Archeological Overview of Alaska

Imuruk Lake Cave, Cache of kayak paddles, Western Arctic National Parklands
Imuruk Cave Cache in Lava Field,Western Arctic National Parklands, E. Devinney, NPS

A complete discussion of what is known of the prehistory of the Alaska Region is not within the purview of this document. The region is so large (1/5 the size of the continental United States), and diverse ecologically, physiologically, and culturally that any synthesis must be skeletal in nature. Provided here is a general description of the broad units of the cultural chronology of the area. Today, mainland Alaska is a large projection that sticks out like a thumb from North America toward Siberia. Its interior flatlands, dissected by rivers and mountain chains, lead into the main body of North America and its rocky southern coast runs into the Pacific Northwest coast of Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. Ten thousand years ago, however, the Alaska mainland was, physically and ecologically, a part of Asia, from which it was severed by the rising seawater that formed the Bering Sea to the south and the Chukchi Sea to the north. Bering Strait is the connection between the two seas. Alaska's importance to American prehistory is precisely the result of its unique geographic position; not just for the early settlement of the continent but also as the land through which later waves of immigration passed.

During the Pleistocene, northern and central Alaska (and Beringia as a whole), experienced a lesser amount of glaciation than did much of North America, including the Northwest Coast. During the height of the last great Wisconsin glaciation, continuous ice Barriers in Alaska were confined to the east-west trending mountain ridges of the north and south. In the Yukon, east of the present-day Alaska border, the mountain glacier systems curved and nearly joined together along the northern extension of the Rocky Mountains. Thus, at the height of the Pleistocene, the Alaskan interior formed a relatively ice-free bowl, covered by "steppe tundra" vegetation (also called mammoth tundra), out of which a narrow, ice-free corridor led eastward and southward, between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets into the continental interior. Another possible ice-free zone that could have formed a migration route was down the coastal zones into the Pacific northwest. By 10,000 BP, the melting of the ice sheets had removed the barriers and opened all routes from Alaska.

At the time of European contact, the coast of Alaska north of the Alaska Peninsula was occupied by people adapted to life along winter ice-bound coasts. They spoke two distinct Eskimoan languages. One was spoken eastward as far as Hudson's Bay; and a second was spoken by the Pacific coastal people of the region around Kodiak island and Prince William Sound, as well as around Norton Sound. From the tip of the Alaska Peninsula and westward throughout the Aleutian Islands, were found the Aleuts, who existed by open-water hunting and fishing and whose language was related to Eskimoan in an Eskaleutian language stock. The Alaskan interior was home to broadly adapted hunters and fishers of the boreal forest. Several distinct languages were spoken by these people, all part of the large Athabaskan family of languages, stretching throughout the boreal forest.

The northern Northwest Coast was the home of the Eyak, Tlingit, and Haida, whose languages are sometimes included with Athabaskan in a Na-Dene linguistic phylum.

The physiography of Alaska is dominated by mountains and rivers. Dominating the north of Alaska is the Brooks Range, which runs generally east-west, into the Yukon Territory. There it swings southward - the Richardson, Pelly, and Selwyn Ranges - and can be seen as the northern end of the Rocky Mountains. Across the center of Alaska runs the Alaska Range, which is dominated by the Denali and Foraker massifs. Lying between the Brooks and Alaska Ranges are the Tanana-Yukon Uplands in the east, and in the farwest is the Seward Peninsula. Lowland areas of considerable extent occur on the north slope of Alaska and in the Yukon and Kuskokwim basins of the interior. Southeast Alaska contains the Wrangell Mountains. The Chugach Range runs from that range westward to Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula. In Southwest Alaska, the Aleutian Range becomes the backbone of the Alaska Peninsula and continues as the Aleutian Islands, extending about 1300 miles into the Bering Sea. The closest section of mainland Alaska to the Chukotka Peninsula, of the Russian Far East, is the tip of the Seward Peninsula, which, logically enough, shows the only "readily traceable genetic relationship" between the bedrock of Alaska and those of Siberia. Hopkins has said that the lithology of the Seward Peninsula is more like that of Chukotka than it is like that of the rest of Alaska (Hopkins 1967).

