tanana treasures reveal prehistoric ways of life

Early in the summer of 2002, Norm Easton, a lecturer in anthropology/archeology at Yukon College was preparing to lead a gaggle of graduate students up Scottie Creek, in the Tanana River drainage near Beaver Creek.

By Erling Friis-Baastad

Early in the summer of 2002, Norm Easton, a lecturer in anthropology/archeology at Yukon College was preparing to lead a gaggle of graduate students up Scottie Creek, in the Tanana River drainage near Beaver Creek. Fortunately, as it turned out, heavy rains had flooded the trail and they were forced to cool their heels for a few days at a popular First Nations camping and gathering spot near the Alaska Highway.

Multi-faceted Easton switched gears and began discussing Upper Tanana linguistics with elder Joseph Tommy Johnny of the White River First Nation. But the visiting students, eager for artifact action, grew fidgety. “You should tell them to dig around here. We’ve always camped here so there’s got to be something around here,” said Tommy Johnny.

So they dug some test pits and immediately the students began finding things. Easton recalls their excitement as pieces of ancient history surfaced: “What’s this? What’s this? What’s this?…

“And very quickly it was like, ‘Holy Cow!’” he says. “We did about 30 test pits and every test pit turned up something.”

Easton, his students and fellow researchers, including their White River First Nation colleagues, are preparing for the eighth excavation season at what has become one of the most exciting archeological hot spots in the western sub Arctic. The Little John site, named for the area’s long-time steward, the late White River Johnny, has sparked international enthusiasm among some of archeology’s most-renown researchers. These include archeologist and author E. James Dixon of the University of New Mexico, who is throwing his support behind Easton’s efforts. The excavation has also become the subject of a documentary by Yukon filmmaker Max Fraser; Little John Country just launched at this spring’s Dawson City Film Festival.

Dig size and number of artifacts are not the only attention-grabbing aspects of the Little John site, of course. Age and associations are also cause for excitement. Easton and the other searchers have found many artifacts from the mid-Holocene epoch – or about 5,000 years old – however, some points found at Little John, in what was once part of ice-age Beringia, likely date back to the late Pleistocene epoch, which ended about 12,000 years ago. And artifacts found here may reveal relationships between the people on what is now the Yukon side of the border and those who lived in Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains to the west, as well as connections to hunters whose tools have been found in the melting ice fields high in the Southern Lakes region of the Yukon.

Among the most exciting Little John finds are Chindadn points, tear-drop-shaped projectile points. At 12, 000 to 14,000 years old, these may well be the oldest yet found in Canada,

The Little John site has much going for it, especially the proximity to St. Elias Range glaciers and the glacially ground dust, or loess, which continually blows over the nearby landscape. This dust covers artifacts and pieces of wood and bone. It seals out oxygen that would hasten decomposition of faunal remains. And, being alkali, it neutralizes the destructive acidic leachate from spruce needles. The result is that ancient animal and plant remains from the southeastern corner of Beringia can be more easily dated.

“We have good datings from faunal remains that have been found in the area,” says Easton. “We have a 20,000-year-old horse, a 32,000-year old mammoth … 22 to 32,000 BP was a period of maximum glaciation, depending on where you are in the Yukon.” One of the projects slated for the 2010 season is the completion of a major data base on the Holocene and Pleistocene fauna of the area, an initiative that’s been underway in a big way for the past three years with the help of David Yesner of the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and physical anthropologist and Yukoner Vance Hutchinson.

Also this year, Easton and his associates are eager to begin solving a ‘wooden puzzle.’ At one edge of the excavated portion of the site they have found wood chips and the remains of a perimeter of some wood formation. “It’s something, whether natural or cultural, I can’t tell at this point,” says Easton. But he added, “People like making circles.” Archeology is not a science for the impatient. Extending the excavation deeper into the wood-strewn sector could take several seasons, as researchers wait for the permafrost to melt.

Easton is also excited about the possibility of future DNA research at the site. At a recent conference, he spoke with a Danish scientist who has found plant and animal DNA in the frozen soil of Northern Europe. “If the soil is sufficiently frozen, we can discover DNA and identify which species were present in the landscape,” says Easton. Many mammals, including humans, could have left DNA traces when walking back and forth across the site.

The archeologist is quick to give credit to the people of the White River First Nation for the incredible success of research at the Little John site. Fraser’s film addresses the co-operation as well. Easton, says Chief David Johnny in the film, didn’t charge in demanding access to White River First Nation land and artifacts; he took time to get to know the people, and become known by them. Chief Johnny says the anthropologist is now like a member of the family. “We look at him as one of us.”

Meanwhile, this admirable example of cross-cultural and cross-discipline co-operation is yielding another very gratifying result. The site is so large and has revealed so much, that it is no longer so necessary to describe it solely in relation on to other excavation sites. “Somewhere over the next few years,” says Easton with a grin, “we’ll be sitting back and working out what fits for Little John, not compared to anyplace else, but what Little John tells us about itself – and then force some other places to begin comparing themselves to us.”

This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.taiga.net/yourYukon