Archeology of Interior Alaska

Microblades and microblade core, Noatak National Preserve
Microblades and microblade core, Noatak National Preserve, NPS Photo


The Alaskan Interior is a vast area that has generally been placed within the even larger Subarctic environmental zone. Stretching from south of the Brooks Range, over the Alaska Range, south to the Matanuska Valley and east to the Wrangell- St Elias and Chugach Mountains, the Interior encompasses Denali National Park and Preserve (DENA), Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve (YUCH), and major portions of Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve (WRST), as well as the portion of Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (GAAR) that is south of the Brooks Range. Since the physiography of the region is so varied, including major mountain ranges, river valleys such as the Yukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Tanana, and Susitna, and the Yukon-Tanana-Kuskokwim plateau, vegetation is the criterion most frequently used in defining the Subarctic. Most writers include the boreal forest (taiga) and the transitional forest (the forest-tundra ecotone) as major elements in delimiting the zone. The Yukon-Tanana-Kuskokwim plateau area of Interior Alaska is considered one of the major physiographic regions of the North American Subarctic (Dixon 2007; Helm 1981). In contrast to the Canadian Shield and Cordilleran (Rocky Mountains) 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 modern 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 of moisture, which is semiarid), the low evaporation and transpiration rates result in a general surplus of surface water, especially where there is permafrost.

Early Archeological Traditions

Because this area has been unglaciated since the late Pleistocene, it has been the focus of many archeologists looking for evidence of the “first” migrants from the Asian side of the Bering Land Bridge. Indeed, Interior Alaska contains archeological sites that cover the full range of early prehistoric cultures in subarctic Alaska. The very early time period (as far back as 11,500 BP) is represented by more than one possible archeological tradition. The Paleoarctic archeological tradition, with its characteristic lithic technology of microblades, microcores and flake burins, has been found in many places, including sites in DENA.

An archeological site survey, begun in 2007 by a crew led by Bryan Wygal, found a cluster of sites, such as Bull Run II and Costello Creek with possible Paleoarctic tradition assemblages in DENA (Wygal 2009). The Denali Complex, first proposed by F. H. West (1975), was based upon the presence of a typical Paleoarctic tradition microblade lithic component at the Campus archeological site in Fairbanks, Alaska. He later expanded his concept to cover a broader geographic area. Later researchers have since refined and redefined the Denali Complex concept (Mobley 1991, 1996). The Dry Creek archeological site, which is located just north of the entrance to DENA in the Nenana River Valley, also contains a Paleoarctic tradition component. However, it also contains a component without a microblade lithic industry that is about as old. Some researchers have linked this component to the Northern Paleoindian tradition that was first defined at the Mesa site north of the Brooks Range (Bever 2001; Dixon 2007; Mann et al. 2001). A number of archeological sites with similar components have been found in and around the Nenana River Valley near the Dry Creek site and this has led to the defining of a Nenana Complex, which the authors feel represents an in situ development of an early culture, without a microblade lithic industry, in the central part of Interior Alaska (Hoffecker 2001; Hoffecker and Elias; Powers and Hamilton 1978, Powers and Hoffecker 1989).

In the Tanana River Valley, just to the east of the Nenana River valley, two archeological sites, named Swan Point and Broken Mammoth, have been found which also have long archeological sequences in them (Holmes 1996, 2001, 2006, 2008, 2009). Swan Point has a lower cultural layer with a microblade lithic industry and another early component that lacks the typical microblade industry of the Paleoarctic tradition. These sites also lead to the possibility of an early cultural mosaic in the central Interior. Other archeological sites, such as Carlo Creek (Bowers and Reuther 2000) and Little Delta Dune (Potter et al. 2008) also provide additional data for the debate.

Both the Dry Creek and the Swan Point site contain prehistoric components with the lithic tools that are typical of the Northern Archaic archeological tradition. It seems likely that these areas in the Interior were part of the general movement of the Northern Archaic culture to the north and west that followed the taiga as it shifted to the north and west during the warm climate interval (known as the Hypsithermal Period) from 6000 to 4000 BP. Some climate studies (Bigelow and Powers 2001) indicate that the appearance of the Northern Archaic tradition did not follow a direct north and west pattern but instead moved north as the forest environment in the interior of Alaska succumbed to sphagnum peatland development (Mason and Bigelow 2008). Based on his investigations in the Tanana valley, Holmes (2001, 2008, 2009) has developed a cultural chronology for the prehistory of central Alaska that parallels the older standard.

The archeological record (Dumond 2009) to the east and south of DENA indicates that the prehistoric cultural complexes prominent in central Alaska stretched east (YUCH) and south (WRST). The Nenana Complex has been identified at the Little John site in the southwest of the Yukon Territory (Easton et al. 2008). Another important Yukon archeological site is the Annie Lake site (Hare 1995). However, the cultural chronology first proposed by Workman (1978) for the Aishihik-Kluane area of the same area is still the major theoretical construct for the interpretation of the prehistory there.

An exciting, but fragile, resource for archeological research in this region has become available due to the effects of global warming. The here-to-fore “permanent” ice and snow patches, which are the remnants of Pleistocene glaciations in the high alpine areas the Yukon, WRST, and DENA, have been steadily melting. Amazingly, this melting has exposed some very well-preserved prehistoric artifacts (Dixon et al. 2005, 2007; Hare et al. 2004; VanderHoek et al. 2007). Their presence indicates that these ice patches were places that hunters sought out because caribou use them as refuges during the summer months when they are tormented by insects such as blowflies. Unfortunately, once exposed, these artifacts tend to degrade rapidly. This makes regular surveys of the ice patches as they disappear an urgent need.

