Fluted Points from the Bering Land Bridge

Fluted points from the Serpentine Hot Springs Site, Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Source: Bering Land Bridge NPS

For many years, archaeologists considered the so-called “Clovis” Culture to be the remains of the first humans to enter the Americas.  These people were said to come via the Bering Land Bridge, a subcontinental land mass which joins North America to Northeast Asia.  Clovis culture was distinguished by a very characteristic type of stone spear point which had a long flake removed from the base on each side, forming a “flute” which considerably thinned the base of the point. Such fluting was a hallmark of Clovis and another, slightly more recent, culture: Folsom.

Clovis was thought to have arrived into the Americas from the present-day Yukon area through an “ice free corridor”.  However, for many years,  Clovis points and the rest of Clovis culture, were unknown from north of the ice sheets and there was a sustained research agenda to find Clovis, or to find Clovis antecedents, in Yukon, NWT or Alaska.  While the occasional fluted point became known from surface finds, those from solid archaeological context did not.

It is therefore interesting to see a site, Serpentine Hot Springs, has come to light on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula (the bit that sticks out closest to Asia – map) which has revealed numerous fluted points.  These date to about 12,000 calendar years ago, which is around one thousand years more recent than Clovis itself. At this time, Beringia was still largely dry land and the Seward Peninsula a range of hills in the centre-right of this picture:

Beringia 12,000 calendar years ago. Circle shows pproximate location of Serpentine Springs site . Source: NOAA. Click picture to go to a page of Beringia animation.

So, ironically, it appears that while fluted points are now firmly known from Beringia, they represent a very late “backwash” from south to north through the ice free corridor.  I like to think of this as the culmination of the very long route by which parts of North America may have first been peopled:  via the south coast of Beringia, along the Northwest Coast, cutting over to the Caribbean perhaps at Panama, then from south Florida or Texas northwards into eastern North America (at which point Clovis Culture develops) and henceforth the technology (if not the people) spreads northwards up the ice free corridor into Alaska – where it may have been adopted by Ancient Alaskans and melded with their characteristic and long-standing microblade technology.  Indeed, the Serpentine Hot Springs Site is a mixed microblade-fluted point assemblage. Eventually, fluted points backwashed all the way to Asia, where one was found at the Uptar site in Kamchatka.

The site was excavated by Dr. Ted Goebel of Texas A&M University, who is a leading archaeologist of the early Americas and a specialist in Beringian Technology.  There is a very good preliminary write-up on his research here, with a slideshow, courtesy of the Bering Land Bridge National Park Service.

For the more technically-minded reader, from an abstract of a recent conference paper available through INSTAAR (PDF):

A NEW BURIED AND DATABLE FLUTED POINT SITE IN BERINGIA: NEW INFORMATION FROM SERPENTINE HOT SPRING

Keene, Joshua L; Sakamoto, Takako; Goebel, Ted; Waters, Michael R; Gal, Bob

In the summer of 2009, we performed a survey and test-excavation of the Serpentine Hot Springs site (BEN-170) in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on the Seward Penninsula, Alaska. This site was originally discovered by Chris Young, Sabra Gilbert-Young, and Bob Gal in 2005. They found a fluted point base on the surface, and initial testing produced a channel flake in a buried context tentatively associated with charcoal dated to 10,000 14C years ago (Young and Gilbert- Young 2007). These results encouraged us to perform further investigation in 2009, since fluted points had never previously been found in a clear stratified and dated context in Alaska (Clark 1991). In 2009, our group, which included the authors as well as Kelly Graf, John Blong, Sergei Slobodin, and Aluki Brower, mapped the site, collected surface artifacts from two localities (BEN- 192 and BEN-170), and excavated 15 units from BEN-170. The excavation included a 6-m2 block, four 1-m2 units, and five 50×50 cm test units. Stratigraphically, we found evidence of two buried soils that were clearly separated in some areas and mixed together in others with artifacts occurring in both paleosols. In the 6-m2 block, which was situated around the 2005 test pits where the original point was found, we exposed and mapped a hearth feature in the lower paleosol partially disturbed by burrowing activity and cryoturbation. Associated with the hearth was another channel flake and several microblades, as well as hundreds of small bone fragments, provisionally identified as ungulate. A fluted point base was also recovered, but appears to have originated from the upper paleosol. In addition, we recovered two additional fluted points from the surface and found another on the surface at a nearby lithic scatter. So far, five fluted point fragments have been recovered from the Serpentine Hot Springs area.

