Scientists report findings about ancient Alaska
ARCHAEOLOGY Community that thrived for 1,200 years described.

By Doug O'Harra
Anchorage Daily News Published: April 8, 2002

From the windswept tundra along the Bering Sea to Gold Rush boomtowns to the soggy bottoms of rain forest caves, archaeologists and their crews sifted and dug across Alaska last year, uncovering a past more complex and varied than once thought. In Anchorage, scores of scientists from Alaska and other states, Canada and Russia presented about 120 reports on their findings and research during the annual four-day meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association. Among the projects discussed was the multiyear excavation of a massive, ancient Aleut community that thrived for 1,200 years on an Alaska Peninsula ridge with direct access to both Bering Sea salmon and Pacific Ocean marine mammals. Other sessions focused on evidence that the first people to settle North America could have traveled along the coast; compared tool-making technologies on both sides of the Bering Strait; and discussed how traditional Native people view animals and heritage differently than modern bureaucrats and city dwellers.

One talk was titled "White People Think Heritage' Is a Bunch of Old Buildings."

Vast stretches of Southeast Alaska would have been dry while glaciers locked up the Interior, enabling ancient people to move south, possibly in skin boats, according to one report. Other scientists presented information about excavations at village sites throughout the region.

Archaeologist E. James Dixon, of the University of Colorado Museum, conducted a survey of glaciers and snowfields in the northern Wrangell and Saint Elias mountains based on an analysis of habitat, wildlife surveys and historic trails. He found 32 sites with evidence of animal or human use at the toe of glaciers or in high-elevation snowfields. One site even produced horseshoe nails and horse hoof rinds -- the remnants of a midglacier shoeing operation during the Gold Rush.

Presentations Saturday were to discuss the technology of people who lived when Alaska and Asia were connected by a 1,000-mile-wide land bridge. The report about the ancient settlement near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula comes after archaeologists have found increasing evidence that Aleut people often developed large communities as they took advantage of the rich marine resources. Between about 1,100 B.C. and A.D. 100, hundreds of families were drawn to what is now Morzhovoi Bay west of Cold Bay, where they settled on a ridge that would have offered direct access to the Pacific and the Bering Sea. The team found remains of 19 kinds of mammals, 17 kinds of shellfish, 13 kinds of fish and 41 kinds of birds, including species from both sides of the peninsula. At the site, now called Adamagan, a team from Idaho State University has uncovered evidence of at least 250 houses and hundreds of storage pits, thousands of sophisticated tools and tons of ancient garbage. Adamagan clearly evolved into a regional center with as many as 1,000 residents, lead archaeologist Herbert Maschner said during an introductory talk about the project.

At the time, Maschner added later, it would have been the largest settlement in the Arctic, suggesting a sophisticated, stratified society that had worked out the logistics for food gathering, waste management and land use. Yet Adamagan gradually disappeared, with most traces consumed by the tundra more than 1,000 years ago. Why? Though no one can know for sure, Maschner's students and associates found clues in rising sea levels and changing coastal geography. For instance, a spit closed off access to the Bering Sea, creating a lake where there had once been a tidal channel.

Doug O'Harra can be reached at do' and 907 257-4334.