Mystery Alaska

Tracing the origins of humanity in the Alaskan wilderness.

Chris Outcalt | Longreads | March 2019 | 13 minutes (3,723 words)

The helicopter took off from a narrow patch of grass off the side of Route 2 about 30 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. The two-lane highway runs like an artery through the heart of the Alaskan interior, connecting the state’s third-most populous city to the outer reaches of North America. I’m riding shotgun in the lightweight, four-passenger chopper; Colorado State University (CSU) archeologist Julie Esdale is seated behind me. Esdale, who earned her Ph.D. in anthropology at Brown University, has spent more than a decade in this part of the state, exploring centuries of soil with a community of other social scientists whose aim is to weave together the tangled origins of humanity.

Fifty feet up, as the booming whop-whop of the propeller blades cuts through the air overhead, we crest a row of trees along the edge of the road, revealing a spectacular view: a massive, tree-lined valley framed to the west by the peaks of the Alaska Range, one of the highest stretches of mountains in the world. These jagged hills formed millions of years ago; shifting tectonic plates collided along the Denali and Hines Creek Faults, pushing the earth 20,000 feet into the air. Our destination lies about 10 miles into this lowland known as the Tanana Flats. Esdale and her colleagues believe the spot, a vestige of a 14,000-year-old hunter-gatherer encampment hidden deep in the earth, could hold important clues to better understanding the behavior of North America’s earliest inhabitants.

Esdale helped discover and excavate this important ground known as McDonald Creek, which turned out to be one of the oldest archeological sites in the country. Field crews found fragments of stone tools, charcoal dust left behind by ancient firepits, and remains of bison, mammoth, elk, and waterfowl. Admittedly, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about those who pioneered the landmass I’d lived on my entire life, let alone the particulars of their livelihood; but my interest piqued at the thought of these scientists dedicating their professional lives to better understanding those who came before us, like a detective unit attempting to solve one of the first mysteries of mankind.


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Esdale, who’s in her mid-40s and has straight, shoulder-length blond hair she often tucks under a ball cap out in the field, explained that Alaska is a hot spot for this research — that it was both a matter of history and geography. The last ice age took hold about 2.6 million years ago. When it began to melt around 12,000 years ago, it covered a well-documented land bridge between what is now Russia and Alaska. But before the glaciers thawed, causing water levels in the Bering Strait to rise, submerging the area known as Beringia, early humans wandered east to west across this continental divide. They were the first people to set foot in the New World, and they walked straight into what is today central Alaska.

…my interest piqued at the thought of these scientists dedicating their professional lives to better understanding those who came before us, like a detective unit attempting to solve one of the first mysteries of mankind.

“Early sites are hit and miss in the lower forty-eight,” Esdale told me. “But in the interior, we’ve got lots and lots of them.” Still, perhaps too far-flung to have slipped into the mainstream, she said Alaskan archeology was often overlooked in favor of research in the continental United States. Esdale’s husband, Jeff Rasic, also an Alaskan archeologist, told me he’d attended numerous national meetings of top researchers in the field and had often been struck by how little they tracked new findings in Alaska. “These are full-time academic archeologists,” Rasic said, “and they’re behind.” If I ever wanted to have a look up close, Esdale said she’d be happy to show me around when I first contacted her by phone last year.

By chance, I flew into Fairbanks two days ahead of the summer solstice, which brings nearly 24 hours of daylight to the region. When I landed close to midnight the sky was bright enough it could’ve easily been noon. (Later, I overheard a popular American Legion baseball game was scheduled for the following night. First pitch: 12:01 a.m.) I met Esdale early the next morning. We stopped at the local Safeway for a coffee and to pack a lunch, then headed to the helicopter launch site. After about 15 minutes in the air, Esdale pointed to our landing spot, a prominent mound that jutted above the flat, wooded landscape.

As we approached, she explained the scenery would’ve looked a lot different 14,000 years ago; the ground was still recovering from the ice age’s deep freeze and the trees hadn’t grown in yet. Nevertheless, I could see what the people who camped here back then were thinking. Atop the high point of an otherwise flat area would’ve been a good place to lookout for predators, scout prey for their next meal, or to simply rest their legs and enjoy the view after a long walk. At least that last part, I thought, we had in common.

***

In Alaska, a state known for its expansive territory, the federal government is the largest landowner, controlling about 61 percent of the terrain. Most of that is allocated for public use and managed by the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. There are other operators, however; notably, the United States Army oversees the use of about 1.5 million acres in the central part of the state.

