The Alaskan Interior is a vast area and has generally been placed within the even larger Subarctic Zone. Stretching from south of the Brooks Range, over the Alaska Range to the Matanuska Valley and over to the Wrangell- St Elias and Chugach Mountains, the interior encompasses DENA, YUCH, and major portions of WRST and GAAR National Parks. Since the physiography of the region is so varied, including major mountain ranges, river valleys such as the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Susitna, and the Yukon-Tanana-Kuskokwim plateaus, vegetation is the criterion most frequently used in defining the Subarctic. Most writers include the boreal forest (taiga) and the transitional forest or forest-tundra ecotone as major elements in delimiting the zone. The Yukon-Tanana-Kuskokwim plateaus area of interior Alaska is considered one of the major physiographic regions of the North American Subarctic. In contrast to the Canadian Shield and Cordilleran areas of the Subarctic, this region was not glaciated during the later stages of the Pleistocene. This legacy is evident in well-developed drainage patterns and soils. The climate features long, very cold winters and relatively warm, short summers. Most of the precipitation falls as snow in the winter (another name for the area translates as "cold snow forest"). While the climate is dry (less than 46 cms/year = semiarid), the low evaporation and transpiration rates result in a general surplus of surface water.
One other common way that Interior Alaska is defined is culturally, or ethnographically. In historic times this area was the home of Athabaskan peoples. The Athabaskans have been defined as a group of mostly forest dwelling, hunting and gathering Indians, organized into bands, speaking a group of fairly closely related languages. The Turner, Greenberg, Zegura "Three Wave " hypothesis of settlement of the New World holds that the Athabaskan speaking people were a genetically and culturally separate wave from the early Amerindian groups and late Eskimo/Aleut groups. Anthropologists and linguists generally agree that proto-historic and historic Athabaskans were a separate group in Alaska, distinguishable on cultural and linguistic grounds from neighboring Inupiat, Yupik, Northwest Coast and Pacific Coast cultures. Archeologists, on the other hand, have been unable to pin down the origins of the Athabaskans in Siberia, northeastern Asia, or the New World. While there are several sites that indicate the existence of prehistoric Athabaskans in Alaska, the origins and connections to the historically known ethnographic Athabaskans is much more difficult to trace.
Of concern to us are the 23 languages that form a recognized geographical subdivision of the Athabaskan language family, usually referred to as Northern Athabaskan (Krauss and Golla 1990). They occupy a large, continuous area, mostly in the subarctic interior of Alaska and western Canada. Other groups of Athabaskan languages exist on the Pacific Coast of Oregon and northern California (where it is spoken by a number of riverine and coastal tribes), and in the Pueblo-Southwest (the Apachean languages which include Navajo, Kiowa, Lipan and various Apache tribes). The Athabaskan family of languages is one branch of a larger linguistic group - Athabaskan-Eyak. Eyak, the only other branch, in 1980 nearly extinct, was spoken on the south coast of Alaska, near the mouth of the Copper River. Tlingit, a later arrival on that coast, has a close resemblance to Athabaskan-Eyak in structure but not in vocabulary. Sapir (Krauss and Golla 1981) believed that there was sufficient evidence of a genetic (linguistic) relationship between Tlingit, Athabaskan and Haida to group them into a single entity which he named Na-Dene. More recently, other scholars have felt that Sapir's Na-Dene hypothesis was too broad and that an historical explanation better explains the similarities between Athabaskan and Tlingit and that Haida is not part of the group at all. Greenberg's research (Turner 1994) has recently postulated again the Na-Dene grouping as a larger language phylum.
From a linguistic point of view, it appears that Proto-Athabaskan-Eyak was probably present in interior Alaska and the Yukon by at least 6000 BP. The split between Proto-Athabaskan and Proto-Eyak took place around 3500 BP and the Athabaskan languages differentiated around 2500 BP or later (Krauss 1990). The probable location of this differentiation was eastern interior Alaska, the headwaters of the Yukon River, and northern British Columbia, or some part of this area. Again, based upon linguistic evidence, the earliest directions of Athabaskan expansion were probably westward into Alaska and southward into southern and central British Columbia - probably by 500 AD (ibid.). Later expansion included a movement eastward into the MacKenzie River drainage and another movement southward along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains into the Southwest (the Apachean languages).
Archeologists (Borden; Dumond; Carlson), using the Na-Dene hypothesis, have suggested a correlation between "Na-Dene"-speaking people and the spread of the Northwest Microblade tradition of the southwestern Yukon in Canada around 7000 BP. Since the Northern Microblade tradition is not generally accepted, other archeologists have linked the ancestral Athabaskans to the Northern Archaic and Northern Cordilleran traditions (Clark 1992) of the same general time period. Based on the Healy archeological site, Cook and McKennan (1970) have postulated the development of the recognizable Athabaskan cultural pattern to have begun in the northern Interior with the major environmental and adaptive changes that preceded the Northern Archaic tradition at least 6000 years ago.
The lack of a clearly stratified and dated archeological site showing the development of the Athabaskan culture pattern has prevented resolution of the differing theories. The Klo-Kut site, in the middle Porcupine River drainage, provides the longest unbroken prehistoric record of Athabaskan occupation. The site reveals 1500 years of continuous occupation that culminates in a well-documented Athabaskan village component. Morlan (1970) characterizes the inhabitants of Klo-Kut as primarily caribou hunters, oriented toward upland, treeless areas and postulates a similar lifeway for other northern Athabaskans during the late prehistoric period. Another site, EAG-139, which is located on the left bank of the Yukon river between Eagle and Eagle Village, represented a Han Athabaskan village that was occupied between 1880 and 1890 AD. Based on oral history and archeological data from the site, it appears that the Han families there focussed on hunting large and small game, especially caribou and salmon.
Another theoretical thread for the prehistory of the Athabaskans is one that links the effects of a major volcanic eruption in the St Elias Range (represented archeologically as the White River Ash), at about 1890 BP with the displacement of Athabaskan groups around Kluane and Aishihik lakes, subsequent movement to the northwest, and the appearance on the Brooks Range with Kavik points and tci-thos, as well as other generalized implements of the Athabaskan tradition. It is also possible that this eruption and displacement was a starting point for the movement of Athabaskan speakers to the Southwest.
The development of Athabaskan culture in the southern part of the Interior (WRST) and southwestern Yukon shows a similar pattern (Table 6). One of the earliest sites, from around 700 BP, is GUL-077, which is a late winter camp along the lower Gulkana River and on the western border of the park. Other Athabaskan sites in that area are Dakah De'nin's Village, a protohistoric site near Chitina, and Taral, a historic period site just across the Copper River.
One of the few Athabaskan cultural sequences has been developed by Workman (1974) for the Aishihik-Kluane Lake area of the southwestern Yukon, just adjacent to the eastern border of WRST. The sequence is divided into four cultural phases:
To be noted is the long persistence of the Little Arm phase (3500 years) that was abruptly replaced by the appearance of the Taye Lake phase technology, which then persisted for thousands of years. Whether Taye Lake really represents the advent of Athabaskan peoples is a major research question for this region.
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