Some time ago I posted about the Serpentine Hot Springs site in Northwestern Alaska, at which several fluted points have been found, apparently dating to about 12,000 years ago. That’s about a thousand years more recent than Clovis, which is the best known of the early “fluted point” archaeological cultures from the Americas. I was interested to come across another site – Raven Bluff – which has recently come to light from the same general area, and which also has fluted points. At Raven Bluff, at least one of these dates to between about 12,000 and 12,500 years ago – also younger than Clovis, which is mainly confined to a narrow window around 13,000 years ago.
Raven Bluff has unusually good stratigraphy in deposits which, for the Pleistocene component alone, amount to some 60 cm deep. Many sites in inner Alaska and Beringia have very thin soil development because of the harsh climate, so a well-stratified site of this depth is a welcome bonus. Bone preservation is also good, although the preliminary reports do not comment on species – something to look forward to. (Sneak preview ?caribou tooth here.)
The artifact with the most interest is the base of a projectile point with distinctive channel flakes on the base, collectively forming a flute. Classic Clovis usually, but not always, has a flute from a single flake scar. The image above, from Hedman (2010), shows the oldest dated Raven Bluff point base, which is bracketed by dates of about 11,700 and 12,600 years ago. Hedman compares it to a so-called Utukok point base, a type previously known from the northern palaeoindian tradition, thought not from such firmly old contexts. The concave base and flute makes it very reminiscent of Clovis, and while there is an understandable reluctance to call these early Alaskan fluted points “Clovis”, truly we are dealing with a stylistically very, very similar technology. These typological distinctions should be set against the splitting tendencies amongst early projectile point specialists, who sometimes miss the forest for the trees.
Because there was some confusion last time, I’ll just note very clearly: neither Raven Bluff nor Serpentine Springs are claimed by their report authors – Bill Hedman and Ted Goebel respectively- to be “Clovis Fluted Points from North of the Ice Sheets”, which would indeed have strong interest for the first peopling of the Americas. The “Origins of Clovis” debate have always posited a central Alaskan or Yukon ancestral culture, which has never been convincingly found. Rather these sites contain projectile points which include fluting, of which Clovis is one, and perhaps the earliest, type.
Fluted points are invariably early, but early points are not invariably fluted. With the dates on the Raven Bluff site, it could tentatively be seen as part of a movement of people or ideas northwards from the Clovis heartland of central North America, passing up through a rapidly appearing ice-free corridor, and hence into western Alaska. In other words, there is an emerging story of a fluted point backwash from south to north, which stands in stark contrast to the original story of a fluted point migration from north to south.
This itself is part of an emerging story in which, perhaps, people pass into the Americas down the Pacific coast, diffuse eastwards across the Cordillera or further south, leaving archaeological traces known as Western Stemmed Point tradition sites, and hence meet other coastal descendants moving up from the south known as Clovis. A recent article I’ve been reading in flagship journal American Antiquity by Beck and Jones, adds some interesting support to this. The authors coyly allude to some early Western Stemmed Point sites being themselves pre-Clovis, and suggest Western Stemmed is derivative of an even earlier palaeocoastal archaeological complex, currently unknown. (The article is not available online even if you have full university library access, not surprising really since American Antiquity has a very antiquated notion of the digital world and is far, far, even laughably far, behind its competitors in this regard).
Anyway, in a nutshell, one reason that the origins of Clovis seekers have never found their quarry north of the ice sheets may be quite simply that Clovis originated in the south, derived, after a long incubation period, from coastal and/or intermontane and/or Central American adaptations, before arriving somewhere like the Gulf Coast or Florida Panhandle coast and rapidly spreading northwestards from there, ultimately running into Beringia. I propose to call this the Geirkztilb Model, in honour of Paul S. Martin.
The main two sources I have found so far on this site are a newsy, informative release by Craig McCaa, and a short preliminary technical report by project director Bill Hedman. Both are PDFs found via the Bureau of Land Management.
Two other sources for this site are a couple of pictures of excavation and some fluted points put up on flickr by user The Arctic Archaeologist, and the diary/blog of a participating Colorado elementary schoolteacher, Karl Horeis, who filed some good reports for his students including lots of photos you can browse here (they are mixed in with a lot of other pictures, so try to figure it out…).
Anyway, it is an interesting site which, if it helps us better understand the phenomenon of fluted projectile points, will be very interesting to follow. If it can also help understand the relationship between fluted points north and south of the ice sheets then it will play a long-running role in figuring out what, exactly, to make of the increasingly enigmatic Clovis archaeological culture.