Tahkenitch Landing site over 8,000 years old

In the largest of the 1984 excavation sites, seen here, archeologists found the bones of whales and other sea mammals preserved in a shell matrix. (Siuslaw News file photo)

Siuslaw National Forest archeologist to tell story on Jan. 29

Jan. 24, 2022 — Eleven miles south of Florence is a lake called Tahkenitch, believed to mean “having many arms like a crab” in the Siuslaw language. Tahkenitch today is known for its quiet fishing resort, a campground, a few float houses and its fishery, which includes perch, bass, coho and catfish.  

What is not known to most area residents is that one of the most important archeological discoveries on the Oregon Coast was made here almost 40 years ago.  

On the west side of the lake there is a spot known as “Tahkenitch Landing” — named because it was one of many canoe landings on area lakes used by the Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua Tribes, which are now part of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.  

The spot was home to a fishing resort from the 1930s until the 1970s, when the United States Forest Service (USFS) came into possession of the property.  

At the time, the USFS had plans to develop Tahkenitch Landing.

According to Molly Kirkpatrick, archeologist with the Siuslaw National Forest, this set in motion the discovery of the historical significance of this location.  

“They wanted to develop it into a more substantial recreation spot,” said Kirkpatrick. “They wanted to do things like put in fish washing stations, being right there on Tahkenitch Lake, and build a more developed parking lot. Before they could do that, they needed to conduct a cultural resource survey. Through interviews, early on, there were some talks amongst the locals about finding artifacts there. That prompted a more thorough investigation.” 

Next Saturday, Jan. 29, Kirkpatrick will host an online presentation, free for anyone to attend, to discuss that initial investigation. The Winter 2022 Cape Perpetua Speaker Series presents “Early Period of Occupation at the Tahkenitch Landing Site and Surrounding Area” at 10 a.m. via Zoom, and will also include discussion about Kirkpatrick’s own recent research at the site. 

That first research at the site, conducted by a husband and wife team of archeologists from Eugene, Rick Minor and Kathryn Toepel in November and December 1984, revealed Tahkenitch Landing to be rich in deposits showing evidence of habitation as far as 8,000 years ago, the oldest such known location on the west coast of the United States. Prior to this discovery, the oldest known site of this sort was just 3,000 years old.  

“This more than doubles the known occupation of the Oregon coast,” said Toepel in 1984. “We knew there were people here earlier. It was just a matter of documenting it.”

Towards the end of the Pleistocene (often called the “ice age”) almost 10,000 years ago, glaciers began to melt, sea levels rose and Oregon’s coastal rivers and their saltwater bays were submerged. Tahkenitch and its two neighbors to the north, Siltcoos and Woahink, formed behind sand dunes that filled smaller streams and created the three lakes.  

This site shows evidence of habitation during both periods, when the area was an estuary and later when an inland lake formed. 

Within the site, researchers discovered shell middens, refuse piles found in ancient villages. These help to show researchers, like Minor, Toepel and Kirkpatrick, what ancient inhabitants ate and what tools they used.

The middens at Tahkenitch Landing were even more significant because they showed a progression from saltwater species like whale, sea lions and ocean dwelling shellfish to, as archeologist moved up to the newer parts of the middens, more freshwater resources, evidence of the transition of the site from saltwater estuary to inland lake like it is today.  

The fact the site exists at all is also significant, as most coastal sites were washed away or submerged by rising ocean levels. 

“The archeological record of the first Americans is known almost exclusively from interior sites located away from coastal margins,” said Kirkpatrick. “While archeologists hypothesize that early peoples initially migrated into the Americas along the Pacific Coast, environmental changes associated with post glacial (after the ice age) sea level rise may have destroyed or obscured these sites. In coastal areas currently above sea level, early sites are difficult to find due to terrestrial processes of landscape erosion and deep burial.”  

Kirkpatrick explained a large part of her research is simply finding what archeologists call “Dirt of the Right Age.”

Since some of the dirt found at Tahkenitch Landing is over 8,000 years old, it makes it one of the oldest of its kind on the west coast. Finding a site like this will also help future researchers find similar sites.

“My research really is focused on expanding our knowledge of where other early sites might be located, because they're difficult to find,” said Kirkpatrick. 

All archeological work done at the site is done in close cooperation with the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians.

“We work together with the local tribes to develop the questions we would like to answer with our research,” said Kirkpatrick. “They are very involved in the whole process and continue to be with any work we do out there.”

As important of an archeological discovery as the Tahkenitch Landing site is, the commercial value for the artifacts is low. While doing his research in 1984, Minor stressed that few tools or other artifacts were found at the site and that nothing of any commercial value was discovered.

“Vandals and trophy hunters have destroyed many an archeological dig,” said Minor. “The only payoff that will come from the Tahkenitch site will pay dividends in knowledge with scientists as the brokers.”

As one of those “brokers,” Kirkpatrick will give her presentation on Jan. 29 at 10 a.m. Pre-registration is required. To register and for additional information go to capeperpetuacollaborative.org/event/early-occupation-tahkenitch-landing/ or find the event on Facebook.

For information about the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, visit ctclusi.org. For information about the Confederated Tribes of

Siletz Indians, visit www.ctsi.nsn.us.