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.
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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
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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