Although we have not yet obtained additional 14C dates, those from the 2005 testing provisionally suggest the feature, lower paleosol, and associated artifacts and bones date to approximately 10,000 14C BP. This marks the first known occurrence of fluted point technology in a dated context in Beringia and suggests that fluted points are actually younger in Alaska than in the lower 48 states. Moreover, the tentative association of fluted points with microblades further suggests that fluted point technology was “grafted” onto a pre-existing microblade industry in Alaska. Rather than imply the movement of Paleoindian groups from the Great Plains, this suggests that there was a movement of technology amongst existing populations of North America in the late Pleistocene.

I don’t know if this will stop the search for Clovis antecedents north of the ice sheets: it is only one site and it sounds like there is more work to do.  Certainly there are earlier sites than Clovis in Alaska and Yukon, but the technological and cultural relationship between these and Clovis is not established.  I therefore lean to the notion that Clovis may have been a southern innovation that spread north, linking up with archaeological cultures with which it shared a common, Beringian or even, Asian, ancestor.

Excavation at the Serpentine Hot Springs Site, Alaska. Source: Bering Land Bridge NPS.

Overview of the Serpentine Hot Springs site. Source: INSTAAR.

11 responses to “Fluted Points from the Bering Land Bridge

  1. This is extremely cool. One date though, and 19 times out of 20 dates are expected to be wrong. Gotta see some more dates…

    What I love about this is how it ties to a story that was told by Ron Ignace, then elected Chief of the Skeetchestn Band in the south interior of BC.
    http://www.law.ualberta.ca/research/aboriginalculturalheritage/partners.htm#rignace
    He told the story at an archaeology conference; I thought at the time it was a story of his own crafting – maybe it is posted somewhere.

    In a nutshell, it is a story about how First Nations originated in North America and concludes with coyote, ever the trickster, walking backwards from south to north, leaving his footprints pointing into the Americas from the bering landbridge. Maybe this site is one of Coyote’s few footprints left from his camp before he headed south again (as he surely must have). A hotspring would have been the right kind of place to camp after a trip like that.

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  2. Yes, more dates and more data needed, for sure. But it is encouraging there is real stratigraphy (not all Alaskan sites have that) and features and fauna and fluted points and microblades…. so in theory it can be hammered down. And Goebel is one of the best archaeologists out there.

    That’s a pretty great Coyote story.

    Yes, 19 times out of 20 the date is expected to be “wrong” based on measurement — that is, more than two standard deviations away from the central tendency of the measurement. So, 19 times in 20 a date of 10,000 +/- 50 would fall between 10,100 and 9,900

    But the other 1/20 times it should fall close to there! That is, at three standard deviations, it would fall between 10,150 and 9850 99.7% of the time.

    There is always unquantifiable and sometimes much greater ways the date can be “wrong” — that is, old wood, or bad association, or contamination, or even a macro-lab error, but for the 19/20 thing my understanding is that refers only to the standard deviation of the lab measurement error and the 1/20 occurence doesn’t allow much likelihood of being waaaay different. I could be corrected on this, though!
    — end of Lecture mode —

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  3. In addition to Coyote’s story, and farther south and earlier than the Goebel story, this reminds me of Mike Wilson’s story about northward moving bison colonizing de-glaciated habitats from the south to the north rather than in a wave from Beringia…
    hmmm…..

    references:

    Wilson, Michael C.
    1996 Late Quaternary vertebrates and the opening of the icefree corridor, with special reference to the genus Bison. Quaternary International 32:97–105.

    Wilson, Michael C., Leonard V. Hills and Beth Shapiro
    2008 Late Pleistocene northward-dispersing Bison antiquus from the Bighill Creek Formation, Gallelli Gravel Pit, Alberta, Canada, and the fate of Bison occidentalis. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 45(7):827-859.