Also dominating the landscape of Alaska is its hydrography. The largest river system is the Yukon and its tributaries, the Porcupine, the Tanana, and the Koyukon. The Yukon crosses Alaska in a WSW direction, emptying into the Bering Sea. Crossing the North Slope is the Colville River, which originates in the Brooks Range and terminates in the Arctic Ocean. In northwest Alaska are the Noatak and Kobuk Rivers with their numerous tributaries. The Kuskokwim River, draining the large Kuskokwim Delta, runs south of the Yukon River and also empties into the Bering Sea south of the Yukon and just north of the Alaska Peninsula. The southcentral region is marked by the Susitna River draining into Cook Inlet and the Copper River, which empties into Prince William Sound. Further south is the Alsek-Tatshenshini system, which drains into the Gulf of Alaska by way of Dry Bay.

The landscape is dissected by these mountain ranges and river systems, which, when crosscut by the arctic and subarctic climate of the region, form innumerable microniches and habitation zones. Overall, though, the two dominant vegetation types (except for the Southeast Panhandle) are tundra and taiga. The boundary between the two zones, which has shifted many times over the millennia, seems to be governed mostly by climate. In warmer times, the treeline, or northern edge of the boreal forest (another name for taiga), shifts to the north, bringing ecological change in its wake and fostering concomitant cultural change.

The extreme southeast part of Alaska, the Southeast Panhandle, where Sitka National Historical Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park are located, is part of the Pacific Northwest Coast , which is dominated by a coastal environment and a temperate rain forest.

The prehistory of the Alaska region can be described by means of a series of cultural traditions, each of which represents a distinct lifeway that persisted for a number of human generations and is represented archeologically by broadly similar sets of artifact assemblages. It is noteworthy that there is a tendency in Alaska to construct major prehistoric chronological sequences based on the few excavated sites (such as Onion Portage, Ugashik, Cape Krusenstern, Ground Hog Bay), and to apply them over wide geographic areas. This problem needs to be addressed by better evaluation of sites in order to verify the chronologies at the local level and to develop better views of the mosaic of adaptations and changes that characterize the prehistory of Alaska. Since most distinctions are currently based upon comparisons of artifact typologies, correlations of ethnic and linguistic identities with archeological entities are necessarily speculative. Distinguishing between diffusion and migration, a central archeological research domain in Alaska, is also difficult. Similarly, the study of human interaction with different and changing environments is a primary focus of cultural resources research in Alaska. A great deal more data need to be accumulated in order to address these cultural and interpretive questions. One neglected resource that can help address these matters is the study of late prehistoric, protohistoric and ethnohistoric sites of the last 500 years. These sites and resources, mostly exposed surface sites, are especially vulnerable to loss because of the more ephemeral nature of the cultural material in them.

Although the archeological database for the Alaska Region remains both limited and sketchy, preliminary evidence allows us to state with confidence that a wide range of archeological sites, prehistoric, historic and ethnohistoric, are contained within the NPS units. Among the most important are those that date from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene (the boundary is difficult to fix precisely). These provide a record of the first entries of humans into the Americas and consequently, they are associated with one of the great migratory events of human history --- the peopling of the New World. The descendants of the "First Alaskans" who created these sites went on to spread across North and South America, eventually reaching Tierra del Fuego about 10,700 years BP. As far as Native Americans are concerned, all roads seem to lead back to Alaska; it was the original homeland in the New World.

The majority of the archeological resources of the Alaska Region date from the post-Pleistocene era, roughly the period between 11,500 BP and the coming of the Europeans (circa 1750 AD). These sites document the diverse and changing adaptations of Alaska's major Native groups. From all indications, the story contained in these prehistoric sites is varied and immensely complex. The cultural complexity and diversity represented in the archeological record can be partly attributed to the vast size and the varied environments of Alaska. The state stretches from the rainy and forested Pacific Northwest to the arid and treeless Arctic Coastal Plain. In distance, this span of territory is comparable to the many miles that separate Florida from northern Minnesota and the range of ecological and cultural variation is at least similar, if not greater. The prehistory of Alaska reflects this extreme variation.

Another source of the complexity of Alaska's archeological record is the interaction that occurred among the various groups and areas. People did not stay put through time; there was a constant ebb and flow of cultural groups and traits. For example, the Dena'ina Athabaskans apparently expanded out of the interior to dominate a large segment of the southwestern Alaska coast, pushing out Yupik and Chugach Eskimo, in the centuries before European contact. Within a few centuries, however, their material culture, as seen in the archeological record, became difficult to indistinguish from their maritime Eskimo neighbors. Trade was also widespread and this promoted the emergence of new cultural variations. The famous Chilkoot Trail of Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park was originally a major trade route which the coastal Tlingit established and guarded for their trade with the Athabaskan groups of the interior.

Still another complicating factor, and one not found elsewhere in the prehistory of the Americas, was the continuing contact that existed over the millennia between Alaskan Natives and the Old World of northeast Asia. Ideas, goods, and often people moved back and forth across the Bering Strait that separates Alaska from Siberia. We know from local informants that, well into the nineteenth century, Siberian raiders were frequent visitors to the shores of what is now the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Peninsula. Peaceful contact was also frequent. For instance, one of the favored items that passed across the Bering Strait in peaceful times was iron, which reached as far east as Hudson's Bay - a symbol of Alaska's unique connection to the Old World that existed for thousands of years prior to the sailing of Columbus.

The archeological record in Alaska's parks is varied and rich. Some of the larger and more complex sites, such as the large prehistoric settlements of the sea mammal hunting Eskimo and the maritime Tlingit, are characterized by complex architecture and frequently yield bone, ivory, and wood objects of unequaled craftsmanship and artistic skill. Nor are Alaskan sites few and far between. Extremely dense concentrations appear to be fairly common along many segments of the Alaskan coast, around certain lakes, along salmon-rich rivers, and at favorable locations beside major caribou migratory routes.

Archeological sites associated with the historic past also abound. The earliest are associated with the Russian colonization of Alaska, occurring not only at Sitka in the southeast, but also in the Lake Clark and Wrangell St. Elias areas. The most common historical archeological sites are those linked to the American Period, and most particularly to the Gold Rush era and the time immediately following. These range from whole former towns like Dyea at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park to scattered and isolated camps of early prospectors, hunters and trappers. Sites associated with this expansive era of American history occur throughout most of the Alaska park areas.

Also worthy of note as archeological resources are the historic and ethnohistoric settlements of the Native peoples of Alaska. These document the acculturative changes that followed European contact and expansion, as well as providing a bridge to the interpretation of the more remote prehistoric past. Because these more recent sites are part of a remembered past, they often have traditional cultural value to Native Alaskans and are also part of the ethnographic resources of the Alaska Region. Because traditional lifeways have continued (with various modifications) into the present, it is difficult to define discrete ethnographic resources in this region. Use of many of the park areas by Native Alaskans is widespread and frequently intensive; and is not limited to an occasional ceremony or plant collecting expedition. A large percentage of Alaskan parklands serve very real subsistence needs for local people. From this perspective, park areas like Kobuk, Noatak and others do not contain ethnographic sites, they are ethnographic sites.

There are probably underwater archeological resources within some of the Alaska NPS units, especially in the coastal units. However, at present they are not of major concern. Treasure hunting and consequent site destruction do not appear to be current issues in management of NPS lands in Alaska . In setting project priorities under SAIP, the Regional Archeologicst and the priority-setting committee will consult with the Submerged Cultural Resources Unit of the NPS. Recommendations from that unit will be utilized in the Alaska SAIP program implementation.

The image of the Alaska Region park areas as uninhabited "pristine" wilderness has caused a misconception of the prehistoric and historic uses of the areas and the type of resources found there. People have hunted, fished, trapped and lived in them for millennia. The currently popular conception of "Wilderness" as untouched by human hand or influence is misleading. Humans have been part of these ecosystems for thousands of years and have exercised profound influences on them. The study of paleoenvironments and setting baselines against which to measure changes is part and parcel of the study of the archeological record.

One of the most important research domains of interest in Alaska is, of course, Beringia and the entry of humans into the New World. A broad view of this domain would include the first, early entry and the successive waves of immigrants that followed. It is generally accepted that the New World was settled by immigrants from Siberia and Northeast Asia at least 14,000 years ago and that the majority of these people arrived across the Bering Land Bridge and Bering Strait. The date of the first arrival is still an unsettled issue among researchers.

