Prehistory of Southeast Alaska

Totem carver in Southeast Alaska
Totem carver, E.W. Merrill


This region of Alaska, also known as the Alaska Panhandle, stretches from the Copper River delta and the Malaspina Forelands of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and preserve, past the Alexander Archipelago south to the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands (at the Dixon Entrance to Hecate Strait) in a narrow arc extending along the North pacific coast. Sharply bounded on the inland side by mountain ranges (the Chugach, Wrangell-St Elias, and the Coast ranges), this zone is radically different in climate,vegetation, and fauna from the regions beyond the mountains. The coastal strip features a relatively mild climate, temperate rain forest, and rich marine life. There are two coastal environments in the zone - outer coast and inner coast. The famed "Inside Passage" of Alaska, a sheltered coastline separated from the open ocean by the islands of the Alexander Archipelago provided a protected marine environment for exploitation. Areas to the north of this region were exposed to the open Pacific and Gulf of Alaska, a much more difficult ecological zone where there was less of a classic Northwest Coast cultural development.

The "classic" view of the Pacific Northwest as a culture area goes back to the work of Franz Boas and his students. Their views have been modified over the years but the basic perception of cultural unity with many cultural traits shared up and down the coast has persisted. It is characterized by a nonhorticultural subsistence style based on hunting and gathering. Because of the richness and predictability of such resources (fishing for salmon and halibut, sea mammal hunting, shellfish, plants, berries, etc) surpluses were generated, and a complex sociocultural system developed along with an elaborate and distinctive art style. Material cultural was distinctive in its highly developed and elaborate woodworking technology that produced plank houses, bowls, canoes, monuments, boxes, and many other tools and utensils. A highly developed twined basketry was also notable, as were textiles of wool and vegetable fiber. Permanent winter villages or towns were a standard settlement pattern. Social organization was notable for the development of a stratified society in which status was based on birth and wealth. There were dominant kin groups and individuals were ranked as elite, commoners and slaves. The elite maintained their status through their wealth. The potlach ceremonial complex of formal gift-giving was one of the main features of this highly stratified society. It was made possible by the rich subsistence base that allowed for the accumulation of surpluses that could then be manipulated.

The Northern Northwest Coast zone roughly corresponds to the historic territories of the Eyak to the north, the Tlingit in the middle and the south, and possibly Haida people at the southern end. Only at the northern end is there any shading into other natural zones where Athabaskan and Pacific Eskimo cultural influences can be seen, probably due to the less sheltered nature of the coastal environment.

Paleomarine Tradition

The earliest culture in this zone has been called the Paleomarine Tradition (Davis 1990) and is readily apparent as a facies of the Paleoarctic Tradition (Table 5). Sites at Groundhog Bay, Hidden Falls, and Chuck Lake indicate that a core and blade using people with a technology that featured microblades, burins and slotted bone and antler points were extant in this area by 9500 BP. Fladmark (1979) has proposed that the Northwest Coast could have been one of the conduits for early migrants into the New World from Siberia and northeast Asia. Certainly the Paleomarine sites lend support to the feasibility of this migration route. In order to occupy this zone, Paleomarine peoples would have to have been capable of exploiting a coastal environment and would have needed a knowledge of boats in order to reach these site locations. Critics of the Fladmark hypothesis have pointed out that glaciers from the nearby mountain ranges would probably have reached tidewater at this time period, blocking southward travel along this coast. There is no doubt that this was not always the case, refugia did exist, and it is probable that sea levels were lower at the same time. Recently, Gruhn (personnel communication) has proposed that this coastal route served as a migration route from Siberia into the New World as far south as Central and South America as long ago as 30,000 to 40,000 BP. The oldest component, possibly cultural, at Mesa Verde, Chile has been dated at 33,000 BP (Dillehay 1984). A lot more paleoenvironmental research needs to be accomplished in order to better evaluate the Fladmark hypothesis.


The period from 6500 to 5000 BP saw the end of the Paleomarine tradition and a shift towards a more recognizable Northwest Coast culture (Davis 1990). During this time period, the technology shifted to one in which ground stone tools became dominant over the microblade and unifacial flaked stone tool industries. By 5000 years ago, the economic and settlement patterns had adapted to changing environmental conditions. Three sites are cited by Davis for the existence of this transitional period, which he feels was due to in situ development through invention or diffusion. The three sites are the Lake Eva, Point Couverdon (just outside Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve), and Irish Lake sites. On the other hand, Harritt (1994) feels that the evidence is weak for this transitional phase and that there is a stronger basis for postulating a migration of new groups bearing ground stone technology into the northern Northwest Coast area. This evidence lies in Component II at Hidden Falls.

