Return to Menu
A History of the Native People of Canada
Volume I (10,000 to 1,000 B.C.)

Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic Culture (Précis, Chapter 3)

The earliest securely dated archaeological sites in eastern and western Beringia involving Yukon/Alaska and eastern Siberia, respectively, fall between 10,000 and 14,000 B.P. (Morlan 1987). For 10,000 to 15,000 years prior to 14,000 B.P. a harsh Arctic environment existed and it has been suggested that Beringia may have been uninhabitable (Fladmark 1983: 22-23; Schweger et al. 1982: 439). Between 10,000 and 8,000 B.C. and probably earlier, an Asiatic-derived Upper Palaeolithic culture spread across much of the unglaciated territory of Beringia in Alaska and the Yukon. Originally called the American Palaeo-Arctic tradition (Anderson 1970) the name has been changed in this work to reflect more accurately the culture's geographical position in the Western Hemisphere. Technological similarities between Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture and Siberian assemblages have encouraged even more inclusive designations such as the Siberian-American Paleo-Arctic tradition (Dumond 1977) and the Beringian tradition (West 1981). Also in common use is the term Denali complex (West 1967). Possessing a technology characterized by specially prepared microblade cores, microblades, burins, and few bifacial tools, Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture may be regarded as the eastern expression of a circumpolar Eurasian technological tradition (Larsen 1968: 71-75). Its close relationship to Siberian cultures (Anderson 1980; Mochanov 1978; Powers 1973) should not be surprising. Beringia was more a part of Asia than America, representing an extension of the Asiatic steppe tundra to the glacial ice of the eastern Yukon and southern Alaska. Most excavated Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic sites are in Alaska where the earliest evidence dates around 10,500 B.P. although there are a number of earlier dates whose veracity is questioned (Anderson 1984). The earliest site in the northern Yukon to produce microblades and burins has been estimated to have a minimum date of 10,000 B.P. and, on the basis of a range of archaeological and environmental evidence, could be earlier than 13,500 B.P. (Cinq-Mars 1979; 1990). These age estimates pertain only to the Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture materials and not to potentially earlier evidence of human activity at the site.

Bluefish Caves Site - Photograph: Jacques Cinq-Mars Aerial View of the Bluefish Caves Site, Yukon Territory

The deposits in the Bluefish Caves site are unique in northwestern North America in that they constitute 25,000 years of in place accumulation. In addition to the archaeological evidence is the sedimentological record, the palynological evidence left by tree pollens as well as actual plant fragments, and the palaeontological remains. All of these data sets are extremely relevant to the archaeological evidence. Allowing for some disturbance of the primary deposits, evidence of Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture falls between 10,000 and 13,500 B.P. (Cinq-Mars 1990: 20-21). Earlier but more controversial evidence occurs in lower levels. Whether one accepts or rejects these early dates for microblades and burins depend upon one's assessment of the extent of post-depositional disturbance at the site and the association of the stone tools with the Late Pleistocene environmental evidence. The two arrows in the lower left hand corner of the picture indicate the mouths of Cave 1 and Cave 2.

(Reproduced from Cinq-Mars 1979: Figure 2 with the permission of Jacques Cinq-Mars, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Canadian Museum of Civilization)

Cultural continuity from Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture in Alaska has been traced to approximately 6,000 B.C. with events up to 4,600 B.C. being poorly understood (Anderson 1984). By the end of Period I (8,000 B.C.) microblade technology had spread south into southeastern Alaska (Ackerman 1980), down the Pacific coast, and possibly eastward along the Yukon coast. Given the diversity of environmental and physiographic zones occupied the descendants of the Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture appear to have possessed both maritime and interior adaptations (Fladmark 1983).

While Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture has been interpreted as the intrusion of a new Asiatic population (Greenberg et al. 1986) which absorbed an earlier Nenana-Chindadn population and its derivatives, it more likely reflects the diffusion of microblade technology into Beringia and its adoption by earlier people (Gotthardt 1990: 267). This scenario assumes that pre-microblade people actually settled eastern Beringia first and that the Upper Palaeolithic derived Palaeo-Indian and Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic cultures are not technologically and biologically related; an assumption that is far from being demonstrated. It is inappropriate to view the migratory behaviour of these small bands of northern hunters as similar to the mass movements of later Asiatic pastoralists. Their territorial movements were not only generational and, therefore, incremental (Morlan 1987: 267-268) but would have taken place within a far-flung communication network (Morlan and Cinq-Mars 1982). Under such circumstances the spread of innovative technologies could potentially be quite rapid. Migration into Beringia was more likely a matter of 'dribbles' rather than 'waves' and would have involved many back and forth movements rather than single-minded eastward thrusts.

The chipped stone technologies of Palaeo-Indian culture and Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture appear to be essentially the same except for the microblade industry of the latter. Even this qualification is in doubt if the association of fluted points and microblades at the Palaeo-Indian Putu site in northern Alaska proves to be valid (Alexander 1987). Others, however, have argued that the two assemblages are technologically distinct (Dixon 1985: 54) and unrelated (Haynes 1982). Beyond the issue of the technological relationship between the Nenana complex and the related Chindadn complex (McKenna and Cook 1968) and Northwestern Palaeo-Arctic culture is the evidence that both cultures occasionally occupied the same sites (Powers and Hoffecker 1989) suggesting a similar way of life. Further, genetically based discrete human cranial attributes can be interpreted as evidence of a biological relationship between these two early populations. Contrary to the currently popular view of two migrations involving a culture with a bifacial industry followed by a culture with a microblade industry, the evidence from the Diuktai culture in Siberia and the early evidence from the Bluefish Caves site in eastern Beringia does not support the technological distinctiveness of the two industries nor the chronological priority of one over the other. The recent discovery of microblades in a 11,700 B.P. level of the Swan Point site (Mason 1993) reinforces the above. In addition, bifacial tools and microblades are more often than not found together (Morlan 1987). Any assessment of the archaeological evidence from Beringia at this time must be cautious given its impoverished nature. The limited and equivocal nature of the evidence is undoubtedly responsible for current divergent archaeological opinion.

Volume IVolume II

Back Menu - A History of the Native People of Canada Continue