New research finds that humans may have lived in the Yukon 24,000 years ago

William Josie’s grandparents used to tell him stories about animals that don’t exist today.

William Josie’s grandparents used to tell him stories about animals that don’t exist today.

“We have oral stories of our people, way back, living with mammals that are not in our territory anymore,” the director of natural resources for the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation told the News. “Like giant beavers and all these other different kind of animals.”

Giant beavers, mammoths, mastodons and horses all roamed through eastern Beringia — modern-day Alaska and Yukon — during the last Ice Age, and are all thought to have died off around 10,000 years ago.

But there’s debate about when humans entered the mix. Many estimates suggest that the first humans arrived in North America about 14,000 years ago.

Now, a new study published in the journal PLoS One claims that humans were present at the Bluefish Caves, an archaeological site southwest of Old Crow, as early as 24,000 years ago. If the findings are true, the caves would be the oldest known archaeological site in North America.

Josie said he’s pleased to hear about the new research, but he’s not surprised.

“It just goes to show all those years, listening to all our different grandmas, that those stories got some authority behind it,” he said. “It’s no big deal for the people. They already knew we’ve been here for a long time.”

The Bluefish Caves were originally excavated from 1977 to 1987 by Jacques Cinq-Mars and Vuntut Gwitchin citizens, said Lauriane Bourgeon, a graduate student at the Universite de Montreal and the study’s lead author.

The caves — a series of three rock shelters — each contained a large number of old animal bones, including horse, mammoth, bison, caribou, wolf and lion.

After studying the specimens, Cinq-Mars believed he’d found evidence of tool use on some of the bones, which he dated to between 25,000 and 30,000 years old. But his findings were controversial. Other archaeologists questioned whether the marks he’d found on the bones were actually made by humans.

“So the scientific community remained skeptical about the identifications,” said Bourgeon.

As part of her doctoral research, Bourgeon re-analyzed 36,000 mammal bones from the Bluefish Caves, which are now housed at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

Using a powerful microscope, she scanned the bones for various features that suggested they’d been handled by people. For instance, she said, cut marks made by stone tools are usually ‘V’-shaped, while carnivore tooth marks are ‘U’-shaped.

Eventually, she identified 15 bone samples that she was confident had been manipulated by humans, including horse and caribou bones. She dated six of them using radiocarbon dating, and found that they ranged in age from 12,000 to 24,000 years old.

“It was a big surprise and a huge excitement,” she said.

Bourgeon said the results confirm that Cinq-Mars was right, and that humans lived in eastern Beringia during the last glacial maximum, when ice sheets covered most of the rest of present-day Canada and blocked their way south.

This idea is called the Beringian standstill hypothesis. It’s suggested that humans migrated across the Bering land bridge from Siberia and were essentially stranded in Beringia until about 16,000 years ago, when they dispersed south along the Pacific coast.

Bourgeon said she’s about 99 per cent sure of her findings.

“It’s science. You cannot be sure at 100 per cent,” she said. “But I’m strongly confident with my identifications.”

Greg Hare, the Yukon government’s acting archaeologist, said he’s impressed with Bourgeon’s “scientific rigour,” and is glad the discussion about the Bluefish Caves has been reawakened.

“I wouldn’t use a word as strong as ‘proof,’ but I think it really reinforces what Jacques said back in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to convince everybody, but I think it definitely reinforces the possibility that Bluefish is as old as 24,000 years old.”

But Hare said the results, if confirmed, won’t mark a profound change in our understanding of the first arrival of humans in North America. Recent genetic analysis of Asian and American populations has already suggested that humans paused when they first arrived in Beringia, before migrating across the Americas.

Bourgeon’s findings have provided archeological evidence to back up that hypothesis, he said.

“I don’t think it’s a gamechanger, but it certainly provides provocative new evidence that people have been in the New World that early.”

For his part, Josie said it means a lot to the members of his community to know that their ancestors have lived on that land for such a long time. He said Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation elders and youth make regular trips out to the Bluefish Caves, and he remembers going out there decades ago as a high school student, with Cinq-Mars. “He lived amongst our people for many years out in the field,” Josie said.

So when people down south ask him how he can stand to live in a place that regularly drops to -40C in the winter, he has his answer ready.

“I say, ‘No, that’s where our grandfathers and grandmothers raised us,’” he said. “That’s our connection and I’ll never leave there.”

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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