It's a First World Idyll that ancient indigenous people sustained themselves using nature's bounty, in harmony with the land.

Science knows otherwise. Instead, from Alaska to Washington, indigenous people created productive clam gardens to ensure abundant and sustainable clam harvests. There was nothing natural about it.

A new study in American Antiquity dated stone terraces that created clam beaches, which are more than 1,000 years old and likely many thousands of years older. The researchers identified many places where people built gardens on bedrock, creating ideal clam habitats where there were none before. That challenges the modern notion that First Nations were living in wild, untended environments.

The researchers utilized First Nations linguistic data, oral traditions and memories, geomorphological surveys, archaeological techniques and ecological experiments that belong to the Clam Garden Network. Working on the clam gardens posed some logistical challenges since many are only visible for about 72 daylight hours per year. 

"We think that many Indigenous peoples worldwide had some kind of sophisticated marine management, but the Pacific Northwest is likely one of the few places in the world where this can be documented," says Simon Fraser University archaeologist Dana Lepofsky. "This is because our foreshores are more intact than elsewhere and we can work closely with Indigenous knowledge holders."

A study last year found that these ancient gardens produced quadruple the number of butter clams and twice the number of littleneck clams as unmodified clam beaches. It was the first study to provide empirical evidence of the productivity of ancient Pacific Northwest clam gardens and ther capacity of ancient agricultural science to increase food production.