Human remains found on Vancouver Island have opened a door into a lost world
The discovery has resurfaced the tragic story of the Pentlatch people
On a sunny day in August, at the controls of a Komatsu 300 excavator, 32-year-old Jesse McKay was pulling up a gnarled and rotted old-growth tree stump on the north side of Washer Creek, just outside Union Bay, a sleepy old Vancouver Island community overlooking the Strait of Georgia about two hours’ drive north of Victoria. A massive commercial and residential project was going in, and McKay was picking up some work there.
Something fell from the roots of the stump. At first, McKay thought it was a strange-looking rock. But it wasn’t. “Sure enough, it was a skull,” McKay told me. It wasn’t an ordinary-looking skull, either. It was elongated, flat at the front, sloping toward the back. It was of a type typical of some Northwest Coast nations who practised an ancient custom—shared by the Inca of Peru and some early European cultures—of shaping babies’ heads during infancy. It was considered a mark of beauty.
McKay stopped work right away and called his boss, Mike Hamilton, a local logging contractor. The area was cordoned off. Hamilton called the real estate developer, and the archaeologists took over. Around the same time, a short walk away on the south side of the creek, a complete skeleton was unearthed along with four skulls by workers clearing land for the foundation of the project’s real-estate sales office.
Word started getting out in the local towns of Courtenay and Comox that something unsettling was going on at the Union Bay Estates development, the largest and most ambitious construction project on Vancouver Island north of Victoria. It had been on-again, off-again for more than 20 years, but work was finally under way. Eventually, the project’s planners intend to build out a brand-new community of at least 7,000 people, with a marina, a golf course, hotels and a commercial district.
Last year, several burials were disinterred during the clearing of an access road into the site, but nobody thought much of it at the time—it’s practically impossible to put a shovel in the ground anywhere near a beach in the Comox area and not come up with something from the Indigenous past. The local K’ómoks First Nation had been engaged, the developer’s consulting archaeologist had been called in and work on the road resumed.
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