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December 9th, 2001

Artifacts in Alaskan cave shed new light on first human migrations into the New World

Archaeological investigations at site 49-PET-408 in southeastern Alaska provide new insights into the character and timing of the first human migrations into the New World. Excavations and analysis are being conducted by an interdisciplinary team of researchers including Native peoples and federal resource managers. The archeological research, led by INSTAAR Fellow E. James Dixon, reveals that humans were using marine resources and transporting exotic types of stone throughout the region 9,200 years ago.

The research at the cave has been recently highlighted in National Geographic’s feature article on the Peopling of the New World (December 2000), and in television specials aired on the History Channel and NOVA. The excavations and analysis suggest that costal migration may have led the first human inhabitants of North America south of Beringia during the late Pleistocene. Exciting finds such as exotic stone artifacts made of obsidian from far-flung sources imply that the early Holocene inhabitants of southeast Alaska were using watercraft, which was undoubtedly a key technological component for coastal migration.

Excavations in front of the main cave entrance at 49-PET-408. Pictured from left to right are Joel Tyberg, Heidi Manger, and Craig Lee. Photo by Eric Parrish, 2001.

The timing and character of the first human migration to the New World is a long-standing debate among archaeologists. During the late Pleistocene massive ice sheets limited possible migration routes available to the first human colonizers. Because a preponderance of linguistic and biological evidence suggests an Asian origin for the first Americans, two possible routes are most probable. One is with the use of watercraft along the Northwest Coast, and the other is by a pedestrian travel across the Bering Land Bridge and then south through central western Canada.

49-PET-408 contains the oldest human remains discovered in all of Alaska or Canada and numerous artifacts including microblades and bifaces. The human remains found in the cave are from one individual. Isotopic analysis demonstrates that the individual was raised on a diet of marine foods. This and other evidence suggests that early people living along the Northwest Coast at the end of the last Ice Age were adapted to an environment characterized by year round open water, rugged coastlines with fjords, islands, and rocky headlands, calving glaciers, and abundant marine resources.

A selection of microblades discovered at 49-PET-408. Photo by Rick Wicker, Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Research by INSTAAR graduate student Craig Lee using trace element analysis demonstrates that some of the stone artifacts made from volcanic glass, or obsidian, came from two different sources: Mount Edziza on the British Columbia mainland and Sumez Island in Southeast Alaska. Because Prince of Wales Island was not connected to the mainland at the time the cave was occupied, these materials could only have reached the site if humans using watercraft transported them.

A 10,300-year-old bone tool discovered at 49-PET-408. Photo by Rick Wicker, Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

These complex adaptations were probably preceded by a long in sitú development, suggesting that regional human adaptations began much earlier. A bone tool from the cave has been dated to 10,300 BP making 49-PET-408 the oldest reliably dated archaeological site on the Northwest Coast of North America. Collectively, the data from this important site indicate that humans along the Northwest Coast of North America were experienced coastal navigators with an economy based on maritime subsistence and an established knowledge of non-local lithic resources by 9,000-10,000 radiocarbon years ago. The excavations and ongoing analysis of artifacts from archaeological site 49-PET-408 continue to provide important new insights into the character and timing of the climatic transition at the end of the Pleistocene and the human response to climate change.