The Lost World of Beringia
“If Ice Age people were sent by anything, it was the push and pull of the climate, the drive of human curiosity, and the tidal movement of other animals within which the people flowed. I doubt they would have considered themselves colonists, or that they had any idea of the scale of emptiness that lay ahead.” ~Craig Childs
During the ice age, Alaska belonged to the Old World. While ice sheets formed a barrier across much of Canada, the Bering Sea was dry. One could walk from Siberia to Alaska, and this is without a doubt the first stop ice age humans took on their way to colonizing all of North and South America. Called Beringia, this vast, conjoined land was a whole subcontinent, and more than just a stopping point on the journey to the New World. It was a destination itself, with thousands of years of prehistory that we have barely begun to study. Despite decades of research, Beringian archaeology remains poorly understood. Small modern populations, very few archaeologists, high costs of conducting research, and low levels of development make this area difficult to work in. Deeply buried sites, often occurring in frozen contexts, and hidden under thick boreal forest and tundra are complicated to discover and reach. For example, I conducted archaeological survey this summer along the Yukon River in Eastern Alaska, which required travel by small plane, two helicopters, and being ferried around by boat. Back in the ice age, the region looked quite different. Like much of Eurasia, which it was connected to, Beringia was dominated by Mammoth-steppe: vast, arid grasslands filled with a menagerie of large mammals, like a subarctic Serengeti.
“In the mammoth ecosystem, the collective behavior of millions of competitive herbivores maintained the grasslands. In the winter, the animals ate the grasses that grew the previous summer. All the while they fueled plant productivity by fertilizing the soil with their manure, and they trampled down moss and shrubs, preventing these plants from gaining a foothold.” ~Sergey Zimov
This rich, biologically productive, planet-cooling biome took up most of the high latitudes of the Northern hemisphere. Dotted with musk-ox, mammoth, bears both modern and extinct, and many other species. The aridity of the Beringian mammoth steppe is clearly visible in the layers of fine pleistocene sands, kicked up by winds, which settled beneath many of the sites of the Alaskan interior. Counterintuitively, southern Alaska was largely glaciated, while the interior may have offered a more livable environment. We have a few sites dating to around 30 kya, and several dozen dating to the very tail end of the ice age- say, 10-14kya. I’d like to introduce you to a few of these, and make a prediction about one way we might discover more sites in the years to come. In Siberia, the Site of Nepa-1 (Goebel & Potter 2016), located along the Nizhnaia Tunguska River, gives us a flicker of human life that dates to at least 30kya. But this site has only yielded a small assemblage of stone artifacts, and the associated remains of a few large mammals. The Yana Rhino Horn Site is a bit more exciting (Pitulko et al. 2004). Locating along the lower Yana River, it contains a well preserved cultural layer, with numerous stone and bone artifacts, including a projectile fore shaft carved from the horn of a wooly rhino. The Yana site has revealed awls made from bone and mammoth ivory, beads, needles, and traces of a long-term settlement. There’s evidence for hunting of bison, mammoth, reindeer, horse, hare, musk-ox, fox, wolverine, brown bear, and many more species. There are reindeer tooth pendants, and jewelry made from carved amber (Pitulko et al. 2012). It’s an amazing site. But the strange thing is, after the first smattering of sites around 30kya we have a huge gap in the archaeological record. Bluefish caves, in Canada’s Yukon Territory might show evidence of human occupation 18-24kya (Cinq-Mars 1979, Bourgeon et al. 2017, Bourgeon 2021) but this is based solely on cut marked bones, and flaked bones found without any other obviously man-made artifacts. Archaeologists still debate whether there could have been natural causes for these patterns (Krazinski and Blong 2020). Some have proposed that as conditions worsened around the last glacial maximum, around 20,000 years ago, people were no longer able to inhabit the area. Others say we just haven’t looked hard enough yet.
