History tells us that Vancouver Island was settled by the ancestors of Northwest Coast indigenous people at least 10,000 years ago, but what if the discovery of an artifact called that into question? And what if its existence was unknown to most area residents and scholars? While digging a well, mining engineer James Thomas Orr Hepburn discovered such an artifact.
In the spring of 1923, Hepburn was working on his property along Burchell Rd on the Nanaimo River in Cedar. The water level would have been high with spring runoff. Lush cedar, birch, and salal covered the landscape. As the machinery worked deep into the ground, a large rock was unearthed. It was a petroglyph—art created by removing part of the rock surface by carving or abrading—with human and animal features, 40-centimetres high with a circumference of 43-centimetres, and weighing approximately 99 pounds.
In The Chronicle of Ladysmith and District, Donna Jean Noddin contributes one of the only available reports about the item found in Cedar. At the time, “scientists” believed that the 640-year-old cedar tree that grew above the site, plus the eight-metre accumulation of soil and debris over it, placed the stone’s age at approximately 15,000 years old. The unusual imagery on the stone, coupled with its alleged age, challenges commonly held beliefs about settlement in the area, though today’s archeology community is unconvinced.
“Much of what is written about the Hepburn stone was done at a time before radio-carbon dating and before there were any professional archaeologists in British Columbia,” says Grant Keddie of Royal BC Museum. Coleen Parsley of the Archeology Society of BC is also cautious, as it was an “era of enquiry when methods were suspect.”
Newspaper reports from 1926 place the depth at 3.5 metres. Keddie questions whether an item discovered at that depth was actually resting there. “It was likely found closer to the surface than the statements of 12 feet,” he says. Andrew Martindale of the University of British Columbia Department of Archeology says “A discovery at that depth near an active waterway is neither unusual nor necessarily indicative of great age.” Noddin’s information was also contradicted by The Daily Province of Vancouver, which reported the age of the artifact as between 450 and 1500 years old. Yet carvings in Nanaimo’s Petroglyph Park are verified as 1000-1500 years old, which makes it possible that the stone was from the same era.
Keddie also points out that forgeries of stone figures and petroglyphs are not uncommon. “I would like to examine it closer someday to rule out that it is not a fake,” he says. So far, no one in the archeology community has taken on the task of doing comprehensive research and testing to unlock the mysteries of the Hepburn Stone.
If the artifact is actually closer to 15,000 years old, it raises many questions about settlement in the area. Northwest Coast indigenous people have been in the area for at least 10,000 years. But an artifact aged at 15,000 years is problematic because, as Roy Carlson of the Simon Fraser University Department of Archeology points out, “Vancouver Island was still covered with glacial ice at that time.” With habitation as we know it unlikely under those conditions, it’s unclear how the stone’s carvers would have survived.
It’s also assumed that the Coast Salish in the area would have had lore about the piece, yet there is none. The figure’s features don’t resemble the Salish people, so the carvers likely had different ancestors. Who were they related to? First Nations elders in the area speak of “the ones who came before” and believe there were people here long before today’s First Nations arrived.
In an unrelated excavation at nearby Duke Point in 1978, S. Neal Crozier, an archaeologist from Victoria, found beads and extremely fine obsidian micro-blades. If they were connected with the origins of the stone, the civilization that produced the collection items was extremely advanced.
One of the most compelling elements of the Hepburn Stone is the lack of information available. There are some who speculate, in hushed whispers, that the stone itself does not wish to be fully understood. Perhaps it is meant to tell us something that we are not ready to hear yet. If the stone is much, much older than anything else encountered on Vancouver Island, we may be in for revelations that we can only dream about. Or not.