Ancient Hunters near the Teklanika River

man sifts through dirt on a hill with mountains and spruce trees in the background
The field team sifts through soil and wind-blown loess to find artifacts and faunal remains at Teklanika West archeological site in Denali National Park and Preserve.

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The first humans to walk on Alaskan soil arrived approximately 14,000 years ago. These peoples were mobile and hunted a wide variety of prey—such as bison, elk, and possibly mammoth and horse—that thrived in grassland-tundra settings, as well as waterfowl, small mammals, and fish. These early Alaskans left behind many stone tools in short-term camps across Alaska, including what is now known as the Teklanika West archeological site in Denali National Park and Preserve.

four people record findings at an archaeological dig site
Artifacts found in situ are photographed and mapped.

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Excavations at Teklanika West

Teklanika West (elevation 2500 feet or 760 meters) sits on a granitic bedrock bluff overlooking the Teklanika River and the surrounding landscape (see photo above and on reverse). Over the last 10,000 years, the bluff and the site of cultural occupations (sometimes referred to as components) were covered with loess (windblown silt deposits).

After the site was discovered in 1960, several excavations occurred intermittently over the last five decades. The archeologist working with excavations in the 1960s and 1970s interpreted the site as having two components, with the oldest being at least 10,000 years old based on the stone tools recovered from the site. During investigations of the site in the 1990s, archeologist revised the component number to three components, but thought that the site was only about 8000 years old, much younger than originally thought. All these excavations were limited in the ability to precisely date the components because archeologists had found no faunal (animal) that could be radiocarbon dated associated with hunting artifacts.

Unanswered questions at Teklanika West

Given these inconsistencies about the number of components and the age of oldest one, Ben Potter of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Anthropology, and his graduate student Sam Coffman, set out to more precisely identify and, if possible, radiocarbon date the cultural components of the site. They also wanted to: (1) document any differences in stone tools (and by inference the activities) from each component, (2) compare faunal remains among components, and (3) estimate the extent of the site and what percentage has been excavated.

graphical representation of areas previously excavated
Units (squares) excavated in 2009 in relation to previous excavations at Teklanika West.

Re-excavating Teklanika West in 2009

The field team spent three weeks digging at Teklanika West. After reestablishing the original excavation grid of previous researchers, they excavated 12.5 units (each unit is 1 m2 or 9 ft2) to bedrock. Volumes of dirt were troweled from each unit, then sifted through screens to recover as many artifacts as possible.

During many windy days, the researchers were dusty with the same fine loess, blown up from the river, that covered any abandoned artifacts between occupations at the site. They took photos of artifacts found in situ (in place) and mapped them in 3D; they created stratigraphic profiles of each unit. Lab analyses were conducted on lithic artifacts and faunal remains (bones).

soil layers
A soil profile shows the five components (C1-C5) and their relationship to the soil horizons (A-C), bedrock, the tephra (ash) layer, and a more recent animal burrow (K).

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Findings at Teklanika West

The field team confirmed five occupations at the site. They uncovered evidence of two possible hearths (campfires) associated with artifacts and faunal remains.

More than 1500 artifacts were recovered (1097 in situ): 960 lithic artifacts (a few tools, the remainder debitage or fragments from tool manufacture), 115 faunal fragments, and assorted charcoal fragments. The association of in situ stone tools and debitage with identifiable remains (bones) of animals give clues as to the activities at the site. For example, some of the six lanceolate projectile point bases discovered in the lower (older) components of the site were found in association with bones of bison, caribou, and sheep.

Knowing what species shared the landscape when prehistoric humans occupied the site helps understand when the site was used seasonally, based on wildlife patterns. Two tephras (volcanic ashes) were located. Tephras can help date site occupation if the composition of the ash can be identified with an eruption of known date. Only the older of the two tephras could be identified and was dated to about 6500 to 7000 years old. About 40 to 50 percent of the site has been excavated.

stone tools
"Biface" (worked on both sides) stone tool fragments from the oldest occupation.

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Five cultural occupations

The oldest component, C1, rests atop bedrock about 80 cm (2.5 feet) below the surface (see profile above right). A bison bone found in association with the artifacts of this layer was dated to about 12,850 years ago, implying that the upper Teklanika River valley was ice-free at that time, and hospitable to humans and other animals. More samples are being analyzed to support or refute this strikingly early date.

Component 2 (C2) is directly under a well-defined complex of paleosols (old soils). This component is not well-defined and consists mainly of flaking debris and also a few tools. However, a bison pelvis fragment found in the layer is dated to about 10,000 years ago.

The third component at the site is associated with the paleosol complex of the site (~7600 years ago). Following this occupation, the Oshetna tephra was deposited at the site (6502 - 7156 years ago), capping these early site components. Modern soil formation and later occupations lie above this tephra.

The archeological record for the next occupation (C4) consists of stone tool artifacts and caribou bone that has been radiocarbon dated to about 2500 years ago. These remains lie below a second, unknown tephra. A single radiocarbon date of ~1350 years ago derived from a Dall’s sheep bone was associated with C5, the youngest occupation lying directly under the root mat.

hillside covered in spruce trees
Teklanika West is part of the Teklanika Archeological District, which is on the National Historic Register.

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The significance of Teklanika West

Based on the initial results of the 2009 Potter and Coffman excavation, the Teklanika West site is well over 10,000 years old, ironically confirming the date suggested initially by the 1960s archeologist working with limited techniques. Finding remains of caribou, sheep, and bison was useful in precisely radiocarbon dating the five components. Component 1 is especially important for an understanding of how humans lived at the end of the ice age, because it is one of only a handful of sites in central Alaska with such an early associated radiocarbon date. Given the bluff’s excellent vantage point for viewing up- and down-river, it is not surprising that Teklanika West has been used repeatedly over the millenia.