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From the Yenisei to the Yukon
Interpreting Lithic Assemblage Variability in Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene Beringia
By Ted Goebel, Ian Buvit
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2011 Center for the Study of the First Americans Manufactured in the United States of America
All rights reserved.
Introducing the Archaeological Record of Beringia
TED GOEBEL AND IAN BUVIT
The central theme of this book is the Pleistocene archaeology of extreme northeast Asia and northwest North America, the area that during the late Pleistocene made up the Bering Land Bridge. Most of the contributors to this volume focus on the archaeological record of Beringia proper, but some examine relevant records from neighboring central Siberia or western Canada. The twenty-one chapters explore many diverse aspects of this record, but all have one feature in common: they attempt to understand the significant variability in the early material culture of the modern human inhabitants of the region. Most of the chapters focus on lithic artifacts, but some incorporate geoarchaeological evidence, zooarchaeological evidence, or analyses of archaeological features (e.g., hearths) to explore the technology, subsistence, and adaptations of the first Beringians.
The Bering Land Bridge area, or "Beringia" as it is called by archaeologists and Quaternary scientists who investigate its remote past, has long been recognized as the route through which humans passed as they dispersed from the Old World to the New World (figure 1.1). As such, this region has an archaeological record that takes on special significance, in that it is here we expect to find the hard evidence of the very first Americans. This search for the origins of the first Americans has driven much of the research presented in this book, but along the way archaeologists have unearthed a complex array of assemblages spanning more than 20,000 years of time, from about 26,000 to 9000 14C years BP (30,000–10,000 cal BP) (figure 1.2). Making sense of the variability in the Beringian record has proved difficult: some similarities and differences may relate simply to humans behaving differently at different places, but others may relate to deeper cultural relationships among the early peoples of Beringia. Why did humans make, use, and discard bifacial points at some sites but make, use, and discard microblades at others? How did technological, subsistence, and settlement systems evolve as early humans "settled into" Beringia's Pleistocene environments? How did these systems further evolve as landscapes shifted from late glacial to postglacial conditions? What are the Paleolithic Asian origins of the early Beringian assemblages, and how do they relate to Paleoindian complexes of temperate North America? These and other questions drive Pleistocene archaeological research in today's remnants of Beringia, and these are the kinds of questions raised in this book.
Beringia is the vast landscape of northeast Asia and northwest North America that existed during cold episodes of the Pleistocene, when large areas of the Northern Hemisphere were covered by glacial ice and global sea level was significantly lowered. Exposed marine shelves of the Bering and Chukchi seas created a land bridge connecting the Asian and North American continents. When it existed, the Bering Land Bridge was a conduit connecting the Western and Eastern Hemispheres, and through it many floral and faunal species dispersed—both west to east and east to west. Sometime during the late Pleistocene, humans journeyed across this land bridge too.
During the late Pleistocene, Beringia was bounded on the north by the Arctic Ocean, on the south by the Pacific Ocean, and on the east by immense glacial ice sheets that covered much of Canada and frequently barred passage between Beringia and temperate North America (Hopkins et al. 1982). The western "border" of Beringia in northeast Asia is more difficult to define, but we follow Hoffecker and Elias (2007) and arbitrarily set it at the divide of the Verkhoiansk mountain range. Defined in this way, Beringia includes the rugged mountains and flat lowlands of far northeast Russia (the Kamchatka, Chukotka, and Magadan regions and northeast Sakha Republic [or Yakutia]) and the unglaciated landscapes of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon and Northwest Territories (the latter's lower Mackenzie River basin).
During full-glacial times of the late Pleistocene, an expansive "mammoth steppe" blanketed much of Beringia (Guthrie 2001). The mammoth steppe spanned virtually all of northern Eurasia from Britain to Beringia, and it supported a diverse array of mega-mammals like woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), horse (Equus spp.), and steppe bison (Bison priscus). During the late glacial, after about 14,000 14C BP (17,000 cal BP), Beringia's open landscapes gradually gave way to a shrub tundra biome characterized by a much smaller set of megafauna including elk (Cervus elaphus), moose (Alces alces), reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), and sheep (Ovis dalli) as well as a variety of small animals including hare (Lepus spp.), waterfowl, and fish (Hoffecker and Elias 2007). Siberia underwent similar changes, although in the south they may have occurred earlier in time than in Beringia, by several thousand years (Abramova 1979a, 1979b; Akimova et al. 2005; Erbajeva and Alexeeva 2000; Graf 2008; Khenzykhenova 1999; Vasil'ev 1996).
