Joshua D Reuther & Ben Potter – “Upward Sun River site: Climate change, geoarchaeology and human land use in Ice Age Alaska”

2011 Excavation at the Upward Sun River Site, interior Alaska - photo by Ben A. Potter

The Tanana River Valley region in interior Alaska has one of the longest archaeological records in North America dating back to 14,000 calendar years ago, at the end of the Ice Age. Several multi-component sites including Upward Sun River, Gerstle River, Mead, Broken Mammoth, Swan Point, and the Bachner Site, have provided well-preserved fauna, organic implements, lithic assemblages, and cultural features in secure stratified contexts. These and other sites are situated in windblown silts (loess) on bedrock bluffs, alluvial terraces, and sand dune deposits, providing avenues for exploring changes in human-environment interactions in the Subarctic. This presentation will primarily focus on the results of recent excavations and archaeological and geological research conducted at Upward Sun River.

The Upward Sun River, or /Xaasaa Na’/ in Upper Tanana Athabascan, site is situated on a stabilized sand dune that is capped with over 2 meters of loess. Since 2007, we have identified four occupations in stratified contexts dating between 13,200 and 10,000 calendar years ago. The rapid deposition of sediments aided in the exceptional preservation of organic remains and integrity of the archaeological record. Most spectacular is the discovery of a young child, Xaasaa Cheege’ Ts’eniin’ (Upward Sun River Mouth Child), who was cremated within a residential structure. This represents the oldest Arctic/Subarctic human remains and residential structure, and one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. We report on our analyses of animal and floral remains from the site, and explore the nature of human land use patterns in the Tanana Basin. We integrate these results in the context of regional geoarchaeological investigations on the evolution of the middle Tanana River landscape, terminal Pleistocene and early Holocene environments (20,000-6,000 calendar years ago) and climate change, and prehistoric hunter-gatherer/environment interactions in the region.


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