Ancient Archaeological Sites in Alaska

Since the time of Alaska Statehood in 1959, many significant archaeological discoveries have revolutionized our understanding of Alaska’s most ancient people and how they first used the land.
 
The discovery of Alaska’s earliest sites has been driven in part by the central question in New World archaeology: “When and how did the first people come to the Americas?”
 
Until the early 1950s when the drive for Alaska’s Statehood was underway, it was not possible to accurately date archaeological sites. The development of radiocarbon dating at this time propelled the desire to find dateable sites to help answer this compelling question.
 
In the past 50 years, over 30 archaeological sites have been found statewide that date to over 10,000 years old. Dozens more are over 8,000 years old. Some of these sites are shown on this map with dots, and eight are highlighted with photos and text. They are among the oldest of more than 15,000 reported archaeological sites in Alaska as of 2009. Most recently, ancient sites have been discovered along coastal areas that challenge the assumption that the first people came only by land.
 
Today, as Alaska celebrates its 50th anniversary, ongoing archaeological work still holds great potential. The discovery of even more significant ancient sites could expand our understanding of Alaska as the key gateway to the Americas.
 

Links to Alaskan Museums & Exhibits:

Aleutian Islands

Museum of the Aleutians

Anchorage Area

Alaska Museum of Science and Nature

Alaska Native Heritage Center

Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center

Fairbanks Area

University of Alaska Museum of the North

Kodiak Island

Alutiiq Museum

Southeast Alaska



Archaeology in the Anchorage District Office:

Tangle Lakes Archaeological District

Glennallen Field Office

Overview photo of the Tangle Lakes Archaeological DistrictSome of the prehistoric sites in this large archaeological district in central Alaska were found and excavated in the 1950s. However, scientific work at most of them has been more recent, with research continuing today. The oldest of the more than 600 recorded sites in the Tangle Lakes region are about 12,000 years old. They provide evidence of ancient hunters using an ice-dominated landscape. Lingering Pleistrocene ice remnants dammed rivers and created high elevation lakes that attracted a variety of migratory animals. Today’s hunters still come to this area for the wildlife. Most of the early sites in the Tangle Lakes area are shallowly buried and include stone tools with an occasional hearth.

You can also learn about Tangle Lakes by visiting the Glennallen Field Office page here.

Lake Atna

Glennallen Field Office

To learn more about the archaeology and past and future excavations at Lake Atna, click here.

Archaeology in the Fairbanks District Office:

Mesa Site

Arctic Field Office

Overview of the Mesa SiteOverview of the Mesa Site

This ancient game lookout site sits on a high mesa-like formation on the northern flank of the Brooks Range Mountains. Discovered in the 1970s and excavated in the 1990s, it is the best documented PaleoIndian site in Alaska. Ancient hearths with associated stone artifacts date between 12,000 and 14,000 years old. Mesa Site projectile points are very similar to those made by some PaleoIndians in parts of the western continental United States. This suggests an intriguing ancient connection between the two areas. Learn more>

 

Excavations at the Raven Bluff Site: An Archaeologist's Dream

Central Yukon Field Office

The Mother Lode. The Big Kahuna. An Alaska archaeologist’s dream site.

When BLM Central Yukon Field Office archaeologist Bill Hedman ponders such a find, his thoughts don’t stop at a treasure trove of artifacts covering thousands of years of human history. His ideal site would also have thick soil deposition to help differentiate artifacts from different time periods. There’d be lots of bone, too, or other organic material for dating the artifacts. Oh, and add a nice breeze to keep the swarms of arctic mosquitoes down.

It’s a long list, but Hedman thinks he’s found just such a site next to the Kivalina River, a 60-mile-long river that begins in the DeLong Mountains of the western Brooks Range and flows southwest to Kivalina Lagoon in the Chukchi Sea. The site is approximately 100 air miles north of Kotzebue. Hedman has christened the new site "Raven Bluff." According to Hedman, only a handful of sites this old have been found in northern Alaska. He’s hoping Raven Bluff’s unusually long record of human use will shed new light on the earliest inhabitants of North America. Read more>

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Important Prehistoric Archaeological Sites in Alaska

The descriptions below describe some of the most important prehistoric sites that have been found in Alaska. Most of the sites are found on federal lands, although they are not managed by the BLM.

Onion Portage Sites

Onion Portage SiteIn 1941, achaeologists found a series of deeply stratified sites in the Kobuk River drainage. They are included in the Onion Portage Archaeological District designated in 1978. One of the most notable sites is the Akmak locality. It was discovered in the 1960s and dates to over 11,000 years old. Akmak includes a succession of occupations from eight different cultural traditions defined by distinctive artifacts spanning several thousands of years. The Onion Portage sites provide the best evidence for understanding the distribution through time of many of the earliest cultures in western Alaska.

Broken Mammoth SiteBroken Mammoth Site

This site overlooks the Tanana River Valley of Interior Alaska. Archaeologists found and excavated it in the 1990s. Broken Mammoth is exceptional for its age of about 13,200 years old and its preservation of animal remains. Identifiable human activities at the site include the butchering, cooking and consumption of game; tool manufacture and maintenance; caching of tools (organic and stone) and animal parts; and hide-working and clothing manufacture. This site yielded some of the best evidence of ancient Alaskans hunting and butchering mammoths over 13,000 years ago. Several artifacts found there include human-made tools crafted on mammoth tusk fragments.

Swan PointSwan Point

This site was found and excavated in the 1990s, just a few miles northeast of the Broken Mammoth site. At over 14,300 years old, it is the oldest dated site in Alaska as of 2009. The oldest component of this stratified site contained microblade technology. It is similar to Duktai cultural remains from Siberia. This suggests a cultural connection across the land bridge that existed between Alaska and Siberia at the end of the last Ice Age. The site provides evidence that the earliest Alaskans hunted bison, mammoth, ancient horses and migratory waterfowl.

Dry Creek SiteDry Creek Site

This multi-component stratified site was found and excavated in the 1970s in the Nenana River drainage of central Alaska. Its oldest component, about 13,000 years old, contained small bifacial tools. These are distinct from the microblade technology found at the earlier Swan Point Site. However, a later component, dated about 12,000 years old, also contained microblades. These were made differently from the earlier Duktai-style microblades at Swan Point, suggesting a change in stone tool technology. Included at the Dry Creek Site are remains of bison, sheep and birds left by ancient hunters. The site is especially important in understanding the cultures of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs, the transition between glacial and post-glacial times.

On Your Knees CavesOn Your Knees Cave

Found and first excavated in the mid-1990s, this cave site is on an island in Southeastern Alaska. It contains both paleontological and human remains. Discoveries include the oldest dated human remains (10,300 years ago) in all of Alaska or coastal Canada. The evidence of people on the coast at such an early time supports the Coastal Migration Theory. First advanced in the 1970s, this theory argues that at least some of the earliest people to the Americas had watercraft and migrated southward along coastal Alaska. A coastal route would have been an easier and faster way to populate the rest of the western hemisphere, including South America. 

Anangula SiteAnangula Site

This island site, found in the 1930s, was first excavated in the 1960s. Numerous volcanic ash layers two meters thick overlay the cultural deposits dated at more than 8,500 years old. This is the oldest site in the Aleutian Islands and has the first evidence of Unangan (Aleut) people in the region. Semi-subterranean houses and regionally distinct stone tools were found here.


For more information contact:
Alaska State Office
Bureau of Land Management
222 W. 7th Ave., Unit 13
Anchorage, AK 99513
Public Room: 907-271-5960
FAX: 907-271-3684