Rain – that’s how Norm Easton discovered one of the earliest sites of human occupation in Beringia.
In the mid-’90s, Easton, an instructor of archaeology and anthropology at Yukon College, was travelling up the Yukon Valley with a group of students when rain washed out the trails.
While they waited for the weather to clear, they set up camp at a site just off the Alaska Highway near Beaver Creek. The elder travelling with the group suggested the students do some digging. People had used it as a hunting campsite, he said. Still did. There would probably be something for them to find.
“So they did do a little digging,” Easton told the News on Oct. 30. Sitting in his lab at the college, Easton was surrounded by drawers laid out side-by-side on tables, containers stacked on top of each other, full of soil and bones, and plastic sleeves holding bits of stone and obsidian. “And they kept finding stuff.”
It was interesting, Easton said, but it was the standard stuff (or what passes for standard in archaeology), including “flakes” — small tools made of rock that can be used for cutting meat or scraping hides.
After a couple days, the group moved on to the site it had initially set out to visit. It wasn’t until the following year that Easton found something worth settling in for.
Travelling the same route, Easton stopped in again at the site (now known as the Little John site) to allow his students to practice their digging skills. By the end of the first day, he said they’d found a “chindadn point” — a projectile made of rock. Easton recognized the technology as dating to between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago, much earlier than he would have expected.
“That was that,” he said. “We carried on there for 16 years.”
Now, Easton’s job is to analyze the bits and pieces he has catalogued and stored on almost every shelf of his lab. If it seems like a significant undertaking, you’re starting to understand the scope. After an hour of talking, Easton has barely gotten through an explanation of a handful of the rock and obsidian tools in the collection.
Some of them are pointed, spear-shaped. Balanced and symmetrical, he said they’re clearly projectiles, probably from throwing darts (bow-and-arrow technology wouldn’t have existed at the time).
Others, such as the flakes and bifaces, just look like rocks. Something you’d casually toss aside, unless you had Easton’s advice on what to look for. A serrated edge, like a really rough version of what you’d find on a modern steak knife, is one clue.
“They have been chipped,” he said, holding a tool in his hand and pointing to a sharp edge with tiny scallops taken out of it. “Nature doesn’t do that. If you take a rock like this and it falls off a cliff, it’s going to get some chips in it. What it’s not going to get is patterned chips along an edge. It’s not going to get patterned chips all over the two faces. It’s not going to be in a symmetrical shape.”
Tools like these, he said, would have been used for all kinds of activities, from scraping out hides, to cutting meat, to some things he may not have even considered.
A graduate student of his, at the University of British Columbia, is trying to further determine some of those uses. She’s working on a gendered analysis of the collection, trying to identify women’s tools and activities.
When Easton was packing everything up to ship to her, he noticed one of the items he’d thought was a flake had an unusually steep-edged chip out of it. When he put it under a microscope, he found a notch next to the chip, placed in such a way that suggested a functional relationship between the notch and the edge.
“This actually is going to be a really interesting piece for my student to look at because she will then be looking at the wear patterns on here under high magnification, with a view towards trying to see if she can tell what type of material, whether it was flesh or skin or hide or wood and so on. Because they leave different types of wear patterns that you can see under a big microscope,” he said.
Easton also has a grad student from the University of New Mexico looking at the site’s geomorphology (the study of the Earth’s physical features).
That student is examining the soil samples, which will help Easton figure out whether the items found at Little John are original to the site, or whether they were displaced by something like a landslide.
There’s a pebbled, silty layer on the site, he said, that suggests as much. Soil dating of that layer found it was “ridiculously old” (or 23,000 years old if you want to get specific), even though the tools and bones found beneath it are only 14,000 years old. That was a huge surprise, he said.
Going forward, Easton will transfer some materials to the heritage branch, in trust for the White River First Nation. He also wants to keep looking at the potential range of the people who used the Little John site.
It wasn’t unusual, he said, for hunter/gatherer societies to move 400 to 500 km in a single year, so it’s possible they also used the Swan Point site, about 300 km away in Alaska. It’s the only other site he knows of that was active in the same timeframe — however, there are differences in the types of tools and technology that have been found at each.
Easton has learned that in speaking with Dr. Charles Holmes, with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who has been excavating Swan Point.
“Charles would say (that technology) is there, you just haven’t dug in the right place. You’re unlucky,” Easton said. “And that’s kind of his approach to things. And it’s certainly not an unreasonable proposition given the fact that the site itself is enormous.”
Little John is an estimated 5,000 square meters. Easton has excavated 250 of that.
“So, you know, do the math,” he said. “There’s still plenty of dirt there to look at yet.”
Contact Amy Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org