CSU archaeologists unearthing human roots in Alaska

Archaeologists working for Colorado State University’s Center for the Environmental Management of Military Lands have made significant discoveries placing the earliest North Americans in Alaska 14,000 years ago.

Archeologist Julie Esdale and her team have uncovered tools, weapons and the remains of bison, mammoth, elk and other large game at sites used over and over again for centuries by nomadic hunters in the region. The sites are located on 1.6 million acres of land at Fort Wainwright, just southeast of Fairbanks.

Alaskan dig map
This map shows archaeological sites at Fort Wainwright in relation to nearby Fairbanks.

“These are some of the most archaeologically significant sites in Alaska, and they help shed light on these people,” Esdale said. “The history of these earliest North Americans is still fairly vague, but we have been able to learn a great deal about what they hunted, their diet and what technology they were using. We’re helping to develop a picture of what these people were like.”

CEMML, part of CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources, works with the Army, Air Force, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies on lands managed by the U.S. government. CEMML scientists provide, among other services, natural and cultural resources management.

Esdale has been working at Fort Wainwright for the past six years, making sure any potentially significant archeological sites on the base are investigated prior to development or other military use.

Two important sites

Two sites have proven to be particularly important: McDonald Creek in the Blair Lakes Archaeological District, and the Delta River Overlook in the Heart of the Glaciers Archaeological District.

The McDonald Creek site is the second oldest in Alaska, dating to the late Pleistocene (Ice Age) epoch. Esdale, working with Professor Kelly Graf from Texas A&M and a team of graduate students – including three from CSU’s Department of Anthropology – have found evidence of people camping at the site at least three times in the past: 14,000, 12,000 and 6,000 years ago.

Katherine Sinsky
Katherine Sinsky, a graduate student in CSU’s Department of Anthropology, holds up a projectile point she found in Alaska.

Stone tools – most of them flakes created when sharpening projectile points – have been uncovered, along with bison, mammoth and waterfowl remains.

The Delta River Overlook is a large campsite, with evidence of occupation at least 12 times from 12,000 to 2,000 years ago. Esdale’s team is working with Professor Ben Potter from the University of Alaska Fairbanks at the site, and together they have uncovered stone tools and remains of bison, elk, caribou, waterfowl and small mammals. Some of the artifacts were buried under more than 12 feet of silt deposited over the centuries.

Just part of the story

The artifacts found at the site tell just part of the story. Ancient soils, remnants of fire pits, volcanic ash and other clues help reveal the environmental challenges and types of vegetation human inhabitants experienced.

In addition to those sites, Esdale’s team has found hundreds of artifacts at Blair Lakes. Bank erosion has revealed new finds and evidence of prehistoric camps from 10,500, 9,000, 3,500 and 1,000 years ago.

Site work has been completed for this summer but will resume in May.

CSU graduate students working on the projects include Kate Yeske, Julia Kenyon and Katherine Sinsky. All are students Jason LaBelle, associate professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts.