Serpentine Hot Springs

Bering Land Bridge National Park, Alaska

photo of screening at a paleolithic site

About 12,000 years ago, a small group of hunters arrived on a windy bluff overlooking the rocky knolls and valley of Serpentine Hot Springs. They may have stopped to watch for caribou herds travelling across the open terrain, to maintain their hunting equipment, or to rest and survey the surrounding territory.

In 2005, artifacts were found on the exposed ground surface of the bluff and buried below the surface. In 2009 and 2010, archaeologists from of the Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University, visited the site with a crew of students, conducted surface mapping and artifact collection, testing, and archaeological excavation.

The landscape was different then–drier and colder with more lichens and fewer shrubs and bushes, and inhabited not only by caribou and musk-oxen, but also larger mammals such as steppe bison and woolly mammoth. While we do not know exactly who Serpentine’s early hunters were or where they were going, we do know that they built a fire or two, processed food, and flintknapped stone tools, because behind them they left the remains of hearths, burnt bone, and stone flakes. These artifacts were buried by wind-blown silt and by mud and rock washed down from nearby slopes, and preserved in place until the present day. They were discovered in 2005 by archaeologists from the National Park Service, and are now being studied as the Serpentine Hot Springs fluted-point archaeological site.

 

The site has been dated by collecting charcoal from the remains of two hearths that were uncovered during excavation. The heaths appeared as buried concentrations of burnt animal bone, charcoal, and small stone flakes in dark patches of soil (left map).

Using radiocarbon techniques, the charcoal turned out to date to about 12,000 years ago. The artifacts found within and near the hearths can be associated with these dates. They include some of the fluted points and bifaces collected at the site. The bones are highly fragmented but appear to represent caribou or a similar-sized ungulate.

Nearly 1,000 articles have been collected from the site, including approximately 600 animal bone fragments, 40 pieces of charcoal, 16 bifacial stone tools, ten microblades, 15 bladelets, and 300 flakes (stone waste created during the shaping and re-sharpening of stone tools). Most important were six fragments of fluted points, a style of spearpoint commonly produced during the late Ice Age in other areas of North America.

 

Fluted points are specialized spearpoints that were likely hafted to the tip of spear shafts rather than arrows. They were created through careful shaping of a large piece of stone into a long, symmetrical form with a pointed tip and a concave base. To prepare the artifact for hafting to a shaft, long narrow “channel” flakes were removed from the base to create a “flute” down the midline of each face of the point. Seven channel flakes have been found among the Serpentine Hot Springs artifacts.

The presence of 12,000-year-old fluted points at Serpentine has potential to change our understanding of early human migration in North America. Lowered sea levels during the last Ice Age exposed dry land between Asia and the Americas, creating the Bering Land Bridge. The first humans to arrive in America came from Asia across the land bridge, but when and how they spread throughout the New World is still a mystery.

The fluted points from Serpentine resemble fluted points from temperate America dating to 13,000-12,500 years ago. It was previously thought that these early fluted points spread from Alaska, being carried southwards through an ice-free corridor (left map). But the fluted points at Serpentine are not old enough to fit this theory. Instead, fluting technology may have originated in the southern United States among people who had arrived earlier, perhaps by boat along the south coast of Beringia. Now it would seem that fluted points were brought northwards as glaciers melted and early peoples explored the newly opened territory of western Canada. Research at Serpentine is funded by the Shared Beringia Heritage Program of the NPS, the National Science Foundation and National Geographic Society.