Drawn to the open, undeveloped land and distinct climate, the military has maintained a presence in interior Alaska since the 1930s. Today, the local base is known as Fort Wainwright, “home of the Arctic Warriors.” During the frigid Alaskan winters, soldiers test gear, vehicles, and the limits of their own bodies in extreme cold. What’s more, with ample space, units can spread out and simulate wartime drills and construct practice bombing ranges. But although there are few neighbors to disturb, federal law — the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archeological Resources Protection Act — requires the military pay close attention to what might lie beneath the surface. In fact, given that the area is archaeologically rich, the Army funds a team of about half a dozen people who make sure it doesn’t trample any sensitive material — anything from stone tools or rock carvings to portions of structures or grave sites at least a century old. For the past eight years, Esdale has run the team.

Esdale first moved to Alaska in 2002 as a student, several years before getting the gig with the Army. She’d been conducting research for her Ph.D. in the far reaches of northwest Alaska when she met her husband out in the field. Not long after, Rasic got a job with the National Park Service based in Fairbanks; they made the move north together, two scientists in love headed for the Last Frontier. That first year they got a dog, a big, goofy lab who demanded a lot of time outside — even when it was 50 below and felt like your eyelids would freeze shut after a few minutes. Eventually, Esdale and Rasic had two boys and she got the contract with the Army. By then Fairbanks felt like home.

Although sharpshooting members of the armed forces and a crew of erudite scientists studying human history might seem like strange bedfellows, the partnership has identified hundreds of significant sites hidden in the Alaskan tundra. Take McDonald Creek, for example. Several years ago, the brass at Fort Wainwright proposed building a road through the Tanana Flats. A team headed by Colorado State’s Ned Gaines, which included Esdale, dug a few test pits while surveying in advance of the development. “Everywhere we put a shovel, we found artifacts,” Esdale said. The Army rerouted the planned road, and excavation of the site was turned over to Texas A&M researcher Kelly Graf.

Although sharpshooting members of the armed forces and a crew of pesky erudite scientists studying human history might seem like strange bedfellows, the partnership has identified hundreds of significant sites hidden in the Alaskan tundra.

I met Graf and her team of mostly graduate students last summer. From the clearing where our helicopter landed, Esdale and I walked a well-worn path to a sort of base camp — an area among the trees about 80 feet in diameter. The camp was surrounded by a small, pop-up electric fence designed to keep animals away, and there were dozens of water jugs and large plastic bear-proof storage containers that resembled beer kegs. About 10 people sat around in fold-out camping chairs and on tree stumps finishing their lunch. This was Graf’s fourth year digging at the remote location. One highlight, she said, was they’d recently found what appeared to be a bone from a dog. Graf said the discovery could amount to evidence of the earliest known domesticated canine in North America. While we were talking she wondered aloud whether these early people would have traversed Beringia via some sort of dogsled or used the animals to help shoulder the weight of their belongings.

After lunch, the group migrated to the nearby dig location, a large pit that looked as if someone had pressed a massive rectangular cookie cutter into the ground and discarded all the dirt in the middle. Excavating an archeological site is tedious work, a far cry from the escapades of the world’s most famous member of the trade, the fictional character Indiana Jones. Rather, it consists mainly of carefully scraping away layers of dirt with a trowel and cataloging any items for further examination and analysis. “Our goal as anthropologists — it’s not just about treasures, not just about finding stuff,” Esdale told me. “It’s to understand people.”

Scientists have learned a lot about the founding populations of Indigenous peoples who lived in this area, particularly about how they subsisted. These people were mobile, resourceful, and skilled — unquestionably successful big-game hunters who preyed on bison, elk, and maybe even mammoth. They used spears and a throwing device called an atlatl, a curved tool made from wood, bone, or ivory not unlike the plastic tennis ball throwers popular at dog parks today. Hunters used it to launch darts fashioned with a pointed stone tip. (The bow and arrow didn’t show up for another 12,000 years.) Flakes discarded during the sharpening of these points are often found in the soil at sites like McDonald Creek.

‘Our goal as anthropologists — it’s not just about treasures, not just about finding stuff,’ Esdale told me. ‘It’s to understand people.’

For her part, though, Graf hoped to find more than flakes. Carbon dating of charcoal left behind by campfires and preserved 10 feet underground suggested that people occupied this location three different times throughout history — 7,000, 13,000, and nearly 14,000 years ago — making it one of the oldest sites in Alaska. “It’s an interesting place,” Graf told me. “We’ve always been looking for the base camp of these people. There are a lot of hunting camps around, shorter-term sites, but somewhere they had to be hunkering down, where grandma and grandpa and the kids and the mom, where everyone was hanging out. That’s kind of what we’re wondering, because this is a nice, fixed spot.”

