Broken Mammoth Archaeological Project - Interpretations

Although many early interior sites have some common characteristics, e.g., topography and aspect, there are also significant differences. Evidence suggests that most sites can be classified as either seasonal campsites, which served as headquarters, or "spike" camps from which small hunting groups operated. Tool manufacture and maintenance, along with domestic chores such as food processing and skin working, were routine activities. Large animals, e.g., bison, elk, and even mammoth were hunted, killed (or scavenged), and butchered away from camp. Hides, meat, and raw material, such as antler, bone and ivory would have been transported back to the campsite for further use.

"Mammoth" ivory tusk fragments and artifacts found at the three Shaw Creek sites indicate that such material was obviously available to Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene human populations in the region. Thus far, no post cranial remains of mammoth have been found at the sites. It may be that ivory, along with hide and meat, was obtained at kill sites located away from the bluff top campsites and brought back to camp for use as raw material. Radiocarbon dates on ivory from the Broken Mammoth and Mead sites indicates that "fossil" ivory in the range of 15,000 to 17,000 years old was collected for use as tools. However, dates of 11,500 and 12,000 yr. BP obtained on ivory collagen from the Broken Mammoth and Swan Point sites is close in age to hearth charcoal dates to strongly suggest that mammoth and humans coexisted.

The data provide a picture of small, highly mobile groups whose strategy for survival was to move around seasonally to exploit various resources such as caribou in the Fall or migratory waterfowl in the Spring. These people were highly knowledgeable about the environment and the animals they hunted. The evidence suggests that mammoths were a part of their resource base. The resources being exploited were changing during that period, and the human populations were adapting with new technologies such as changes to projectile point forms.

What is almost completely missing from the archaeological record are sites interpreted as "kill" sites. By kill site I mean a location at or next to an ambush or capture location, where successful hunting parties may have momentarily rested while they butchered their prey, cooked a meal, and repaired their equipment. One example of such an early "kill" site may be the Erode away Site in the upper Nenana Valley. A single radiocarbon date of c. 8,500 yr. BP was obtained on charcoal from one of two small hearths. The artifact inventory consists of numerous biface projectile point fragments, apparently broken during the hunt and discarded around the two hearths. The rather small amount of flaking detritus was indicative of biface manufacture, repair, and re-sharpening. Unfortunately, very little faunal material was preserved in the shallow silt matrix. What is notable about the Erode away Site is that the site is not located on a bluff or promontory, but in a rather mundane setting along a glacial out wash feature of low topographic relief. Without extensive stripping of the ground surface in preparation for highway construction, it is unlikely that this site would have been discovered.

Research during the past two decades in the Nenana Valley and more recently in the Middle Tanana Valley has led some archaeologists to conclude that the earliest well-documented Late Pleistocene culture in Alaska consisted of a non-microblade industry. This further led to speculation about deriving mid-latitude North American Paleoindian lithic technology and populations from Alaskan populations that did not have a microblade industry, i.e., the Nenana Complex. The 1993 test excavations at Swan Point have clearly shown that microblades belong to the earliest lithic assemblage for the region.

For years there has been debate over how the early material from Healy Lake, defined by Cook as the "Chindadn Complex", fits or doesn't fit into the non-microblade Nenana Complex and the Denali Complex which relies on microblade technology. The inclusion of Chindadn into Nenana accepts the characteristic "Chindadn" points but denies the inclusion of microblade technology. On the other hand some Denali Complex proponents are reluctant to accept the Chindadn points as belonging to Denali. At the same time others are content to include both Nenana and Chindadn complexes within a greater Denali Complex, although a Denali Complex more ancient than originally thought. John Cook and others who have examined the bifacial material from Broken Mammoth and Swan Point have noted similarities to some "Chindadn" point forms. If it turns out to the case that there is a Chindadn component at Swan Point, then it should be accepted that the Chindadn Complex includes microblade technology. Evidence now supports the presence of microblade as well as non-microblade assemblages in central Alaska 11,000 to 12,000 yr. BP. Archaeologists now need to reevaluate the hypothesis that Clovis and other mid-latitude Paleoindian cultures were closely related to eastern Beringian cultures. It no longer appears tenable to propose that microblade technologies, exemplified by the Denali Complex, arose in Alaska following a pre-11,000 year BP non-microblade using culture like the Nenana Complex. It seems more plausible for microblade technology to have come into Alaska early from western Beringia. Once this technology became established here it appears to have stayed throughout almost the entire Holocene, at least in central Alaska.

Although there is ample evidence to show that humans were present in central Alaska before 11,500 yr. BP, there is circumstantial evidence that people were here even earlier. The fact that many of these oldest sites, e.g., Broken Mammoth and Swan Point, contain obsidian artifacts identified as coming from the Batza tena source and from John Cook's Group A, implies the following: (1) First, these obsidian sources had to have been discovered and exploited. It could have required some time for the first emigrants to find these sources. (2) Next, it also must have taken time for the obsidian raw material to have become widely known and distributed among geographically separated groups through some form of social interaction. This too must have taken time for effective trading relationships to become operational between small populations throughout central Alaska.

What this leaves us with is a vast, geographically diverse land mass - Eastern Beringia that has an archaeological time depth of at least 12,000 yr. BP. But with only a handful of identified archaeological sites for this early period and an even smaller handful of fully excavated sites. Reconstruction of ancient landscapes (including an understanding of paleoenvironmental parameters and prey animal behavior) are essential in developing testable predictive models of site locations that will better delineate the full range of human settlement at the terminal Pleistocene.