The next signs of human life in Beringia occur 14.4 kya, at Swan Point. Swan Point is a high promontory along the Tanana River Valley, in the Alaskan interior, where people camped, hunted, and scavenged along a major transportation corridor (Swan Point (Lanöe & Holmes 2016). The Tanana River Valley, and nearby Nenana River Valley are actually a hotspot for early ice age sites. And across Alaska, more than 30 sites date to earlier than 10ky old, with some notable examples including Broken Mammoth, Upward Sun, Lime Hills Cave, and Tuluaq Hill, to name a few. Like the continental US, ice age Alaska appears to have had a fluted point tradition dating to at least ~12kya, based on evidence from Serpentine Hot Springs and Raven Bluff (Goebel et al. 2013). In Siberia, teardrop-shaped points from Berelekh and Ushki layer 7 (Dikov 1977 ) date to as early as 13.5 thousand years ago. Microblades represent an interesting technological departure from what we see south of the ice sheets. At Lime Hills Cave in Southwest Alaska, fragments of grooved antler points dated to 10-12kya were likely inset with with numerous tiny blades, almost like teeth (Goebel & Potter 2016). At Swan Point, microblades occur in deposits dating to 14kya (Gómez Coutouly 2015). In fact, there’s good evidence for the widespread use of this technology across Alaska. Only two burial sites are currently known in the Ice Age Arctic, including one in Siberia, and one in Alaska. The Siberian burials come from a site called Ushki-1 in Kamchatka (Dikov 1977 ). Ushki actually contains several burials. There’s a single adult layed within a rock-lined pit. Filled with ochre, the pit included stone beads and stone tools. There are also two children buried in small pits within separate houses, and a dog burial inside another house. In Alaska, Upward Sun River (Potter et al. 2011, 2014) contains a child, about three years old, cremated and buried in a pit hearth within a house. Below the child was another burial, containing two infants, four antler rods, and two bifacial points. These burials help humanize Beringian peoples, reminding us that they lost loved ones, and laid them carefully to rest, often within their homes. Art can also help add a little human color to an otherwise dry, analytical story, but again, very little has been found. For instance, personal adornments like beads and pendants have not been found in Alaska, though in Siberia they’ve been found at Yana (Pitulko et al. 2012), as well as Ushki (Dikov 1977 ). I’d argue the most likely explanation for this dearth of art is simply the tiny sample of sites we have available. As we find more, I think more art will turn up.This is a pretty dry, sparse story so far. Let me suggest one way I think researchers might find more sites. I know this will be a very hand-waving section of the video, but take it for what it’s worth. Caves provide a disproportionate share of the earliest archaeological sites around the world. This is probably due both to how well they preserve ancient sediments, as well as their ritual and practical value to paleolithic humans. Well, Alaska actually has a good bit of limestone deposits in which caves could have formed, including in sections of the interior which remained unglaciated during the ice age. I made this map to show you what I mean. Blue is Ice, Orange is unglaciated limestone deposits. Most of these areas are likely to be poorly surveyed, or completely unsurveyed. But if there are caves, they would have been accessible to the people of Beringia. Rather than marching through boreal forests and checking the occasional cut-bank or promontory, I suspect surveying for caves may be one of our best-bets for finding traces of Beringia. Let me describe one site- quite ancient, but still early holocene, not late pleistocene. On Your Knees Cave (Kemp et al. 2007), on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska provides one of the most fascinating early sites along the northwest coast. It dates to about 10,000 years old, and contains the remains of a man in his mid-twenties, who’s remains lie scattered among a deep palimpsest of animal bones. The cave also contains stone tools made of obsidian, hinting at the trade connections and mobility of the people who lived along the coastline. We also learned that this individual was a specialist in marine resources, based on isotopic signatures in his teeth - and his DNA shows the earliest occurrence of haplogroup D, found in modern populations along the American west coast. Or, perhaps we need to look underwater. While much of southern Alaska was uninhabitable, many argue for the presence of a habitable kelp-highway (Erlandson et al. 2007, 2015), a belt of productive marine resources that would have allowed ice age people to hug the coastlines, skirting the crushing ice that stared down from the mountains above. Maybe we need to find a site like Cosquer Cave in France (Clottes et al. 1992), where divers found a submerged cave site filled with ice age art, inundated by rising sea levels when the earth warmed up. My hope is that we will find On Your Knees Cave’s big brother. Just a little older, and we’re in the world of the ice age. I’m also certain that another Swan Point or Broken Mammoth is just around the corner. Beringian archaeology is still in its infancy, and if we’re lucky, we might get to see some of its greatest developments within our lifetimes.
