Paleo-Eskimo Culture at Matcharak Lake by bdm94754


									National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior

Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Paleo-Eskimo Culture at Matcharak Lake

Thousands of bones and               Paleo-Eskimos are the ancient ancestors of modern          However, at a recently-discovered site near
artifacts, well-preserved            Eskimos, as recognized through archaeological              Matcharak Lake, in Gates of the Arctic National Park
within the permafrost layer,         studies throughout Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.          and Preserve, the conditions of shallow permafrost
were found at Matcharak              In Alaska, the earliest members of this group are          and the ongoing formation of peat were just right
Lake. The 2008 excavations           known from a distinctive stone tool technology             to preserve the discarded remains of numerous
have already confirmed many           known as the Denbigh Flint Complex (say DEN-bee).          Denbigh meals—perfectly preserved until excavation
assumptions about Denbigh            When archaeologists talk about Denbigh, they are not       in 2008. With the discovery of a frozen bone midden
people 4000 years ago—the            only referring to their material culture, i.e. the stone   at Matcharak Lake, archaeologists can now begin to
extensive use of bone and            tools, but also to the people who made them. More          reconstruct the behavior of these Native Alaskans.
antler as tools, and that these      broadly, Denbigh people are part of the Arctic Small
earliest of Paleo-Eskimos were       Tool tradition, who were the first humans to colonize       Archeological discovery
skilled artisans.                    most of Arctic North America 5000 years ago.               The Matcharak Lake site perches on a 15-meter (45-
                                                                                                foot) terrace between Matcharak Lake (see photo)
                                      The importance of bone                                    and the Noatak River. It was discovered through
                                      It is believed that Denbigh Paleo-Eskimos, after          routine archaeological survey of the upper Noatak
                                      processing animals for consumption, would often           River drainage in 2007 by Andrew Tremayne and
                                      discard the unusable remains in camp, away from           Cody Strathe, both student archaeologists for the
As archaeologists,                    where people were working and sleeping. Rarely are        National Park Service. Prior to this discovery, no
                                      the bones of this type of midden (prehistoric trash       prehistoric sites were known in the area.
we realize that the                   dump) discovered at ancient archaeology sites in the
record will always be                 Arctic.                                                   Recognizing the potential for recovering organics
                                                                                                (e.g., bone, antler, teeth, and plants) associated
incomplete; therefore,                Although 75 to 100 Denbigh sites are known in             with Denbigh Flint Complex tools, National Park
we must work with                     Alaska, only a handful (literally) of bone fragments      Service archeologist Jeff Rasic arranged for a team
                                      are known from all of these sites. Without bones,         of archeologists, including Tremayne, to excavate a
the information we                    questions about diet, seasonal mobility, and hunting      portion of the site in 2008.
have.                                 strategies are unanswerable, although archaeologists
                                      have proposed numerous hypotheses about Denbigh           Excavation at Matcharak Lake
                                      life-ways.                                                To access this site, a crew consisting of Tremayne
                                                                                                and four other archeologists were flown by float
                                                                                                plane directly to the area of excavation. Technical
                                                  equipment was flown in,                Tremayne plans to analyze the bone samples in
                                                  including a total station             greater detail to determine exactly what species of
                                                  (surveying instrument) for            animals were exploited and how frequently each is
                                                  recording the exact location of       represented in the bone midden. A spatial analysis of
                                                  artifacts and bone, and screens for   the bone and artifacts will attempt to demonstrate a
                                                  sifting dirt to capture very small    timeline of activities and food procured by Denbigh
                                                  artifacts. For three weeks, the       as they waited for the annual caribou migration to
                                                  crew worked patiently and slowly,     occur. Once the caribou arrived in their massive
                                                  waiting for the permafrost to melt    numbers—representing massive numbers of
                                                  enough to actually dig in the soil.   calories—all subsistence activities would have been
                                                                                        geared towards taking as many caribou as possible.
                                                  Learning about Denbigh
                                                  At the Matcharak site, Tremayne       But how is it possible to test this hypothesis?
                                                  and the others recovered              Tremayne will look for differences in radiocarbon
                                                  thousands of bones of various         ages of the bone and charcoal, and also use stable
                                                  kinds (caribou, fish, and              isotopes recovered from the teeth of caribou
                                                  migratory birds), along with tools    found in different levels of the deposit, in order to
                                                  and incised-bone art work. Now,       determine if the camp was only occupied once, or
                                                  the work of archeologists can         numerous times over generations. If there were
                                                  unfold further as they begin to       separate times that Paleo-Eskimos occupied the site,
                                                  address some of the questions         it will be important to determine if there are different
                                                  that have puzzled them for years.     animals represented during the separate occupations.