Developmental Northwest Coast Stage

Early Phase

Component II at Hidden Falls, stratigraphically above the Paleomarine component, and dated to between 4670 BP and 3265 BP, shows a full-fledged ground stone industry and represents an Early Phase of this stage. The appearance of this new technology seems to reflect an increased emphasis on intertidal resources such as mollusks and fishing, the development of large winter settlements near shores and specialized camps for subsistence activities. Comparable assemblages are seen in the Locarno Beach phase on the British Columbia coast and the Takli Birch phase on the coast of the Alaska Peninsula in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Other sites that fit into this Early Phase of the Developmental Stage are Rosie's Rockshelter on Hecata Island, Coffman Cove on Prince of Wales Island, and Traders Island just south of Chichigof Island. Coffman Cove is a coastal shell midden that has a radiocarbon date of 3685 BP. Traders Island, a very large site dated at 3605 BP and 3000 BP, shows a similarity to Hidden Falls with a greater emphasis on shellfish. Rosie's Rockshelter was dated at around 4000 BP and contained a shell midden and a unilaterally barbed bone harpoon head.

Middle Phase

The Middle Phase of the Developmental Stage was defined by Davis on the basis of Component III at Hidden Falls. It has radiocarbon dates between 3000 and 1300 years ago and shows continued use of a ground stone and bone technology. At least ten other sites in the area show some affiliation with this component. Although use of coastal resources apparently intensified and use of coastal areas continued or expanded, most of the known sites of this phase appear as seasonal camps tied to the harvesting of resources.

Late Phase

The Late Phase shows the development of larger structures and by sites that could be used for defensive purposes. The appearance of larger structures in this archaeological record indicates the "winter villages" were being utilized. Seasonal procurement camps for shellfish, sea mammals, fish, deer, and berries were still being occupied. Continuity with earlier cultures can be seen in the continued use of ground stone and bone and some chipped stone (mostly obsidian). New implements included tools of native copper, stone bowls and lamps, new harpoon forms, and the use of drift iron in later times. The Late Phase dates from about 1000 AD to as late as 1750 AD at one site. Other sites besides Ground Hog Bay (Component I) with late phase remains are the Starrigavan site on the western side of Baranof Island, the Russian Cove site on the mainland near Kupreanof Island, Bear Shell Midden on the northeastern side of Chichagof Island, and Old Town on Knight Island.

Late Phase assemblages and sites show many close parallels with the historic groups of the northern Northwest Coast. Especially noteworthy are the similarities to the historic Eyak who occupied the coast west of Icy Bay. Linguistic and ethnohistoric evidence indicates that the Eyak territory stretched further to the south and east in earlier times. Linguistic research shows strong ties between the Eyak and Haida languages and suggest that a closer relationship existed between the two groups as long as 2000 years ago. Since other research shows a relatively short time depth for Tlingit presence (500 to 1000 years) on the coast, it has been postulated that a Tlingit expansion separated the Haida and Eyak, who were pushed to the north.

The evolution of the historic, "classic" Northwest Coast culture, with its coastal subsistence focus and stratified, complex social organization, has been attributed to the differential access of groups to the major and stable resources of the area - such as streams with major salmon runs. The ability to harvest and accumulate surpluses of these resources led to some groups becoming more wealthy and powerful than others - with property, increased population, and influence. A highly developed art and oral culture, warfare, slavery, extensive trading relationships, sophisticated technology, and such institutions as the potlach became widespread up and down the coast.

Another area of archeological concern for this coast and its NPS units is historical archeology. Beginning in 1741, with Bering's second expedition which touched on the northwest coast, European contact continued and increased. Russian exploitation of sea otter fueled continued expansion and settlement from the Aleutians. Russians made solid contact with the Eyak and Tlingit by 1780. By 1779, Spanish explorers had reached as far north as southeastern Alaska. James Cook's third voyage, in 1778, reached Nootka Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. Lituya Bay was explored by the French under LaPerouse in 1786. A Spanish scientific expedition under the leadership of Malaspina reached Yakutat Bay in 1791. Sitka was founded by the Russians in 1799 and destroyed by the Tlingit in 1802. The Tlingit Fort was destroyed in 1804 by the Russians (the site is now Sitka National Historical Park) and the first permanent European base was on the Northwest Coast was built at Novo-Arkhangel'sk. Later, of course, American purchase of Alaska led to further settlement and exploitation of the region. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, followed by a series of other gold rushes, led to the opening of Alaska, which has continued to this day.



Last Updated: January 16, 2014