Bourgeon, L. (2021). Revisiting the mammoth bone modifications from Bluefish Caves (YT, Canada). Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 37, 102969. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102969
Bourgeon, L., Burke, A., & Higham, T. (2017). Earliest human presence in North America dated to the last glacial maximum: New radiocarbon dates from Bluefish Caves, Canada. PLOS ONE, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0169486
Childs, C. (2019). Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ace Age America. Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cinq-Mars, J. (1979). Bluefish Cave l: A Late Pleistocene Eastern Beringian Cave Deposit in the Northern Yukon. Canadian Journal of Archaeology / Journal Canadien d’Archéologie, 3, 1–32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41102194
Clottes, J., Beltrán, A., Courtin, J., & Cosquer, H. (1992). The cosquer cave on Cape Morgiou, Marseilles. Antiquity, 66(252), 583–598. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003598x00039314
Dikov, Nikolai N. 1977  Arkheologicheskie Pamiatniki Kamchatki, Chukotki i Verkhnei Kolymy. Nauka, Moscow. Translated by Richard L. Bland as Archaeological Sites of Kamchatka, Chukotka and the Upper Kolyma. US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Shared Beringian Heritage Program, Anchorage, Alaska.
Erlandson, J. M., Graham, M. H., Bourque, B. J., Corbett, D., Estes, J. A., & Steneck, R. S. (2007). The Kelp Highway Hypothesis: Marine ecology, the Coastal Migration Theory, and the peopling of the Americas. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 2(2), 161–174. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564890701628612
Erlandson, J. M., Braje, T. J., Gill, K. M., & Graham, M. H. (2015). Ecology of the Kelp Highway: Did Marine Resources facilitate human dispersal from Northeast Asia to the Americas? The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 10(3), 392–411. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564894.2014.1001923
Goebel, T., Smith, H. L., DiPietro, L., Waters, M. R., Hockett, B., Graf, K. E., Gal, R., Slobodin, S. B., Speakman, R. J., Driese, S. G., & Rhode, D. (2013). Serpentine hot springs, Alaska: Results of excavations and implications for the age and significance of northern fluted points. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40(12), 4222–4233. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2013.05.027
Goebel, T., & Potter, B. (2016). First Traces: Late Pleistocene Human Settlement of the Arctic. In T. M. Friesen & O. K. Mason (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the prehistoric arctic (pp. 223–252). essay, Oxford University Press.
Gómez Coutouly, Y. A., & Holmes, C. E. (2018). The microblade industry from Swan Point Cultural Zone 4B: Technological and cultural implications from the earliest human occupation in Alaska. American Antiquity, 83(4), 735–752. https://doi.org/10.1017/aaq.2018.38
Gómez Coutouly, Y. A. (2015). Anangula--a major pressure-microblade site in the aleutian islands, Alaska: Reevaluating its lithic component. Arctic Anthropology, 52(1), 23–59. https://doi.org/10.3368/aa.52.1.23
Kemp, B. M., Malhi, R. S., McDonough, J., Bolnick, D. A., Eshleman, J. A., Rickards, O., Martinez-Labarga, C., Johnson, J. R., Lorenz, J. G., Dixon, E. J., Fifield, T. E., Heaton, T. H., Worl, R., & Smith, D. G. (2007). Genetic analysis of early holocene skeletal remains from Alaska and its implications for the settlement of the Americas. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 132(4), 605–621. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.20543
Krasinski, K.E., & Blong, J.C. (2020). Unresolved Questions about Site Formation, Provenience, and the Impact of Natural Processes on Bone at the Bluefish Caves, Yukon Territory. Arctic Anthropology 57(1), 1-21. https://www.muse.jhu.edu/article/777303.