An early date of 33,000 years BP has been proposed for a cultural complex found at Monte Verde, Chile by Dillahay (1984, 1988) but it has not yet been generally accepted. Another, more substantial component at this site, dating from 14,000 to 12,000, has been widely accepted . Another site, Meadowcroft Rockshelter in westcentral Pennsylvania, has a component that has been dated at about 16,000 years BP. Further to the north, a small cultural component at Bluefish Caves in the Yukon, has been dated by Cinq-Mars at ca. 13,000 BP. Also in the time range of 13,000 BP are some broken bones from Trail Creek Caves on the Seward Peninsula that the excavator feels could only have been broken by humans (Larson 1968). All the other firmly dated sites that seem to be pertinent to early human settlement of this hemisphere postdate 12,000 BP.

The picture of who crossed the bridge and when is still a murky one, with new finds and hypotheses modifying the model on a regular basis. The strongest current hypothesis is the Three Wave theory proposed by Greenberg, Turner and Zegura (Turner 1994). It is based on linguistic, dental and genetic data and it generally correlates to the current state of archaeological knowledge. This model hypothesizes that there were three main waves of immigration across Bering Strait that came from distinctive founding populations in Siberia and northeast Asia. The first wave passed through Alaska to found the main Amerindian groups of the New World. The second wave would have been the Athabaskan settlers that occupied the taiga areas. The last wave, according to this model, would have been the ancestors of the Eskimo/Aleut populations. This model gives a fine broad picture but it is hard to prove or disprove in the details of the archeological record. There are also scholars who disagree with this hypothesis on theoretical grounds (Moore 1994). Since the waves would have been made up of many small groups of people, the archeological remains could have varied widely as each group carried a tool kit that varied from other groups. As a result, there are almost as many ideas and theories as there are differing archeological assemblages. The general picture presented here represents a very general syntheses and is far from definitive.

Paleoarctic Tradition

The most widely accepted early tradition in Alaska has been the Paleoarctic Tradition (also called the American Paleoarctic, the Siberian-American Paleoarctic, the Beringian Tradition, the Denali Tradition,and the Paleomarine Tradition), which is characterized by a lithic assemblage based on a core and blade technology featuring microblades, distinctive microcores, and burins. This tradition has been found in most parts of Alaska, under one guise or another. It is generally dated at 8000 to 10,000 BP.

The type site is Onion Portage in Kobuk Valley National Park (but not NPS property) where the Akmak assemblage was investigated by Anderson (1970a). This tradition shows clear antecedents in and relationships to archeological sites of Siberia and northeast Asia, e.g. archeological entities in Kamchatka and Chukotka (Late Ushki and early Ul'khum as defined by Dikov (1993), the Duiktai Complex of Siberia) as well as more distant sites in Japan, northeastern China, and Mongolia. While no one Siberian or Asian archaeological entity shows as an exact antecedent there are definite correlations across the board with the technology of the Paleoarctic Tradition sites of Alaska. In greater Beringia, which Anderson (1970a:70) sees as an environmental zone of tundra/northern taiga that stretched from Lake Baikal to eastern Alaska, the concept of this tradition reflects the presence of a common adaptation with an economy focused on land-based hunting by small and mobile groups of people whose sites seem to represent small camps and/or lookouts.

The Paleoarctic Tradition is widespread in Alaska, especially the hallmark microblade and burin technological complex. Paleoarctic type assemblages have been found in or very near every NPS area in Alaska except Sitka National Historical Park and Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Paleoarctic materials, sometimes called the Denali Complex, have been found at Dry Creek (Component II) in the Interior by Denali National Park and Preserve, and at Aishihik Lake in western Canada near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Along the coast it has been called the Paleomarine and has been found at Groundhog Bay on the tip of the Chilkat Peninsula, just outside Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, at Hidden Falls on Baranof Island, and Chuck Lake on Hecata Island. These coastal sites provide support for the theory of a coastal migration route for the early settlement of the New World that Fladmark (1979) first proposed.

