Paleoindian Adaptations in Eastern Beringia: Prelude or Postscript to the Early Settlement of the Americas?

Preliminary investigations at the Raven Bluff site in 2010. BLM photograph by Craig McCaa.

In partnership with the Bureau of Land Management and with funding from the National Science Foundation (Award No. 1111395), department staff will conduct archaeological investigations at the late Pleistocene age Raven Bluff site in interior northwestern Alaska. Fluted projectile points are widespread throughout the Americas and are associated with the earliest phase of human occupation in most regions, but they have not been reliably dated in eastern Beringia (Alaska and unglaciated portions of Yukon), a region that plays a central role in models of New World colonization. As a result the Beringian fluted points have yet to be situated in a historical or ecological context, and there is little known about the behavior of the people who used this technology and their relationship to fluted point users in the midcontinent. Raven Bluff has potential to help address these questions, not only because it contains a fluted projectile point component in a stratified context, but also a well-preserved faunal assemblage, which is a first for an ice age site in arctic Alaska.

The goal of the research is to develop datasets relevant to these issues from excavations at Raven Bluff and from new analyses of existing fluted point assemblages found in museum collections and published literature. Specific objectives include: (1) establishing a chronological and stratigraphic framework for the archaeological deposits; (2) reconstructing the late Pleistocene and early Holocene environmental setting using faunal, botanical, pedological and sedimentological data and associating these data with patterns of human resource exploitation and land use; (3) describing strategies of faunal exploitation evident at the site and generating hypotheses about the nature of the subsistence economy; and (4) characterizing the stone tool production and maintenance activities conducted at the site, including methods of fluted point manufacture and repair. Building on insights from our detailed studies at Raven Bluff we also plan to reexamine most of the known fluted point assemblages from Alaska, as well as published data from selected fluted point assemblages from the midcontinent, in order to evaluate hypotheses about the transmission and development of fluted point technology within Beringia, and its transmission between Beringia and the midcontinent.

Insights resulting from this work will help resolve longstanding questions about the timing of the fluted point occupation in Beringia, and the subsistence and technological adaptations of the people who made fluted points in an extreme, high latitude environment. It will also fill a major geographic and temporal gap in our knowledge of Paleoindian dispersals throughout the Americas. These issues are important because they are connected to the general process of first entry and adaptive radiation of people in any part of the world, and shed light on the means by which small scale societies adapt to diverse environmental challenges.