Lanoë, F. B., & Holmes, C. E. (2016). Animals as raw material in Beringia: Insights from the site of Swan point CZ4B, Alaska. American Antiquity, 81(4), 682–696. https://doi.org/10.7183/0002-73188.8.131.522
Pitulko, V. V., Nikolsky, P. A., Girya, E. Y., Basilyan, A. E., Tumskoy, V. E., Koulakov, S. A., Astakhov, S. N., Pavlova, E. Y., & Anisimov, M. A. (2004). The yana RHS site: Humans in the Arctic before the last glacial maximum. Science, 303(5654), 52–56. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1085219
Pitulko, V. V., Pavlova, E. Y., Nikolskiy, P. A., & Ivanova, V. V. (2012). The oldest art of the Eurasian Arctic: Personal ornaments and symbolic objects from Yana rhs, Arctic Siberia. Antiquity, 86(333), 642–659. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0003598x00047827
Potter, B. A., Irish, J. D., Reuther, J. D., Gelvin-Reymiller, C., & Holliday, V. T. (2011). A terminal pleistocene child cremation and residential structure from Eastern Beringia. Science, 331(6020), 1058–1062. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1201581
Potter, B. A., Irish, J. D., Reuther, J. D., & McKinney, H. J. (2014). New insights into eastern beringian mortuary behavior: A terminal pleistocene double infant burial at Upward Sun River. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(48), 17060–17065. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1413131111
Zimov, S. A. (2005). Pleistocene Park: Return of the mammoth's ecosystem. Science, 308(5723), 796–798. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1113442
Napoleon's Tomb Raiders
In may of 1798, a French armada set sail across the Mediterranean, heading for Alexandria. In command of the expedition was a 29 year old Napoleon Bonaparte- not yet emperor, but already a rising star in the French military. He had been given nearly 200 vessels and 13 ships of the line, alongside the newly formed Army of the Orient. This army was created to seize Egypt for France, from the clutches of the decrepit Ottoman Empire. (Fritze, 2015)
More than 150 scholars also accompanied the expedition. These researchers, called the Scientific Commission, were to study every facet of Egypt, natural and human, modern, and ancient. Out of these men, though, only 3 were archaeologists. Archaeology was such a young discipline that it was largely still left to rich antiquarians to collect artifacts as curiosities, not as part of any scientific study
They came as conquerors, and from our perspective as looters, but they saw the remains of Ancient Egypt in a state that none of us will ever have a chance to experience. The sphinx was buried to its shoulders- many monuments still showed remains of their original paint- and two centuries of Egyptomania and looting had yet to strip the desert of its treasures. I want to share with you some amazing descriptions and illustrations, and ponder how much really separates me, a modern professional archaeologist, from those 19th century plunderers. I think the gap is narrower than you might think.
While French soldiers, Ottoman Mamluke defenders, and local brigands fought in a chaotic and fast-moving campaign, the Scientific Commission scrambled to record everything they could. At the Battle of the pyramids, the French broke a Mameluke army under Murad Bey, who fled south to Upper Egypt. Napoleon sent General Louis Desaix chasing after him, with the scholar Dominique Vivante, Baron de Denon in tow. At Dendera, Denon saw the ruins of the Temple of Hathor, a sky goddess who was also associated with the worship of the dead.
“I found, buried in a heap of ruins, a gate built of enormous masses covered with hieroglyphics. Through this gate I had a view of the Temple of Hathor. I wish I could here transfuse into the soul of my readers the sensation I experienced.” … “This monument seemed to me to have all the primitive character of a temple in the highest perfection.” ~Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon (Russell, 2005)
Entering the temple, he was astonished by the carvings adorning the inside.