“So, this could be that type of place?” I asked.

“Could be,” she said. “Could be.”

***

On my second day in Fairbanks, Esdale introduced me to an archeologist in his mid-70s named Chuck Holmes. He had a full head of neatly parted gray hair and a trimmed white beard. Before we met, Esdale outlined Holmes’s long resume. He’d taught at multiple universities, enlightening undergrads and guiding Ph.D. candidates, and had held senior-level science jobs with both the state and federal governments. It all amounted to decades of research and discoveries in the region. Hearing Esdale, I got the impression she was describing a sort of grandfather of Alaskan archeology.

Holmes first came to Alaska via Florida, about as far away as you can get in the United States — a fact his mother made sure to note when Holmes told her he’d decided to enroll at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1970. Holmes had fallen for the state’s wide-open territory the year before. Thanks to a friend’s father who worked for one of the railroad companies, Holmes and his hometown pal landed summer jobs laying train track across the tundra. “My friend was a little less interested in doing that kind of work; I just saw it as an adventure,” Holmes said. “I got in good shape and got to see quite a bit of the state.” From that moment, aside from brief stopovers in Calgary, Canada, and Washington state, Holmes spent the rest of his life in Alaska.

Holmes told me that as a kid he’d always had a penchant for finding things, so it was perhaps no surprise that during his undergrad years in Fairbanks he found archeology. “I was hooked on Alaska at that point,” Holmes said. But it was something he discovered two decades later that Esdale wanted me to learn more about: another archeological site not too far from McDonald Creek. The spot was known as Swan Point, and it happened to be the oldest historical site with evidence of human activity not just in Alaska but in the rest of the United States as well.

Back then, in the early 1990s, Holmes worked for the Office of History and Archeology in Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources. One summer, he led a group of students digging at an already well-established site in the Tanana Valley. A couple of the kids involved in the excavation wanted to venture out to look for something new, so Holmes pulled out a couple of maps and a compass, essential tools for an archeologist in the days before Google Earth. He identified what looked like a promising topographic feature: a hill off in the woods that appeared high enough to function as a lookout point, but not so high that it would’ve deterred a group of hunter-gatherers from climbing to the top. Holmes told the students to check it out, dig a few holes, and see what they found.

On their first attempt, the kids had trouble pinpointing the right location. Holmes sent them back the next day with additional instructions, and this time they returned with wide grins. First, they handed Holmes a couple of small plastic bags containing flakes likely cleaved from a stone tool. Not bad, Holmes thought. That was enough to suggest the site was worthy of further exploration. The students, however, had one more bag to show off. This one contained a scrap of ivory. The hard, white material, typically part of a tooth or tusk, is much more difficult to find in the wild, particularly in a shallow test pit dug at a somewhat hastily selected point on a map. It was like plucking a needle you didn’t know existed from a haystack the size of Delaware.

Holmes and other researchers excavated Swan Point on and off for the next two decades. Carbon dating placed it at about 14,200 years old. Scientists uncovered all kinds of gems, including stone tools, bones from a baby mammoth, food-storage pits, and hearths that campfires were built upon. The findings from Swan Point have been documented and published in numerous scientific papers, and in 2008 the government listed the site on the National Register of Historic Places. As it turned out, Holmes explained, much of the Swan Point technology was similar to what had been commonly found by scientists on the other side of the land bridge in Siberia, suggesting these people were related in some way. “These guys, we’re not really sure who the heck they are,” Holmes said, referring to whomever camped at Swan Point so long ago.

“They’re basically Asian; they are ancient folk,” he said. “But their genes carried into the New World.”

***

Later that day, after meeting Holmes, Esdale and I bumped along an overgrown, two-lane Jeep road that ran deep into the woods. We were headed toward another archeological site on Army lands, this one dating back about 13,000 years. The road dead-ended at a clearing atop a ridge with a view of a river and an open forest below. Esdale explained this location, aptly named Delta River Overlook, marked the first time that archeologists had found a Beringian site that humans appeared to have occupied in the winter. They could tell, she said, based on the existence of a specific tooth that had belonged to a baby bison — a molar that only erupts in the cold season.

Winters were lean times for humans 13,000 years ago. In addition to tracking larger animals and storing the frozen meat under rocks, hunters in these tribes also set snares to trap small game for times when the weather made it challenging to venture too far from camp; at Delta River Overlook, for example, there’s evidence of grouse and ground squirrel. Staying warm was another challenge. Furs from big-game animals helped, but scientists are still piecing together the picture of what their shelters might’ve looked like that long ago. Best guess from ethnographic evidence, Esdale told me, is that families constructed dwellings by draping animal skins over a dome of flexible branches and packing the outside with snow for additional insulation.

