Most great scientific discoveries are made completely by accident.
The Little John archeological site north of Beaver Creek is no exception.
Last Saturday at the Society for American Archeology meeting in Vancouver, it was announced the Little John site contained evidence of human occupation 14,000 years ago.
That makes it one of the oldest sites ever found in Beringia.
And local anthropologist Norman Easton discovered it by mistake.
Art, books and trays of artifacts cluttered Easton’s Whitehorse home in a seemly haphazard manner on Tuesday afternoon.
“Excuse the mess,” he said as he showed off pictures and bones and discussed the site, “but it is the way of the wacky professor.”
Easton, who also specializes in ethnography and linguistics, has been digging around the area since the early 1990s.
“We knew it was part of Beringia so the potential for early sites was there,” he said.
“And nobody had really explored the region archeologically.”
Easton poked around over the years but spent most of his time humping up valleys far from the Little John site.
In 2002, Easton and his group were planning to go on another search but it rained and the trails flooded.
Waiting for the water level to go down, Easton did linguistic work with an elder who still lives in the bush, Joseph Tommy Johnny.
After a couple of days at Johnny’s cabin, the elder suggested that Easton and his group go up to an old hunting camp nearby.
Johnny thought that it might be nice to have a change of scenery.
At the camp, Johnny suggested that Easton let his crew dig around a bit.
“I bet you find something,” the elder told Easton.
“My daddy used to hunt here and my grandpa too.”
The hunting camp was very close to the Alaska Highway, an area where Easton had done very little archeological work.
Four major surveys had already been completed up and down the highway and he figured there was nothing to be found.
But to give his team something to do, he let them dig around.
“They just started and every single test pit that they dug, we found material in,” said Easton.
“But that just made it a real productive site.”
The following year he took his field students to the site because he knew they’d find stuff quickly, said Easton.
“Within the first two days, we were getting down to these levels that were containing materials, which were — well here, this is the first one they found.”
Easton picked up a teardrop shaped rock.
“In Alaska, when you find these, generally they’re 10 to 11,000 years old,” he said.
“That’s when we started getting really excited, so we just kept exploring the site further and then we discovered that the site has a whole other area which is much deeper.”
In that deeper area they found bone material from an extinct bison that had been butchered by prehistoric humans.
The bone was sent away for radiocarbon dating, which revealed it to be between 13,720 and 14,050 years old.
In the same area where the bison was found there were also elk remains, caribou and the bones of what turned out to be a dog, said Easton.
“So not only do we have early humans here, they also came with their dog.”
The site, which was used as a hunting camp over millennia, holds a treasure trove of interesting artifacts.
“Beside the fact that it’s old and it’s got great fauna preservation — these in itself are unusual things to find — it also contains pretty much every single archeological culture known in the Yukon,” said Easton.
“We even have an occupation there from the builders of the Alaska Highway and (First Nations) still use this as a camp for hunting and hanging out.”
In a site with ancient bones and prehistoric tools you can also find trading beads, old rifle shells, pop bottles and juicy fruit gum wrappers.
“The participation from my friends there at the White River First Nation is another thing that’s really fabulous about the site,” said Easton.
“They give me a lot of support and, generally speaking, I have four to six of their youth members helping me out every summer.”
The first significant find at the site was actually made by one of these youth, Eldred Johnny, who was nine years old at the time.
“He’s nuts about this stuff and he just loves the bush,” said Easton pointing to a photo of Eldred.
“He’s been raised as a good bush boy. He just gets out there and that’s where he’s really happy, really confident.”
The nine year old was working in a unit with another archeologist who thought it was pretty much finished.
He decided to let Eldred continue to poke around in the hole for a while.
A little while later, the boy tapped the archeologist on the shoulder.
“Is this anything?” he said.
In the photo from the presentation that Easton gave to his peers in Vancouver, Eldred is proudly displaying a teardrop shaped tool, a Chindadn point, the first found on the site.
Chindadn means ancestor in the Tanacross language, said Easton.
And it was the discovery of that tool that told Easton he had a really old site on his hands.
Fieldwork at the Little John site and related research of the Scottie Creek Culture History Project will continue this summer.
And excavation will likely go on for many years to come.
The site is complex and huge — about 5,000 square metres.
“We’ve been working on it for five years and we’ve gotten 100 square metres dug,” said Easton.
“So there’s a couple lifetimes worth or work there.”