“On casting my eyes on the ceiling, I perceived zodiacs, planetary systems and celestial planispheres represented in a tasteful arrangement. I observed the walls to be covered with groups of pictures exhibiting the religious rites of the people, their labors in agriculture, the arts and their moral precepts.” ~Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon (Russell, 2005)
Months later, when he had a chance to return, he knew he needed to study that beautiful ceiling again. Lying on his back in the darkened room, he sketched by candlelight.
“I began with what had been the principal object in my previous journey, namely, the celestial planisphere that occupies part of the ceiling of a little apartment built over the nave of the great temple. The floor being low and the room dark I was able to work for only a few hours of the day.” … ”The desire of bringing to the philosophers of my native country the copy of an Egyptian bas-relief of so much importance made me patiently endure the tormenting position required in its delineation.” ~Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon (Russell, 2005)
This was the East Osiris Chapel, situated on the roof of the Temple of Hathor. The zodiacal ceiling he described is now housed in the Louvre in Paris, after having been looted by a French treasure hunter a couple decades later. This kind of two-faced behavior characterized the French adventure in Egypt. While figures like Denon made a serious effort at recording the ruins they encountered, just as many Frenchman dedicated themselves to private collecting and the bourgeoning antiquities trade.
"Denon's work aroused tremendous enthusiasm for archaeology, especially among the hydraulic engineers charged with improving Egyptian agriculture. The engineers were soon neglecting their own dull work and making a beeline for temples and tombs, recording architectural features, hieroglyphic inscriptions, and all the magnificent panoply of ancient Egypt. Pencils ran out, lead bullets were frantically melted down as substitutes, and a vast body of irreplaceable infromation was recorded for posterity. At the same time, they removed small antiquities by the hundreds from temple and tomb." (Fagan 1975: 53-54)
The greatest discovery of the expedition was made by a soldier, not a scientist. While erecting coastal defenses in the Nile Delta, near the town of Rosetta, a soldier named D'Hautpoul stumbled across an inscribed granite stela beneath a pile of boulders (Fagan 1975: 50). On it were three versions of a decree- the first in Hieroglyphics, the second in demotic, the freehand version of the Egyptian script, and finally in ancient Greek. It was a miraculous find, because, it meant the Greek could be translated back into the Egyptian, and the mystery of hieroglyphics could finally be unlocked. So Napoleon's expedition culminated in the greatest single advancement ever made in Egyptology. But the Rosetta Stone was also fought over by Britain and France as a symbol of national pride, and has still not been returned to Egypt. For decades after his invasion, people like Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul to Egypt, and Henry Salt, Britain’s consul, continued the competition, and allowed widespread looting and collecting. "Their greed and rivalry became so intense that they reached an unspoken gentlemen’s agreement, if that is an appropriate description, to carve up the Nile Valley into 'spheres of influence.'" (Fagan 1975: 62)
One of the most talented treasure-hunters for the British side was the Great Belzoni, a former circus strong-man turned antiquities dealer. He uncovered Abu Simbel Temple from dozens of feet of sand, so the relief carvings inside could be recorded for the first time. He also sent a river of statues, mummies, and other treasures flowing to London. He even described crushing a mummy once when he sat on it. “I sought a resting place, found one, and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed like a band-box.” (Fagan 1975: 98)
At the same time, Champollion, the frenchman who deciphered the Rosetta Stone, was lobbying for better protection for these antiquities His pleas resulted in an Egyptian government ordinance published on August 15, 1835. On paper, it forbade all exportation of antiquities, and while unenforceable, it shows how this period led to the emerging concept of archaeological stewardship. (Fagan 1975: 170)
The funny thing is I’m only appalled at the way these people conducted archaeology because of the developments they contributed to. We are their intellectual descendants, and without those early archaeologists I would never have been taught modern methods of research. So in a sense, I’m standing on their shoulders, shouting down at them.