Athabaskan Prehistory

In historic times this area was the home of Athabaskan-speaking groups. The Athabaskans have been defined as a group of mostly forest dwelling, hunting and gathering, non-Eskimo people, organized into bands, speaking a group of fairly closely related languages (Cellarious et al. 2008). The Greenberg, Turner, and Zegura (1986) "Three Wave" hypothesis of the settlement of the New World holds that the Athabaskan-speaking people were a genetically and culturally separate wave from the early Amerindian groups and later Eskimo/Aleut migrants.

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 place 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 have been much more difficult to trace.

Of concern for this type of research are the 23 languages that form a recognized geographical subdivision of the Athabaskan language family, usually referred to as Northern Athabaskan (Krauss 2001; Krauss and Golla 1990).

They occupy a large, contiguous 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, by 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. The linguist Edward Sapir (Krauss and Golla 1981) believed that there was sufficient evidence of a genetic (linguistic) relationship between Tlingit, Athabaskan, Eyak, 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, Eyak and Tlingit languages and that the Haida language was not part of the group at all. Greenberg (Turner 1994) has again revived the Na-Dene grouping as a larger language phylum.

From a linguistic point of view, it appears that Proto-Athabaskan/Eyak was probably spoken in Interior Alaska and the Yukon Territory 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 the area that included eastern Interior Alaska, the headwaters of the Yukon River, and northern British Columbia, or some part of this general area. Again, based upon linguistic evidence, the earliest direction of Athabaskan expansion was probably westward into Alaska and southward into southern and central British Columbia -- probably by 500 AD. Later expansion included a movement eastward into the MacKenzie River drainage in Canada and another movement southward along the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains into the Southwest (the Apachean languages).

Archeologists (Borden 1975; Carlson 1996; Dumond 1969), 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 as a distinct entity, other archeologists have linked the ancestral Athabaskans to the Northern Archaic and Northern Cordilleran archeological traditions (Clark 1992) of the same general time period. Based on the Healy archeological site, Cook and McKennan (1970) have postulated that the development of the archeologically recognizable Athabaskan cultural pattern actually began in the northern Interior with the major environmental and adaptive changes that preceded the arrival of the Northern Archaic tradition 6000 years ago (Dixon 2007; Holmes 2008, 2009).

The lack of a clearly stratified and dated archeological site showing the development of the Athabaskan culture pattern has prevented resolution of the differing hypotheses. The Klo-Kut site, in the middle Porcupine River drainage, provides our 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 focused on hunting large and small game, especially caribou and salmon.

Another theoretical thread of the study of 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 (Workman 1974, 1979) in Canada with a subsequent movement to the northwest, and the appearance in the Brooks Range of Kavik projectile points and tci-thos (Figure V3), as well as other generalized implements of the Athabaskan tradition. It is also possible that this eruption of Mt Bona and the displacement it caused was a starting point for the movement of Athabaskan speakers to the Southwest.

However, archeological investigations along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains that the White Pass volcanic eruption occurred to early to have been the cause of the Athabaskan-speaking cultures’ move to the Southwest (T. Birkedal, personal communication 2010). The earliest evidence for Athabaskan culture in Lower 48 states is from a site near Lyman, Colorado around 550 BP, which is over 1000 years after the volcanic eruption. The Athabaskan languages spoken in the Southwest can trace their linguistic ancestry to Sarcee, a Northern Athabaskan language that was spoken in Northern Alberta. The linguistic evidence suggests that Sarcee and the Southern Athabaskan languages split about 900 to 1000 years ago, well after the Mt Bona volcanic eruption. The development of Athabaskan culture in the southern part of Interior Alaska (WRST) and the southwestern Yukon Territory shows a similar pattern. One of the earliest archeological sites, dating from around 700 BP, is GUL-077, which is a late winter camp along the lower Gulkana River 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 (Shinkwin 1975, 1979).

One of the few suggested Athabaskan cultural sequences extant has been developed by Workman (1978) for the Aishihik-Kluane Lake area of the southwestern Yukon Territory, just adjacent to the eastern border of WRST. The sequence is divided into four cultural phases:

  • -- The Little Arm Phase is the oldest, approximately 8000-4500 years in age, with Paleoarctic and Paleoindian traits present.
  • -- The Taye Lake Phase designates the advent of the Northern Archaic tradition in the area around 4500 BP, persisting until 1800 years ago. Workman has postulated that there was a technological continuity from this phase that persisted to the time of historic contact, and that, as a consequence, the Taye Lake people were speakers of a language in the Na Dene family and thus, were Athabaskan.
  • -- The Aishihik Phase dates from 1600 BP to ca. 150 years ago and represents late prehistoric Athabaskan culture until European contact. The eruption of Mt Bona, and the deposit of the White River Ash, marks the beginnings of this phase. Workman sees some technological continuity with the preceding Taye Lake Phase and thinks that it represents an identifying tie to protohistoric Athabaskan culture.
  • -- Bennett Lake Phase marks the protohistoric Athabaskan native culture (Ahtna and Southern Tutchone). Traditional implements of the Aishihik phase and European objects are present in the archeological deposits from this time period. This indicates some form of contact with the Euroamerican world.

    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 the Taye Lake phase really represents the advent of Athabaskan peoples is a major research question for this region.



Last Updated: January 16, 2014