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Significance of the Bluefish Caves in Beringian Prehistory – Page 3

– Page 3 –


Like other Beringian sites that have yielded very ancient archaeological material, the cultural remains found in the Bluefish Caves are exasperatingly sparse. They consist of three classes of lithics, some butchering marks found on various megafaunal remains and some examples of simple bone tools. With a few rare exceptions (Note 7) , these were all found in the loess layer of Caves I and II, and in a context which, once again, is not always easy to read.

Lithic artefacts
Cut or butchering marks
Bone toolmaking

Lithic artefacts

The first class consists of a series of about one hundred specimens. It includes, on the one hand, shaped objects (Fig. 4) such as cores, microblades, angle burins on truncated blades or flakes, burin spalls, notches, etc. and, on the other hand, various flakes and flake fragments, some of which may have been used. The raw materials are primarily high-quality cherts, usually blue, but occasionally speckled or more rarely, black, and definitely exotic to the region, although we have not yet determined their exact source (Note 8). So far, such artefacts have been recovered only in Caves I and II.

Fig. 4 - lithic specimens

Most of them occurred mainly in the interior and at the entrance of Cave II, both at the bottom and the upper limit of the (lower) loess level where were also found most of the faunal remains. Several technological characteristics of the burins (all angle burins on truncated supports) may indicate that much of the assemblage represents either a specific episode in the use of the cave, or consecutive visits by a particular group. Although the context does not allow us to date these lithics with precision, we know that they considerably predate the end of the period in which the loess was deposited; i.e., before 10,000 BP. Their provenance and association with the remains of extinct species suggest that they may have been incorporated into the deposit around 12,000 BP or perhaps even earlier.

Several tools, including a burin spall, a few microblade fragments and some flakes (one resulting from bifacial retouch) were also collected inside Cave I, in a somewhat more precise stratigraphic context (Cinq-Mars 1979). Some of these pieces seem to date from the first half of the period characterised by the “birch” zone. Others are slightly more recent (possibly between 10,000 and 12,000 BP) or earlier (before 13,500 BP).

The second class consists of several dozen detrital microflakes, the result of flaking, retouching or using chert tools (Note 9). Small as they are, they exhibit all the morphological characteristics of larger flakes or splinters, and are found, in varying quantities, in any archaeological deposit where stone tools were made or used. The raw materials they are made of differ significantly from that of other stone fragments of similar sizes. Although microflakes were found in all three caves, those from Cave I furnished the most information. Their distribution inside the cave parallels that of the tools described above and is also suggestive of some cultural sedimentation in that portion of the loess unit whose pollen is characteristic of the herbaceous tundra which dates, as noted above, from between 25,000 and 13,500 BP.

The third class comprises a number of small cobbles, which for the most part were collected at the base of the loess, at or near the bedrock, and generally near the entrance or at the front of the caves. As they are all clearly allochthonous, we believed until recently (Morlan and Cinq-Mars 1982: Fig. 9) that their presence in the loess could be explained only by animal activity or in the case of the larger specimens, possibly by cultural activity. However, as is the case with the caves themselves, their origin is best explained in the context of the development of the regional karst network. Nevertheless, we have chosen to retain this category, as it may eventually be of use for several of the larger specimens that could, after all, have been used as hammerstones

Cut or butchering marks

Despite the difficulties inherent in any attempt at taphonomic interpretation, we have managed to extract complementary signs of human presence from the enormous palimpsest (Binford 1981: 9) represented by faunal and other remains from Bluefish.

The evidence consists of a variety of cut marks, incisions, scrape marks, chopping marks and striations resulting from the intentional butchering and defleshing of animals with stone tools, and penetrating, more or less deeply and in various places, the external walls of the bones. (Morlan and Cinq-Mars 1982: Fig. 10). It is important to note that we refer here to undeniable cultural indicators and not to similar marks made by carnivores, rodents, various geological processes or even excavators (Note 10). Thus far, we believe that we have been able to identify examples on numerous elements of the skeleton of nearly every large mammal species, with the possible exception of wolf, moose, wapiti and saiga. Almost all were found in Caves I and II.

This type of data also enables us to refine the time frame of the cultural content of the deposit. As there are no such markings on the faunal remains found in the humus-rich rubble, it is evident that this type of evidence and its causes date to the Pleistocene. This is confirmed by the 14C dates mentioned earlier and which were obtained from some of the specimens exhibiting such modifications. These dates suggest that cultural activities relating to the exploitation of the Bluefish fauna occurred sporadically between about 25,000 BP and 10,000 BP.

Bone toolmaking

The few examples of bone toolmaking can be divided into two groups. The first includes traditional tools that have been shaped somewhat, either intentionally or through use. Examples were collected in Caves I and II. The second group includes bones that were shaped by percussion. There are fewer examples of these, all from Cave II.

The first group comprises a few long bones which, after having been split lengthwise, may have been used as fleshers for processing hides. One in particular, shaped from a caribou tibia, exhibits a planed facet which may have been made with a burin, as well as a highly polished area located along the edge of a distal break (possibly the result of use ?) (Morlan and Cinq-Mars 1982: Fig.9). This object was discovered outside Cave II, in the lower level of the loess. It has been dated to 24,820 BP, giving us a clearer picture of the chronological range not only of the deposit, but also of its cultural manifestations. In other words, we believe that we can add this tool to a growing list of data which, while sparse, demonstrates that human populations were in a position to exploit the resources of the region during the Glacial Maximum or even earlier.

Fig.5 - mammoth bone

The same goes for the second group that comprises only two bone objects produced by percussion. They consist of a bone flake (Note 11) and its parent core (Fig. 5), both obviously derived from the same mammoth long bone. They were obtained through a relatively complex sequence of actions or “chaîne opératoire”, which can be summarised as follows:

  • the raw material, namely a mammoth long bone, was first reduced to a fragment consisting of an epiphysis and the contiguous portion of the diaphysis;
  • what could be described as a rough striking platform was then prepared at the end of the diaphysis segment;
  • from this platform, a series of three flakes, ranging from 7 to 10 cm in length, were subsequently detached by percussion from the cortical face of the diaphysis segment;
  • finally, one of these flakes, the longest one, was further worked and/or retouched bifacially and reduced diagonally, from its proximal end, by more than a third of its original size.

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