BLM Alaska Archaeology
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. 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.
BLM Alaska manages the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District in central Alaska along the Denali Highway, Lake Ahtna in the Copper River Basin and upper Susitna Valley, Mesa Site near the Brooks Range, and the Raven Bluff Site along Kivalina River north of Kotzebue.
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.
Raven Bluff is...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.
Tangle Lakes Archaeological District
Some 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.