultural and linguistic diversity can be traced to the wide variety of environments within which people settled as the glaciers withdrew. The land was unimaginably lush, and the pristine resource base was vast. The people flourished as a result of the natural abundance of their temperate zone rain-forest environment. Between 7700 and 3500 b.c.e., they developed into a wide variety of cultures populated with upward of 100,000 people.

The peoples in the far north had more complex cultures, with intricate ceremonial lives, efficient technology for food extraction, and large cedar-plank homes and oceangoing canoes. They were maritime people, drawing much of their lives from the sea. They wore elaborate clothing made of cedar bark and used the totem pole to define relationships and territory. They also practiced potlatch on a grand scale. In this ceremony, an individual gave away or destroyed a lifetime’s worth of possessions in order to guarantee social and economic positions. Status and wealth were deeply connected, and giving was a practiced art.

As the people settled in the southern reaches of the region, their cultures became simpler, oriented toward the more accessible and less dangerous bays and rivers and the even richer untouched terrestrial environments. However, the ocean remained the center and source of life. The abundance of fish, shellfish, big and small forest game, and plant life provided the people with large surpluses of time in which to develop ceremony, arts, and craft work to new heights.

However, the terrain was rough and often rocky, so the environment discouraged the development of farming and animal domestication. The hardness of local stone prevented the development of advanced tool-making techniques. The difficulty of travel helped to keep the peace among most peoples, who stayed at home except for trade voyages or skirmishes over territorial boundaries. The village was the primary social unit. The people lived in solid, roomy houses in clan or kinship units. They shared their wealth among themselves and with their neighbors and were generally affluent, with highly complex societies and a high level of integration with their surroundings and interaction with their neighbors. Over time, elaborate, extensive, and widespread trade networks developed.


The Northwest Coast culture area has probably been occupied continuously since 8000 b.c.e. The many common elements in the archaeological remains on the broadest scale suggest a singular culture complex originating in the north and spreading south over several thousand years. More detailed interpretations suggest a wide variety of subtle differences from area to area within the region. These extend to canoes, housing, clothing, basketry and weaving, carvings in wood and stone, and other remains, suggesting great developmental diversity and, possibly, multiple origins. The advanced hunter-gatherers of the north Pacific Coast utilized their abundant resources to create diverse cultures that were highly civilized and comparable to later civilizations elsewhere whose growth was fueled by agriculture and animal domestication. By 1000 b.c.e., the area contained the largest number of American Indian cultures, languages, and language groups on the continent.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ames, Kenneth M., and Herbert D. G. Maschner. Peoples of the Northwest Coast: Their Archaeology and History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. A well-illustrated introduction to the Northwest Indians. Traces the changes in lifestyle and culture from 3000 b.c.e. to the present.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borden, Charles E. Origins and Development of Early Northwest Coast Culture to About 3000 b.c. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1975. Reviews the evidence of cultural development along the Northwest Coast in the early period and provides a good overview of its evolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cressman, Luther S. The Sandal and the Cave: The Indians of Oregon. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1981. An excellent documentation of the discovery of well-preserved evidence, normally subject to decay and destruction, that pushes back the dates of the earliest human habitation of the Northwest further than ever.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dixon, E. James. Bones, Boats, and Bison: Archaeology and the First Colonization of Western North America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. A succinct review of the evidence for migrations from multiple locations at multiple times to the Northwest Coast. Includes figures, tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“The Patterns of Culture.” In Indians of the North Pacific Coast, edited by Tom McFeat. 1966. Reprint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989. One in a compilation of articles on the cultural uses and practices of many groups along the Northwest coast.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ruby, Robert H., and John A. Brown. A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. A classic work in the field and a must-read for anyone wishing to know the details of the many bands, tribes, and civilizations of the area from prehistoric times.

Categories: History