                                                  For his part, Tremayne has            Solving the puzzle of whether Denbigh were caribou
                                                  chosen (for his Master’s thesis at    hunting specialists, or if their diet was broader
                                                  the University of Wyoming), to        and more generalized, will have to wait until the
                                                  analyze the site’s animal remains,    radiocarbon and isotope analyses are complete.
                                                  focusing on what the bones
                                                  reveal about the diet and hunting     Future directions
                                                  strategies of site occupants.         Having finally recovered animal bones associated
                                                  However, as Tremayne explains,        with a Denbigh site, it is certain that any future site
                                                  because Matcharak Lake is a           discoveries will be compared with the Matcharak
                                                  localized, small-scale mountain       Lake assemblage. Only a larger sample of Denbigh
                                                  camp, he can only really talk         sites with preserved bones will help answer the
                                                  about how these Paleo-Eskimos         questions: How did Denbigh diets differ from coast
                                                  behaved while at that camp.           to mountains? What other foods and animals were
                                                                                        used by Denbigh and why? How have diet and
The discovery of unrivaled      Testing hypotheses about Paleo-Eskimo life-ways         subsistence strategies changed over the past 4000
preservation of bone,           Some researchers have suggested there is evidence       years? Did Denbigh people travel to the coast for part
including the articulated       that Denbigh people spent their winters in the          of the year?
caribou thorax (top), at        mountains and the summer on the coast, but the
Matcharak Lake, makes this a    presence of at least one caribou fetal bone, fish, and   Additionally, knowing the geological conditions that
very important Denbigh site.    migratory birds at Matcharak Lake supports the          led to the excellent preservation of this ancient camp,
                                hypothesis that, at some point, Denbigh occupied        archaeologists can design more efficient survey and
Incised bone artwork (middle)   Matcharak Lake in early summer or spring.               testing strategies that should help future expeditions
and designed bone tools (L &    If Denbigh hunters were specialized caribou hunters,    locate other important Denbigh camps.
R, lower). The tool at right    the expectation would be to find mostly caribou
is associated with a caribou    bones. So, what explains the fish, birds and other       Archaeologists realize that the record will always be
mandible and bone fragments.    mammals represented in the midden?                      incomplete, and the best theories must be proposed
                                                                                        with the information at hand. For the time being,
                                                                                        Matcharak Lake has expanded the archeology
                                                                  Archeologists         database about Paleo-Eskimo culture in Alaska.
                                                                  dig for bone          Future excavations at this site should provide even
                                                                  and artifacts in      greater detail on camp organization and activities.
                                                                  the permafrost        Until then, Tremayne will work with what he has.
                                                                  The Matcharak         This research was partially funded through a Murie
                                                                  Lake site is in       Science and Learning Center Fellowship from Alaska
                                                                  western Gates         Geographic through the MSLC to A. Tremayne.
                                                                  of the Arctic
                                                                  (location as          For more information
                                                                  dot and circle        Andrew Tremayne
                                                                  on maps).             Anthropology Department, University of Wyoming
                                                                                        Laramie, WY 82070

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