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  4. On the 19/20 thing – of course you are right: a wrong date on well collected material would not likely be thousands of years out of whack, which it would need to be in order for this site to fit into a theory that suggests Clovis moved from north to south.

    I wonder if 1/20 would be a reasonable proportion for poor dates based on contamination, lousy context, poor excavation and all those other reasons that archaeologists reject a dates that seem out of place during analysis. Difficult to test since I don’t think everyone publishes the dates they don’t like, along with the ones they do. Perhaps some large scale dating projects could be looked at to see how that side of thing works out.

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  5. First the RBCM; I became totally disillusioned with the place about 15 years ago, when a former director told me that there was no place for archaeology in the exibits, and wouldn’t be in the future (they tore out most of the archaeololgy in order to install the IMAX theatre). I’d hoped that Pauline Rafferty, with her archaeology background, might turn things around in terms of vision. Has anyone heard anything about a return to having archaeological displays? I expect its just too easy to bank on (pun intended) a travelling exhibit going viral and funding the next 3 years rather than coming up with original, research-based exhibits.

    Not only was there exciting research done in archaeology in the 70s there, but there was some great interdisciplinary work as well (e.g., Richard Hebda). Now the staff there have to do their research on their own time! I think its still managing to do its curatorial work well much of the time, despite the strain on space, although things like column samples can no longer be stored for future research. In terms of going down and researching an artifact type by browsing through drawers, there isn’t anywhere better.

    A dated fluted point site in Beringia – finally!!!! THats very exciting. It would be interesting to see how those points would fit into the analysis of fluted points presented in the last American ANtiquity. THey certainly look more like the Western Fluted points, with largish ears and V-shaped basal concavity, than they do the odd forms (partly due to reworking) that predominate in the Alberta/northeast BC assemblages. Although there is a very nice one in a display at Ft St John museum I saw last week; I didn’t have time to see if it was one of the ones previously reported by Fladmark or IR Wilson.
    I’m surprised there is no mention of large blade technology – it seems to be in place in the south during Clovis, and not thereafter (‘Archaic’ large blades are substantively different) while large prepared blade cores and prismatic blades go from the earliest cultures in Alaska (contemporaneous or prior to Clovis, although there is debate of course) through to after 9,000 BP – considerably later than to the south. Maybe the detailed report will reveal more about this!

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  6. I am very glad to have these data. One would also like to see the rest of the tool-kit (besides the fluted points) in order to learn what modifications (if any) had occurred during the 1,000-year interval between this late or terminal (?) phase of Clovis and the presumably much older Clovis of the Tennessee/Ohio region?
    Insofar as the initial peopling of the New World is concerned, Clovis (whatever its phase) is a sideshow and cannot be the oldest fluted point technology. A few of us maintain that much of the Cumberland Tradition precedes Clovis. Cumberland itself likely is a devlopment from an Early Lanceolate Tradition with even older roots. The development of Cumberland, we may hypothesize, was well underway by 15,000 calendar years ago.
    If all elements of the tool-kit confirm that a
    full-blown Clovis lithic industry persisted in Alaska when in other parts of North America cultures had transformed themselves,” it will show how persistent the Clovis adaptation could be. Those “surf dogs” kept looking for that “perfect wave” — and they found it in the Far North!

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    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for stopping by. It will be good to see a full publication on this site sometime. I think it is worth noting that “fluted points” do not mean “Clovis points” – there are a number of Clovis descendant fluted point styles. I don’t know enough to tell from these pieces, but I note that Goebel, who is a first rate scholar, does not call them unequivocally Clovis and the dated component includes a “channel flake” diagnostic of fluting but not a projectile point itself.

      I had to look up Cumberland Points and, uh, wow!
      http://www.lithiccastinglab.com/cast-page/2008maycumberlandpreform.htm

      Anyway, Clovis is real, and unusual, and deserves attention and explanation but it is not, I would agree, the archaeological signature of the First Peopling of the Americas. First Peopling of Colorado, perhaps. I think it is very cool in a history-of-the-discipline way if Clovis turns out to be a South-to-North phenomenon and if the ice free corridor turns out to be a way that Clovis people or their descendants gained access from the south to northern North America. It would be fitting for the more bombastic members of the Clovis Police Force to have their model turned, literally, upside down.

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