The contributors to this volume focus on the archaeology of this dynamic period of the late Pleistocene—how humans used technology to adapt to the changing environments of Beringia and central Siberia as full glacial landscapes gave way to late glacial and ultimately postglacial landscapes. These humans witnessed many changes— the local extirpation of animal and plant species and their replacement by new species, melting of mountain glaciers and continental ice sheets, and gradual shrinking and disappearance of the Bering Land Bridge itself, from a broad subcontinental expanse to a narrow isthmus and ultimately to the Bering Strait that separates the two continents today. By the beginning of the Holocene, Beringia as a unified land mass had ceased to exist, the mammoth steppe having been completely replaced by northeast Asian and North American taiga and tundra biomes.
Why Yenisei to Yukon?
A focus of this book is consideration of the late Pleistocene/early Holocene record of Beringia in the greater context of Siberian Paleolithic archaeology. The reasons for choosing Siberia over other areas of northeast Asia are twofold. First, Beringia and Siberia shared very similar late Pleistocene environments, both being important components of the mammoth steppe during full glacial times and the shrub tundra during late glacial times. Humans in Siberia and Beringia had similar experiences— facing some of the same environmental challenges during the last glacial cycle of the Pleistocene, 23,000–10,000 14C BP (27,000–12,000 cal BP) and solving these problems with similar technological repertoires. Second, studies in molecular genetics have recently identified the greater Lake Baikal region of south Siberia as the "genetic homeland" of the first Beringians and Americans (Derenko et al. 2001; Starikovskaya et al. 2004; Zegura et al. 2004), so there is reason to predict that a strong historical connection existed between the early peoples of the Yenisei and Yukon basins. This connection has not been lost on archaeologists. Their experiences with Paleolithic collections from across greater northeast Asia have repeatedly pointed to the greater Baikal area of south Siberia as a likely source of Alaska's earliest cultural complexes (Dikov 1979; Dumond 1977; Graf 2008; Holmes 2001; Mochanov 1977; Powers 1990).
Certainly other areas of northeast Asia are critical to our understanding of the dispersal of humans to Beringia and the Americas. Some early Beringians may very well have come from the maritime regions of temperate Asia—Japan or the Russian maritime provinces of Primorye, Khabarovsk, or Sakhalin. Craniometric studies of Pacific Rim populations imply such an event (Brace et al. 2001), the enigmatic early Ushki assemblage from Kamchatka could have had its roots in the Upper Paleolithic of the Japanese Archipelago (Dikov 1979; Goebel and Slobodin 1999), and similarities in microblade core technologies imply connections between Alaska and temperate east Asia (Chen 2007). The objective of this book, however, is not necessarily to track the origins and dispersal of the first Americans. Instead, the chapters are tied together by a common goal of understanding the variability documented in the lithic technologies of Beringia, especially as this variability relates to early human subsistence and settlement behavior and the colonization of Beringia's unique northern late glacial landscapes. In this regard, the closest analog for archaeologists working with today's Beringian record seems to be the greater Baikal area of south Siberia.
Explaining Lithic Assemblage Variability in Beringia: A Historical Introduction to the Problem
Early-period archaeology in Beringia traditionally has been lithic centered. Many early sites are from surface or near-surface contexts, where other archaeological materials, for example, faunal remains and osseous tools, are unpreserved. Even deeply buried and stratified sites like Dry Creek, Onion Portage, and Ushki have virtually no organic preservation. This is not to say that no sites have nonlithic materials: Broken Mammoth, Swan Point, Berelekh, Yana RHS, and Trail Creek Cave 2 have pristinely preserved faunal remains and organic artifacts. Even so, most early-period studies have been lithic-centric, employing stone artifacts to explore historic/taxonomic questions and occasionally evolutionary/behavioral questions. These arenas of lithic analysis are not easily separated, and our discussions attempt to explore the development of these perspectives in Beringia from the 1950s to the present day. By taking a historical approach, we can better understand the context and development of the major issues in Beringian archaeology today.
