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Lessons from the oldest man in Alaska tests

7/17/06

Prince of Wales Island, Alaska

By Ned Rozell
An obituary for the man whose bones are the oldest ever found in Alaska might read as follows: He died on Prince of Wales Island around 9,200 years ago. He was in his early 20s. He was adept at using tools, many of which he crafted with imported stone. The man ate as much seafood as a seal or a sea otter. He explored Alaska's coast, probably in a boat made of skins. He leaves behind a jawbone, right hip, scattered teeth, parts of his backbone, a few ribs. Cause of death is unknown, but a giant bear that lived on the island may have killed him. Bones, Boats, and Bison

Paleontologists Timothy Heaton and Fred Grady discovered the oldest human remains ever found in Alaska in 1996. Heaton, who works at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, was looking for mammal bones at the time. When he recognized the bones as human, Heaton stopped digging. He contacted Forest Service archeologist Terry Fifield, who called in Native representatives from local tribal governments, the Klawock Cooperative and the Craig Community associations. Tribal leaders agreed that the digging could continue. Heaton and others, including interns from local Native tribes, found more of the bones. Researchers determined that all the bones, the oldest human remains so far discovered in Alaska or Canada, were probably from the same man.

The clues he leaves behind have scientists rethinking how ancient people spread themselves over North and South America in the final colonization of the planet by our wandering species.

James Dixon, an archeologist with the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, devoted a section of his book, Bones, Boats, & Bison, to the ancient man found in Alaska. Dixon wrote that sea-level records for Southeast Alaska show that the place the man lived-Prince of Wales Island-was also an island when he was alive about 9,200 years ago. Near him were pieces of obsidian-shiny black rock worked into spear points and other tools. This rock did not come from Prince of Wales Island, but other areas in southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Dixon said the man and those like him probably traveled to find the obsidian, or traded for it with other people on the coast. Isotope tests done on the man's bones show his diet consisted mostly of seafood. These clues support the notion that humans could have populated the Americas by trickling down the coast rather than through the interior of the continent. "This is all strong circumstantial evidence for the coastal migration hypothesis," Dixon said from his office in Denver.

Until recently, the coastal migration hypothesis had few backers. Most scientists thought that ice coated northwest coastal areas, such as Southeast Alaska, thousands of years ago when humans were first on the move. Because glaciers are a hard place to find food or lodging, scientists supported a theory in which early humans crossed the Bering Land Bridge and migrated through a narrow ice-free zone that opened up on the plains of Canada between two colossal ice sheets.

The discovery of the bones on Prince of Wales Island lends credence to the idea that ancient people used boats or rafts to come down the northwest coast and settle in patches of greenery amid the glaciers. The prehistoric man may have been the descendent of these people, who used skin boats to hopscotch between ice-free areas. "Early humans could have used watercraft to skirt the ice along the northwest coast, dodging glaciers like recreational kayakers do today," Dixon said.

In his book, Dixon writes of other evidence to support the coastal migration theory. Several linguists note that the west coast of the Americas features the greatest diversity of Native American languages, which hints at longtime settlement. Heaton also found bear bones in the same Southeast Alaska cave as old as 40,000 years.

Maybe Alaska's oldest man and his ancestors were right there with the bears, catching salmon and seals as they traveled down the coast in search of warm places, pulled on by the urge to know what was in the next cove. So far, the oldest known man in Alaska is the only one left to tell the tale.

Courtesy the Geophysical Institute and Ned Rozell

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