Paleoindian Tradition

Recent discoveries in Alaska have led to the revival of the scholarly debate on the origins of the Paleoindian cultures that are exemplified by the Clovis, Folsom, Agate Basin, Plainview and other archeological traditions that were extant in the continental United States from 11,500 BP until Archaic times. The currently accepted idea is that the Clovis culture, with its distinctive fluted point technology, evolved south of the continental ice sheets of the late Pleistocene, and followed the periglacial environmental zones (characterized by a megafaunal subsistence base) northward as the glaciers retreated. One of the main supports of this theory of indigenous development has been the apparent lack of antecedent cultures in Siberia, Northeastern Asia, and Alaska. While fluted points have been found in Alaska (but not in Siberia) they have never been firmly dated as early enough to mark the migration or diffusion of the technology from north to the south. Recently, Dikov (1993) has suggested that the archeological assemblage of the lowest levels of the Ushki sites in Kamchatka, the Early Ushki component, seems to have some Paleoindian affinities.

Recently, Kunz and Reanier (1994) have redated and reinterpreted the data from the Mesa Site, which lies at Iteriak Creek just north of the boundary of GAAR. The site, now dated at between 10,300 and 11,500 BP, contains a lithic assemblage characterized by lanceolate points that are like some Paleoindian points but lacking the fluting. Also lacking is the Paleoarctic core and blade complex. This has led the researchers to postulate that this site represents a different group of people, a cultural group they have named the Northern Paleoindian tradition, which is related to the Paleoindian groups, such as Agate Basin and Hell Gap of mid-continent North America. Component I at Dry Creek near DENA, which lies stratigraphically under a Paleoarctic component and has been dated around 11,500 BP, also lacks a core and blade industry. This Nenana Complex is also seen as having links to the Paleoindian traditions of the lower 48 and as predating the Paleoarctic cultures.

Thus it can be seen that the early cultural history of Alaska has not been definitively described. Relatively few early sites have been found and thoroughly investigated. Given the size of the potential resource and the unexplored nature of the terrain, there are bound to be new discoveries that generate as many questions and theories as answers.

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Northern Archaic Tradition

The next widespread cultural entity (horizon?) that can be discerned in the prehistory of Alaska is another technological tradition. It has been named the Northern Archaic tradition because it seems related to the Archaic cultures of the boreal forest south and east of Alaska. This apparently intrusive group or groups appeared around 6000 BP across a wide area of Alaska. The type site is at Onion Portage in Kobuk Valley National Park. It has also been found in the Brooks Range in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, at the Palisades in Cape Krusenstern National Monument, in the Graveyard Point site in Katmai National Park and Preserve, in the interior of Alaska, and in the northern Yukon of Canada. Some of the sites include microblade technology and tabular microcores such as that found at the Tuktu and Kurupa Lake sites in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The presence or absence of this earlier technology has led to varying interpretations of the origins and roles of the Northern Archaic people. On one hand it has been judged as basically an interior tradition, a result of people following the expanding boreal forest northward during a climatic warming period and displacing the local descendants of the Paleoarctic groups in Alaska. On the other hand, others have seen it as a technological diffusion that spread with varying degrees of acceptance from the boreal forests northward and westward. Migration and/or diffusion, this enigmatic cultural level appears to have had relatively little influence on later prehistory in the region. Cook (1969) and some others, however, see this tradition as a possible root for the later Athabaskan cultures in the Interior of Alaska.

Regional Specialization

Beginning around 4000 BP, the archeological record becomes righer and more detailed, and a finer focus can be utilized and more specific chronologies and hypotheses proposed. In broad areas differentiated by physiograhy, ecology, and geography, the cultural chronologies can be developed on a local basis and then compared with the broader themes of those time periods. While broad similarities remain, with many commonalities in the archeological record, regional specializations do appear. In this overview, the following zones, adapted for this review of post-4000 BP prehistory from Dumond (1977, 1987) serve as the basis for the regional overviews:


Of course, none of the areas are mutually exclusive and each can be differently or more finely divided, depending on one's viewpoint and the time period of interest. In addition, since cultural boundaries waxed and waned over the millenia, most NPS areas do not fit exclusively in any one regional area.

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