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Little John yields evidence of first Canadians

We stood on the edge of the tiny hill, overlooking a broad, low-lying valley. Below us, the flat land was filled with small spruce trees,…

We stood on the edge of the tiny hill, overlooking a broad, low-lying valley. 

Below us, the flat land was filled with small spruce trees, stubby brush and a small meandering creek.

The far side of the valley was lined with low-lying hills, while in the distance you could see snow-capped peaks of the St. Elias Mountains.

Norm Easton gestured toward the south across the valley as he told me about the hill we were standing on. It is an archeological site that, according to radio-carbon dates, was occupied 12,000 and maybe 14,000 years ago, making it the oldest site in the region.

As we looked out across the valley, he explained to me that this was a natural vantage point to watch for game. Twelve thousand years ago, we would have been looking across a flat, grass-covered plain.

Herds of bison roamed across the expanse of land, which also had wapiti and caribou dotting the landscape. Occasionally, large mammoth, a species that was slowly disappearing, would lumber past. To the east and south, the glaciers were slowly retreating.

This valley represents a distant extension of the Tanana valley. Over in Alaska, there are a number of well-documented sites of similar age and containing tools of the same type and age that you find here.

If you go any further to the east, you reach a point, not far away, where the water drains away to the Yukon River.

Because the valley constricts at this point, the game must funnel past this lookout, which makes it a natural place to watch for food; as a consequence, the early inhabitants have occupied this site more or less continuously for the last 12,000 years.

This could be the home of the earliest Canadians, though the people of the time did not know or care about that.

At the time, they were part of the most easterly extension of people occupying Beringia, an area encompassing most of Alaska and the western Yukon.

Further to the east was a gigantic mass of ice that stretched for thousands of kilometres, upon which it was impossible to live. To the west, these people could have travelled all the way into Siberia, which was connected by a continuous stretch of low-lying land now popularly referred to as the Bering Land Bridge.

A few years in the future, the glaciers would melt and the oceans would rise, covering this neck of land, and separating North America from Asia.

Easton is an anthropologist and archeologist from Yukon College who has explored this region for 20 years. Having collaborated with White River elders, he knows the history of the area as well as anyone can.

As we gaze over the valley before us, he explains how he came to conducting an archeological dig at this place.

Like many things in archeology, the site was not discovered by design. Over the years, Easton had come to this area and camped on this very spot while hunting for moose.

Back in 2001, he and a small crew were planning to conduct an archeological survey of the Scottie Creek Valley, but the weather wouldn’t co-operate.

It had been raining steadily for a week, and even after it stopped, it would be another week before the lowlands would be passable for any kind of reconnaissance.

Rather than have the crew sit idle, Easton instructed them to establish a series of test pits on this lookout to see what came up. He was surprised by the abundance of material that was uncovered over the next few days.

Easton named it the Little John site, after an elder from the area.

The site is located within a stone’s throw of the Alaska Highway, a short distance from the international boundary.

Because four major archeological surveys had previously been conducted along the highway corridor before him, he had assumed that there was nothing new to be found.

The chance discovery in 2001 proved that you can’t assume anything.

But there was an even bigger surprise in store for Easton, and it came from a most unlikely source.

The abundance of material from the site, as well as its proximity to the highway, made it an excellent place to conduct an archeological field school in the following years.

It was during this fieldwork in 2003 that Eldred Johnny, Little John’s 10-year-old grandson found a small teardrop-shaped stone tool at the site. Eldred presented it to Glen McKay, who quickly brought it to Easton’s attention.

This artifact changed everything.

It is part of a tool tradition known as Nenana, or Chindadn, and represents the first occurrence of this tradition to be found in Canada. It is also very old.

Easton has continued to excavate at the Little John site over subsequent years, and will be doing so again this summer.

The excavations at Little John have been conducted in several areas of the site. Near the edge of the hill, where the wind sweeps across the valley and up the slope to the site, the deposits are very thin, and artifacts dating back thousands of years can be found on the surface in close proximity to other stone tools of more recent vintage.

Move back from the edge of the hill, and the deposits become much deeper, and the separation between artifacts from different time periods becomes much better defined.

Further back, in an area that Easton refers to as the Eastern Lobe, he has radiocarbon dates from a layer of wind-deposited silt (loess) of 14,000 years before the present.

In yet another portion of the site, known as the Swale Lobe, the deposits are more than four metres deep, and it is proposed that searchers will excavate into this deposit to get to the bottom during this summer’s field work.

With any luck, this will produce more cultural material from the earliest period of the site’s occupation.

Easton, who gives much credit to the elders who have mentored him over the years, notably Tommy Johnny and the late Bessie John, says that he has learned much from their knowledge that he can apply to his work.

Stories told to the oldest surviving members of the White River First Nation, when they were children, refer to monstrous animals with big horns projecting out from their snouts.

These stories were substantiated by recent work on the realignment of the Alaska Highway, which unearthed numerous mammal bones from the late Pleistocene era, including those of mammoths.

The stories relating to these extinct creatures have been told and retold for as many as 100 generations!

This summer’s work will include a team of 25 people, including the University of Alaska Anchorage field school, specialists, students, and members of the White River community, as well as those of Northway and Tetlin.

Work will include excavation, ethnobotany and ethnographic research, and Easton insists that his project activities also  include community service in Beaver Creek.

If you are driving the Alaska Highway to Alaska, you will find the site just a couple of kilometres from the international boundary. Stop and you will have a unique glimpse of the some of the Yukon’s earliest history being unearthed.

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.