Alagnak Wild River
An Illustrated Guide to the Cultural History of the Alagnak Wild River
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12,000 b.p. Ice from the last Ice Age receded from the Alagnak River drainage well before 12,000 years ago.
9,000 b.p. Cultural evidence of people who occupied the river banks and lake outlets since the last ice age, is found on the surface of the glacial drift and outwash deposits at the lake outlets. Some evidence of camp sites near the headwaters may be as much as 9,000 years old.
2,500 b.p. Pottery made of local clay and tempered with hair or down, and later with sand or gravel, is common in sites on the Alaska Peninsula beginning 2,500 years ago.
2,200 b.p. Most of the village sites along the banks of the Alagnak are less than 2,200 years old. The reconstructed ceramic vessel (shown above) from Alagnak site DIL-161 has a flat-bottom and is 7.5 inches high. It is about 2,100 years old.

The human history of the Alagnak Wild River drainage is a rich and complex story that is beginning to unfold through the combined efforts of Native residents, archeologists, historians, and ethnographers. The story begins sometime after the close of the last great Ice Age 14,000 years ago, when glacial ice receded from the region and plants, animals, and finally early Americans colonized the pristine landscape over a period of some millennia. Archeologists don't know who the first people were to see this landscape or when they first set foot here. We will never know what language they spoke or what their belief systems were, yet, we can learn about aspects of their lives from the remains of their camps. Their traces are extremely rare and fragile. We ask that you help us protect these resources by leaving the ground or objects you might find undisturbed.

At the headwaters of the Alagnak, archeologists have found the remains of small camps whose occupants must have practiced a mixed economy of hunting, gathering, and probably some fishing. Based on the tools left behind (which are similar to those that have been radiocarbon dated elsewhere) people probably used these camps about 9,000 years ago. Stone tools they expertly fashioned from carefully prepared cores include long thin blades of varying sizes (shown below). Side-notched points found in the same area were hafted or fastened to spears and launched using a throwing board or atlatl by caribou hunters as early as 7,000 years

Microblade cores at near right and microblades at far right.

Small arrow point

Although we know that the area must certainly have been occupied, there is up to a 5,000 year gap in the archeological record along the Alagnak Wild River until the settlement of winter villages about 2,300 years ago. Recent archeological investigations at one of these villages have shown that the large size and extent of the settlement results from a series of separate occupations spanning 1,100 years (see map below). This was a time of rapid and unpredictable climatic and cultural change, beginning with a widespread cold snap when houses were correspondingly large, single-roomed, multifamily dwellings heated by a central hearth. The use of outdoor, underground cold storage caches was probably adopted at this time. Occupation continued at this site through a warm spike called the Medieval Warm Period and ended at the beginning of another cold period called the Little Ice Age. Remains of small chipped stone points indicate that the bow and arrow replaced the use of darts and the atlatl during this period (see page 8).

Severe erosion of the stream-bank fronting site DIL-161 makes this one of the most threatened sites along the Alagnak corridor.

An archeologist, who braved isolation and a cold rainy summer in a tent to investigate this site in 2004, was impressed by the contrasting comfort that prehistoric villagers must have experienced in their well-built homes. Dr. Bundy wrote:

The past people could catch salmon in the summer, either with a net across the river, or by traveling up to the lakes and spearing or trapping the fish in shallow water. In the fall, the berries are ready for picking, and the caribou are migrating through. A family that dried or smoked [or froze] salmon, berries and caribou meat could feast on their bounty through the winter, and supplement their stores by ice fishing and trapping smaller mammals like beavers. Maybe the short winter days were passed by sewing clothing, making tools and mending nets, and the long nights spent dancing and socializing in their snug, sturdy homes.

The Alagnak River corridor was not abandoned during the Little Ice Age, which ended about 150 years ago. Archeologists have recorded camps and villages all along the Alagnak that were used during the last cold period and through the time of contact with Russian traders and missionaries. The Alagnak Wild River drainage was a homeland to Native people until the late nineteenth century when they moved to new settlements for commercial opportunities.

Archeologists working at site DIL-161 along the Alagnak River

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Last Updated: 22-Jun-2009