Early Discoveries and First Classifications, 1955–1967
Archaeological assemblage classifications have long been a part of Alaskan archaeology. For the early Holocene and late Pleistocene periods of prehistory, first attempts to assign classificatory designations were based largely on typological arguments, rarely on stratigraphic grounds. Most early designations, like the British Mountain (Mac-Neish 1956), Kogruk (Campbell 1961, 1962, 1963), and Palisades I complexes (Giddings 1963), were based on assemblages recovered from single sites, and contexts at these sites were usually less than adequate for defining complexes. The British Mountain assemblage from En-gigstciak was heavily soliflucted and potentially mixed (Mackay et al. 1961); the Kogruk assemblage was from a near-surface context and could not be radiocarbon-dated (West 1980); and the Palisades 1 assemblage was from a surface context and its assignment to the early period was based on differential weathering (Giddings 1964:257). Irving (1971:71) summed up the weaknesses most aptly when he concluded that these sites "could be of any age," given that they were surface sites or in situations where "stratigraphy is so confused by downslope movement ... that there is no basis for inferring chronology." These certainly were not the kinds of data needed to define assemblage taxonomies.
Despite these shortcomings, some early archaeologists proposed and characterized archaeological "traditions," based on comparisons between sites across extensive regions of the north. MacNeish (1959) was among the first to do this, introducing the British Mountain, Cordillerian, Yuma, and Northwest Microblade traditions to northern archaeology. To MacNeish, a tradition was a "distinct way of life as it is distinguished by different complexes of artifacts or diagnostic traits that persist in time and space" (1959:8). The emergence of a new tradition (or, as he later called it, an "adaptive cultural complex"; MacNeish 1963:106) could reflect the migration of a distinctive human population, diffusion of a distinctive cultural complex, or adaptation to a new ecological setting. Of all his traditions and complexes, perhaps MacNeish's concept of a "Northwest Microblade tradition" (NWMt) had the most far-reaching effect. Based largely on research conducted in the Yukon, it incorporated cultural materials from as distant as British Columbia, Alaska, and even Asia. NWMt traits included burins and end scrapers on blades and conical cores presumed to have been acquired from the Yukon's Kluane/Flint Creek complex; stemmed and notched points, perforators, and snub-nosed end scrapers from the southern Yumoid tradition; wedge-shaped cores, microblades, and unifacial drills from Asia; and chi-thos (boulder-spall scrapers) and fish spears invented locally (MacNeish 1962).
Dates for NWMt and MacNeish's other early traditions and complexes were tentative, based not on radiocarbon techniques but on typological hunches and only occasionally on actual stratigraphic observations. This proved to be the immediate downfall of MacNeish's framework. De Laguna worriedly pointed out that his classification scheme was as "dangerous a method as that of classifying whole cultures on the basis of the pottery that women made in their spare time" (1962:168). Irving cautioned that NWMt was a "remarkably variable phenomenon," far from a "concrete cultural unit" (1963:63, 66). He recognized that its composition was "highly variable" (1962:58), so variable in fact that it was an "uncertain entity" (1964:251). West (1967:374) wrote that, from an Alaskan perspective, the concept of NWMt "should be applied cautiously, if at all," adding that its only virtue was to group all sites and complexes that contained microblades and were not assignable to the Arctic Small Tool tradition. In this sense, NWMt was too inclusive to be a meaningful classificatory unit. By 1970 it was becoming clear that MacNeish's early traditions had little utility since they were either fundamentally unsound (e.g., British Mountain tradition) or an amalgamation of too much archaeological variability (e.g., NWMt). As a result, MacNeish's framework was largely scrapped, not just in Alaska (Anderson 1970a, 1970b; West 1967) but also in the Yukon (Workman 1974).
Excerpted from From the Yenisei to the Yukon by Ted Goebel, Ian Buvit. Copyright © 2011 Center for the Study of the First Americans Manufactured in the United States of America. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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