Modern archaeologists record what we dig up in excruciating detail. We deliver everything we find to museums, placing them in the public trust. But surely if we waited, future archaeologists could do the same digging, with better technology, gathering better data before destroying the site? After all, archaeological sites are destroyed when they’re excavated. The Society for American Archaeology’s first ethical principle is stewardship. “Stewards are both caretakers of and advocates for the archaeological record for the benefit of all people; as they investigate and interpret the record, they should use the specialized knowledge they gain to promote public understanding and support for its long-term preservation.”
But stewardship isn’t easy. It’s not as if putting an artifact in a museum is a perfect solution. Museums are stuffed to bursting in what is being called the curation crisis, and I’ve seen this firsthand. At the Smithsonian, they don’t even know everything they have- artifacts are often improperly stored, and many haven’t been looked at since they were first brought to the museum. There are endless rows of shelves of slowly decaying treasures, occasionally glimpsed by visiting researchers and collections interns. Is this what we mean by stewardship? It’s not like archaeologists don’t personally benefit from our control over antiquities, advancing our careers and reputations.
“If an artifact is to be dug out of the ground, I would want to see it in an archaeologist’s hands. What with their careful observation and skills of long term preservation, they are a far cry from pothunters. But since archaeologists hold themselves up as self-selected stewards, they invite close scrutiny.” ~Craig Childs
I doubt the ethics of archaeology will ever be clear. I think in terms of deep time, and I can’t imagine the knowledge we’ve gained lasting for too long, in the grand scheme of things. There are signs the rates of archaeological discovery are already in decline (Surovell et al., 2017). Imagine the empty hills and hollowed out ruins we leave to the archaeologists of future civilizations. The thing is, even after I think of that, I can’t help but feel excited about the next excavation. I don’t condone those early archaeologists. But I do understand them.
Childs, C. (2013). Finders keepers: A tale of archaeological plunder and obsession. Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company.
Fagan, B. M. (1975). The rape of the Nile: Tomb robbers, tourists, and archaeologists in Egypt. Westview Press.
Fritze, R. H. (2015). Egyptomania: A history of fascination obsession & fantasy. Reaktion Books.
HOOCK, H. O. L. G. E. R. (2007). The British state and the Anglo-French Wars over antiquities, 1798–1858. The Historical Journal, 50(1), 49–72. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0018246x06005917
Russell, T. M. (2005). The discovery of Egypt: Vivant Denon's travels with Napoleon's Army. Sutton.
Surovell, T. A., Toohey, J. L., Myers, A. D., LaBelle, J. M., Ahern, J. C., & Reisig, B. (2017). The End of Archaeological Discovery. American Antiquity, 82(2), 288–300. https://doi.org/10.1017/aaq.2016.33
Maritime Peoples of the Ice Age
“The ocean is a conveyer and not an isolator. It has been mans highway from the days he built the first buoyant ships, long before he tamed the horse, invented wheels, and cut roads through the virgin jungles.” ~Thor Heyerdahl
When we imagine ice age people, maritime lifeways are often overshadowed by more iconic elements of that lost world; bands of hunters pursuing mammoths, or a shaman winding between stalagmites, torch in hand. Many researchers have worked to establish the importance of the seas and rivers to paleolithic hunter-gatherers. I’d like to introduce a few interesting archaeological sites, and make some observations about the advantages of life along a shoreline.
One of the simplest measures of prehistoric seafaring is: could ancient people cross open water? Well, by 110-thousand years ago, there is evidence that islands on the southern Ionian coast of Turkey were inhabited- accessible only by voyaging several kilometers across the aegean. Such voyages would not have been chance events- a handful of individuals clinging to a log for dear life, only to be washed ashore like castaways. That wouldn't produce a long term presence of the kind we see. Instead, we have to imagine purposeful accessing of these islands, using some kind of watercraft. These islands were very likely first peopled by Neanderthals during the middle paleolithic, and later by anatomically modern humans during the upper paleolithic (Ferentinos et al. 2012). We know Neanderthals exploited marine and freshwater resources. One line of evidence is osteological- bony calluses in the inner ears of numerous Neanderthal individuals show evidence of swimmer’s ear, a possible sign of foraging for food in cold, aquatic environments (Trinkaus & Villotte, 2019). Another line of evidence is fish bones found all over Europe at middle paleolithic cave sites, where the fine bones have a better chance of preserving (Guillaud et al., 2021).
