Tantalizing ancient site emerges from riverbank forest

Ice age settlers who frequented what is now referred to as the Britannia Creek site, halfway between Dawson City and Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River, would be amazed to see that area today.

Ice age settlers who frequented what is now referred to as the Britannia Creek site, halfway between Dawson City and Fort Selkirk on the Yukon River, would be amazed to see that area today. The site they knew on a wind-tortured steppe thousands of years ago is now covered by dense forest.

Covered, that is, except for a few preliminary test pits dug since it was discovered by archeologist Kristin Soucey of Edmonton’s Altamira Consulting in 2009. Soucey was undertaking archeological impact assessment work associated with the proposed Casino mine.

In 2013 another Altamira archeologist, Margarita de Guzman, excavated further and realized the site (now registered as KfVi-3) could potentially answer many of the nagging questions about very early settlers along the upper Yukon River.

“They did some carbon dating on some of the sites and found that the Britannia site had a range of occupations dating 1,200 right up to 14,000 years ago,” says Yukon Development Assessment Archeologist Christian Thomas. That time frame is within generations of the earliest occupations of Alaska and the Yukon. “There are dozens of these sites in Alaska,” Thomas adds. “What makes the site interesting is it’s an ancient site in an area in which we have never found an ancient site before.” In fact this is the first 14,000-year-old site found in the upper 1,000 kilometres of the Yukon River valley.

The Yukon’s Britannia site features well-marked layers of windblown dust. Objects in the dust were radio-carbon dated back through 14,000 BP (Before Present) where a broken spear point was found in the oldest layers. So were a few charred mammal bones, tentatively identified as belonging to wolf, snowshoe hare, sheep and caribou, possibly leftovers from ancient meals.

A far richer store of artifacts has been unearthed in the upper levels of the site: microblades, stone tools, and chert and obsidian flakes. These date from only about 5,000 to 1,200 years ago, well out of the last Pleistocene ice age and well into the warmer Holocene epoch.

These more recent layers could provide their own special settlement clues. Jeff Rasic of the Alaska National Park Service has recently identified trade connections to Batza Tena, a rich source for obsidian on the edge of the Koyukuk River flats in Alaska. Inhabitants of later occupations of Britannia Creek were making obisdian microblades of glass-like sharpness.

Yukon site assessment archeologist Greg Hare cautions that our understanding of the Britannia Creek find is very preliminary. Work has been done on only about one per cent of the site so far. The key word associated with Britannia Creek right now is “potential.”

“We’re just starting to find what it may have been like for people living in far eastern Beringia

at this time (12,000 to 14,000 BP),” says Hare. They would have been only about 160 kilometres from the glacial ice front and maybe 400 metres from the Yukon River, whatever the river may have looked like then. “When people were living there originally, there would have been no trees – it would have been a wide-open shrub environment,” he says.

“Would the glaciers have been significantly melting?” Hare asks. “Was the river just a little creek or was it a raging melt water channel from the glaciers?

“Were there fish this far up the Yukon River at this time? We don’t know.”

Hare contrasts their data with that of Yukon archeologist Norm Easton’s Little John site near Beaver Creek, and the myriad Alaskan sites which have been yielding up knowledge about the earliest-known Beringian settlers season after season.

For now, even finding a few charred salmon bones from before 12,000 BP, as Alaskan archeologist Ben Potter recently did over on the Tanana River in the U.S., could have a tremendous impact on our understanding of the daily round and technologies of the first Yukoners.

Could there be older human remains on the Britannia site? Were there settlers in the Yukon prior to a major colonizing movement around 14,000 years ago? Could this multilayered site have another and older surprise in store?

Our understanding of the peopling of the Americas is bracketed by two important understandings. Scientists in Russia have found artifacts from people who were perched at the western edge of Beringia about 27,000 years ago and archaeologists from the Universidad Austral de Chile have got people living at the southern tip of South America 14,000 years ago, says Thomas. At some point people passed through Alaska and the Yukon and very soon thereafter the Americas are populated.

Britannia Creek opens a new chapter in the Yukon, one that will hopefully complement all the work Norm Easton has done at Little John, says Hare.

Yukon archeologists will be returning to the Britannia site this summer. They will likely be accompanied by a soil scientist to help them “conjure” in their minds a clearer image of what the area looked like when first used by humans.

Further excavations will bring yet another valuable opportunity, says Thomas.

It will provide a chance to collaborate with both the Selkirk First Nation and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, whose territories overlap at the site.

Hopefully, the site has potential to develop into community heritage project, like Fort Selkirk, Thomas says. It will be an opportunity for people in the communities to get a good look at how the very first people discovered and used their traditional territories.

“It will allow them to imagine what life would have been like under very different conditions,” adds Hare.

(For more on a related Alaskan find on the Tanana River, see Your Yukon for March 6, 2015: ‘Out of the blue’: Surprise human remains and artifacts tell an ice-age tale).

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/your_yukon