The excavation of the Delta River site was led by a professor of archeology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks named Ben Potter. Potter was in China on a research trip when I visited Alaska, but I spoke with him on the phone later. Like Holmes, he’s made a number of important contributions to the Alaskan archeological canon. Potter’s body of work, however, contains one particularly unique entry: He uncovered the oldest human remains to date at an archeological site in Alaska. The first finding occurred in 2010, after years of work at an 11,500-year-old site known as Upward Sun River.

Potter and his team were contracted in 2005 to conduct a survey ahead of a proposed railway expansion through Army lands 40 miles from Fairbanks. His crew dug a few test pits and found evidence of human activity. The rail project was eventually rerouted, and in 2009 Potter received a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue excavating and investigating the site. He made the startling discovery the following year. About a meter down, Potter’s crew found parts of a human skull; later analysis determined the bones had come from a 3-year-old cremated child. In 2013, they went deeper into the site, and the team found the remains of two infants. Extracting human remains from the ground in Alaska necessitates consulting with local Indigenous tribes, which maintain a notable presence in their ancestral lands in the state — about 100,000 people spread across at least four groups. With the support and cooperation of local tribal leaders, his team removed the bones and sent out a sample for genetic analysis. They published the results last year.

The goal is just knowing more — to keep understanding.

The DNA makeup revealed an entirely new population of Native peoples, a group Potter labeled “Ancient Beringians.” There were other important findings at Upward Sun River. For example, they discovered fish bones buried in a hearth, where hunters would’ve cooked their meat, which helped Potter and his team establish the earliest known human consumption of salmon in the Americas. Previously, scientists had thought this occurred near the ocean. “It wasn’t on the coast, it was in the deep interior rivers,” Potter said. “That’s pretty exciting.” But the conclusions drawn from the DNA analysis were by far the most significant: a previously unknown branch of ancient humans.

It was a substantial addition to the archeology of the time. Although the general narrative about the early migration of people from Siberia to the Americas is mostly agreed upon, the specifics are subject to ongoing debate among social scientists. When exactly did these ancient people first arrive in Alaska? Did they settle down? If so, for how long? When did they colonize the rest of America? Did they travel inland or along the coast? What the DNA from Potter’s discovery and other analysis showed was that for a period of several thousand years the genetic code of early Indigenous people evolved in isolation, no longer mixing with the DNA of those who lived in eastern Asia. It also appeared that these Ancient Beringians were eventually separated from those who went on to colonize the rest of the Americas.

Two other groups of scientists have discovered new genetic evidence that he felt buttressed his work. The findings included, in part, a human DNA sample from a 12,600-year-old cave in Montana and a single tooth preserved from a 1949 dig at a 10,000-year-old site in western Alaska, hundreds of miles from Fairbanks. The tooth had long been forgotten, stashed away on a dusty shelf at a museum in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was found by, of all people, Esdale’s husband Rasic. Turned out, the genetic makeup of the tooth matched the children’s from Upward Sun River.

“This actually clarifies quite a bit,” Potter told me when I followed up with him after the new papers were released. He walked me through the scenario he saw taking shape: People were likely living in Asia around 16,000 years ago. The glaciers began to melt and tribes migrated from western Beringia to Alaska around, say, 15,000 years ago. Then you have a split: ancient Beringians sticking around Alaska and another group traveling south, either inland, along the coast, or both, entering the rest of the Americas. That second group, he said, looked to be a single population that spread quickly and later split into many lineages.

Talking with Potter about the DNA results and migration theories it reminded me of a conversation Esdale and I had on our drive out to Delta River Overlook, the day before I left Alaska and flew back to the rest of the United States. We’d been talking about how, based on the antique elements of the profession, archeologists are necessarily adept at spinning complex abstractions from limited evidence, whether it’s the shape of a microblade point or a scrap of an animal bone. It seemed to me, however, that that meant there was no endgame to this work — that it could go on forever, like trying to solve a massive jigsaw puzzle in which an untold number of pieces were destroyed eons ago. When I floated this thought to Esdale, she laughed. “Yeah, no, there’s never an endgame. The goal is just knowing more — to keep understanding.”

We continued along the Jeep road into the forest.

“I never really thought about it like that,” she said.

***

Chris Outcalt is a writer and editor based in Colorado.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler
Copy editor: Jacob Gross