As early as 60kya, people had populated the Wallacean archipelago, and crossed the Timor sea to Australia. In an ambitious feat of experimental archaeology, researchers have tried to replicate this journey, to find out the bare minimum level of technology required to reach Australia. This experiment found that reaching Australia required a vessel with steering capability and some kind of simple sail, with a frame capable of withstanding the rigors of deep water voyaging. To construct a vessel with similar capabilities would have required complex forward planning, and people who understood hundreds of specific technologies and skills, pooling them for a single task (Bednarik, 2000). However, whatever vessels they built failed to preserve in the archaeological record, and instead we are left with fragments of bone and stone.
“Paleolithic sophistication can no more be determined from the period’s refuse than modern capability to fly to the moon is indicated by the contents of municipal garbage dumps.” ~Robert Bednarik
At Blombos Cave in South Africa, we know people were fishing close to shore before 50kya, but fish and shellfish represented in that assemblage are shallow-water species and would not have required boats or complex technology for their capture. (Langejans et al., 2012; Henshilwood & Sealy, 1997). On the other hand, by 42kya we know people in East Timor- at a site called Jerimalai Shelter- were capturing fish from the open ocean, and they have identified fishhooks as old as 23 thousand years (O'Connor et al., 2011). By this point people already had an intimate relationship with the sea, and relied on marine resources. Around 17kya, people occupied the site of Ohalo II, in Israel’s Rift Valley. The site is now waterlogged, but archaeologists were able to excavate enough to identify 8 species of fish, belonging to multiple freshwater families. The archaeologists who excavated the site claim that Ohalo II’s inhabititants “used their knowledge of the breeding behavior of different species of fish, for year-round intensive exploitation.” (Zohar et al. 2018: 1)
Archaeologists have observed the advantages of big-game hunting during the expansion of ice age humans around the globe, into sparsely populated, or completely unhinhabited continents. One interesting point is that traditional ecological knowledge is a critical resource, and when modern hunter-gatherers emigrate, they can often tap the traditional ecological knowledge of the local population. For instance, among the Walbiri of central Australia, different groups maintain myths that act as devices for the memorization of a territory, especially the location of water sources (Kelly and Todd, 1988). But, if one is on the front wave of colonization of new continents and regions, there may be no ecological knowledge to turn to. Animals tend to be available year-round and are widely dispersed across a region, while edible plants tend to vary more with local geography.
"A lifeway suitable for this task is one that placed primary reliance on faunal rather than plant resources. It is easier to locate, procure, and process the faunal as opposed to floral resources of an unknown region." (Kelly and Todd, 1988: 234)
That's all well and good, but I think it's also true of coastal maritime resources. If you can gather shellfish, set traps and lines, or cast a net along one coast, you can do it without much change along another coast. Or along many rivers and lakeshores, for that matter. There are two other advantages to maritime lifeways I want to share. First, water makes for easy travel. In the days before the horse, the wheel, or the road, moving things by water was far easier, and the coasts and rivers of the world were the arteries on which we traveled and traded. Second, oceans act as climate regulators. While continental climates are characterized by hot summers and freezing winters, coasts tend to be mild places, that place less seasonal stress upon the people who choose to live there.
Maritime peoples have long been associated with some of the most populous, complex societies hunter-gatherers are capable of producing. For example, the Tlingit of North America's Pacific Northwest lived in large settlements, had hierarchical societies, practiced slavery, and fought wars, all on a foundation of marine resources (Ames, 1994). Large coastal settlements dating to the European mesolithic provide another example. Norje Sunnansund, located in Southern sweden, is dated to as early as 9600 years old, and is among the first sites in Scandinavia that foragers occupied year-round (Boethius, 2018). And when populations become sedentary, they tend to start expanding. Some of the earliest large, sedentary foraging communities of East africa also relied on aquatic resources from the White Nile, at the Al Khiday Mesolithic sites of central Sudan (Maritan et al., 2018). These sites are around 6-7 thousand years old. It is unclear if similar sites, showing complex, sedentary foragers, existed during the paleolithic. Is this evidence of absence, or just absence of evidence?
