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Significance of the Bluefish Caves in Beringian Prehistory – Page 4

– Page 4 –


Admittedly cryptic and fragmented, these bits of information do, nevertheless, provide us with a coherent picture of some of the palaeoecological and cultural phenomena that characterised the eastern confines of Beringia during Glacial Maximum and Late Glacial times. But their full significance can be appreciated only in the broader context of data from all of Beringia, on the one hand, and from the more southern regions of our hemisphere, on the other. As such a perspective will become available only in the long term, it will suffice, at this time to discuss a few of the most pertinent archaeological issues.

Regional and Beringian implications
Hemispheric implications

Regional and Beringian implications

Over the 25-millennia span represented by the Bluefish Caves deposits, the few cultural signals that can be observed are clearly indicative of sporadic and generally diffuse manifestations belonging to the 15,000-year Pleistocene segment of the sequence. During this period, there are two sets of data that speak of more than just local human presence.

Firstly, there is the lithic series indicative of the presence of a microblade and burin industry. The tools in this series can be interpreted as elements of a regional facies of a technological complex that appears to be present throughout Beringia at the end of the Pleistocene (Note 12), and several examples of which survive during part of the Holocene. Vestiges of this complex have been uncovered at numerous sites in the Yukon and Alaska, where they form the core of what is subsumed by concepts such as the Denali complex (West 1967), the American Paleoarctic tradition (Anderson 1968; Dumond 1977) and the Beringian tradition (West 1981). This type of material is generally found together with technological forms such as bifaces, scrapers and blades. According to data from various sites in Alaska, particularly from the Nenana River region where it is currently being studied in detail, this techno-complex seems to have been well established in eastern Beringia by around 10,500 BP, close on the heels of the preceding Nenana complex. The latter, which dates from about 12,000 BP and is characterised by bifacial points and an absence of microblades, was recently described in broad terms, as being related to the Clovis tradition (sensu lato)(Powers and Hoffecker 1989).

This Nenana assemblage is considered by the above researchers as an expression, possibly late (Note 13), of the first human dispersals in eastern Beringia. In this context, the Bluefish data is more relevant to our perception of the chronology of cultural events than to their actual characterisation. Despite their meagreness and stratigraphic fuzziness, they suggest that bearers of an industry incorporating microblades and burins (and certainly more) had reached far-eastern Beringia well before the last millennium of the Late Glacial.

The same can be said for the other group of data, which in the Bluefish sequence corresponds to the beginning of the Glacial Maximum, between 23,000 and 25,000 BP. We are referring, in particular, to the mammoth bone objects (flake and core), produced by percussion, evidence that, in this instance, can be used to address issues of technological characterisation and chronology.

The context in which these objects were found at the Bluefish Caves enables us to reject outright a series of objections or counter-hypotheses (Note 14; Cinq-Mars and Morlan 1989) that have been recently put forward relative to the cultural interpretation given to similar bone remains found in the Old Crow lacustrine basin (Morlan 1980,1984). In fact, many of the bone specimens collected in the fossiliferous sites of the Old Crow basin bear attributes that are analogous in every respect to the essential elements of the “chaîne opératoire” described earlier. As the systematic repetition of such a series of actions cannot possibly be the result of environmental happenstance, we must consider their end-results as, if not tools themselves, then at the very least the products and by-products of cultural activities.

This evident relationship between the in situ Bluefish data and that obtained from the secondary deposits of the Old Crow Basin clearly indicates that our region, namely the Porcupine River Basin and the adjacent uplands, was the scene of a long series of cultural manifestations, the earliest of which, according to data from the Old Crow basin, seems to have occurred around 40,000 BP (Morlan, et al. 1990). In other words, even though examples have not yet been uncovered in Alaska and Siberia, it appears that the first detectable signs of a human presence in Beringia date back to the Wisconsinan interstadial.

Hemispheric implications

It follows from these findings that hypotheses concerning the antiquity of the first human exploration of our hemisphere, from its Beringian point of entry to Tierra del Fuego, should not be limited or influenced solely by the ecological, and therefore geographical constraints which characterised the Beringian Late Glacial and which are used, in conjunction with other factors, to support Clovis primacy in North America (Note 15).

Even if these constraints must be taken into consideration in an examination, for example, of the nature of the relationship between the Nenana complex and the Clovis cultures, they no longer hold up in an interstadial context. The “short chronology” mentioned above, could thus be viewed as one segment (among others) of a highly complex and much broader time-transgressive curve or trajectory that would serve to explain the archaeological manifestations found further south, and generally considered to be pre-Clovis or, to use Meltzer’s term (1989), “pre-12,000 BP” (Note 16).

Also, it may well be that our earliest data simply reflect an aborted colonisation event, which, for reasons unknown, never went any farther than the eastern Beringian threshold, and which bears no relationship to later manifestations. On the other hand, it is possible that this evidence is indicative of a long settling in, a pause during which there developed, in cultures as yet to be identified, modes of adaptation which subsequently would enable some of them to move south during the Late Glacial.

In conclusion, we would like to emphasise that the Bluefish data provide us with a clearer image of the time frame within which hypotheses dealing with the question of the initial peopling of America should be developed, and this for hypotheses that are strictly archaeological as well as for ones based on linguistic and biological data (Greenberg et al. 1986). Finally, these data make us realise that Beringia, as noted by Workman (1980), must be perceived not merely as a passageway between two continental poles, but as an important biological and cultural crucible of long duration, which should be studied as such if we are to eventually arrive at an understanding of the events that led to the peopling of America.


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