Spear points mix up theory of early humans’ arrival

“Several of the spear points were found in our excavation along with charred animal bones, probably caribou which ancient humans butchered and ate there at the site," says Ted Goebel. "So the question becomes, ‘Who were these people , and where did they come from?’" (Credit: Texas A&M University)

The discovery of fluted spear points in northwest Alaska strongly suggests that early humans carrying American technology lived on the central Bering Land Bridge about 12,000 years ago.

The findings show that the peopling of the Americas was more complex than previously believed, scientists say.


For the new study, researchers focused on an area in Alaska called Serpentine Hot Springs, now part of the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve located on the Seward Peninsula. Park archaeologists in 2005 discovered a fragment of a fluted spear point, long known as a hallmark of North American Paleoindian cultures. More fluted points were found in a later excavation.

“This shows for sure that there were humans on the land bridge by the end of the Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, because the spear points were found with charcoal and bone radiocarbon dated to that time,” says Ted Goebel, professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University.

Who and from where?

“Several of the spear points were found in our excavation along with charred animal bones, probably caribou, which ancient humans butchered and ate there at the site.  So the question becomes, ‘Who were these people, and where did they come from?”‘

Among the earliest residents of North America were members of the Clovis culture, thought to date to about 13,000 years ago. Clovis people specifically fashioned their stone spear tips with grooved, or fluted, bases.

Such human-made projectile points have been known in Alaska since 1947, having been found at as many as 20 different archaeological sites.

“But no one has been able to determine the age of fluted points in Alaska—were they younger, the same age as, or older than the Clovis residents in temperate North America?” Goebel says.


Reverse migration

Scientists have chiefly considered two scenarios about Alaska’s fluted point makers:  either they were a pre-Clovis population that moved southward at the end of the Pleistocene era, or they were post-Clovis migrants who spread from south to north.

“The evidence from Serpentine supports the second theory—that either Paleoindian people or technologies were moving in a reverse migration pattern, from south to north, or more specifically, from the high plains of central Canada in a northerly direction into Alaska,” he says.

The findings, published online in Journal of Archaeological Science, show new possibilities about when and from where the early settlers of the Bering land bridge arrived.

“Not all of Beringia’s early residents may have come from Siberia, as we have traditionally thought,” Goebel says.

“Some may have come from America instead, although millennia after the initial migration across the land bridge from Asia. If the fluted points do not represent a human migration, they at least indicate the surprisingly early spread of an American technology into Arctic Alaska.”

On the move

Fluted points were used by the Serpentine residents as weapon tips for hunting large animals, such as caribou or bison. The bow and arrow would not appear in Alaska for several thousand more years.

“We know these early settlers were very mobile—they traveled great distances,” Goebel says. “Humans carried tools made of the volcanic glass called obsidian to the site from nearly 300 miles inland in central Alaska. The artifacts and other debris they left behind suggests very short stays, perhaps just several days and nights.

“Nonetheless, fluted points have yet to be found in neighboring Chukotka (in Russia) suggesting that the fluted-point makers never made it any further west than the Seward Peninsula. By 12,000 years ago, the land bridge was becoming swamped by the rising Bering and Chukchi seas.”

Researchers from Baylor University, the University of Georgia, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Desert Research Institute contributed to the project, that was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and National Park Service’s Shared Beringia Heritage Program.

Source: Texas A&M University