Sea levels have risen dramatically since the end of the pleistocene, and whole subcontinents have been flooded, or reduced to islands. There was Sunda & Sahul (the former being the combination of southeast Asia and Indonesia, and the latter the combination of Australia and Papua New Guinea). There was Doggerland, occupying much of the English Channel and North Sea. And there was Beringia, between modern day Alaska and Siberia. Along many of the worlds coastlines beyond these subcontinents, enough movement has taken place to submerge ancient maritime settlements.
In one tantalizing clue, amber artifacts, like exquisitely carved animal figures, and ornate pendants are regularly found washed up on Danish beaches. Estimated to be made as early as 15,000 years ago, these artifacts probably come from inundated coastal settlements, and their number seems to hint at a once densely populated part of the Eurpean continent. "Like messages in bottles, washed up on the shore after years spent bobbing on the waves, these amber ornaments carry tidings from the past." (Fischer & Pederson, 2018: 23)
"The extensive lowlands, wetlands, esturaries and shores that vanished below the sea offered unrivalled ecological attractions with regard to the productivity, diversity, and stability of resources for prehistoric fishers, hunters, gatherers, and farmers. The complex richness of these landscapes very probably rendered them of fundamental significance for the biological evolution and cultural development of our species. Moreover, these now lost lands were central to the spread of humans across the world. Classical examples are the migrations of early humankind into Australia and the Americas, which involved the occupation of now submerged, and as yet un-investigated landmasses." ~Anders Fischer
One of the last frontiers of paleolithic archaeology then, must lie beneath the waves.
Ames, K. M. The Northwest Coast: Complex hunter-gatherers, ecology, and social evolution. Annual Review of Anthropology. 1994;23(1):209–29.
Bednarik, R. G. (2000). Crossing the Timor Sea by Middle Palaeolithic Raft. Anthropos, 95(1), 37–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40465860
Boethius A. Fishing for ways to thrive: integrating zooarchaeology to understand subsistence strategies and their implications among Early and Middle Mesolithic southern Scandinavian foragers. Lund: Lund University; 2018.
Fischer, A., & Pedersen, L. (2018). Oceans of archaeology. Jutland Archeological Society.
Guillaud, E., Béarez, P., Daujeard, C., Defleur, A. R., Desclaux, E., Roselló-Izquierdo, E., Morales-Muñiz, A., & Moncel, M.-H. (2021). Neanderthal foraging in freshwater ecosystems: A reappraisal of the middle paleolithic archaeological fish record from Continental Western Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 252, 106731. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106731
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The Fifth Beginning
I swear I'll get all of the show notes done soon- I'm getting on a helicopter for fieldwork on the Yukon River today though. Bear with me.
However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn." ~Anonymous, Popul Vuh
Every step you take has already been taken. Every story has already been told. The land is not newly discovered, so old with legends you might mistake them for rocks." ~Craig Childs
The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
The past is never dead; it's not even past." ~William Faulkner
No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.” ~Robert Macfarlane
We always stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them." ~David Anthony
That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away." ~Heraclitus
Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
The first people were aware of the signs and signals of the natural world. Their artifacts were projectiles, blades, and ivory sewing needles, either used on animal products, or made from them, or used to procure them. The world around them was a cycle of animals of all sizes, from voles and falcons to some of the largest mammals seen in human evolution." ~Craig Childs
The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
However splendid our languages and cultures, however rich and subtle our minds, however vast our creative powers, the mental process is the product of a brain shaped by the hammer of natural selection upon the anvil of nature."
Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
The Sphinx will always have to be looked after."
Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and 30 years I could build a bigger one."
Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella