Swan Point is an archaeological site located in the Tanana Valley, in the US state of Alaska. The site is notable for containing evidence of human occ
Swan Point is an archaeological site located in the Tanana Valley, in the US state of Alaska. The site is notable for containing evidence of human occupation dating as far back as 14000 years ago, which is currently the oldest in the northern part of the Americas. Swan Point was occupied over a long period of time, as evidenced in the site’s stratigraphy, as well as in the artefacts that were recovered there by archaeologists.
Swan Point is located in the Shaw Creek Flats, in the Tanana Valley, in the eastern part of central Alaska. The archaeological value of the site was first recognized in 1993, when it was discovered by the archaeologist Chuck Holmes. At that time, Holmes was working for the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology (OHA), part of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Since then, ongoing archaeological excavations have been carried out at the site.
The archaeological work at Swan Point has helped to shed light on the prehistory of the area, as well as the larger North American continent. First of all, with the use of radiocarbon dating, the archaeologists were able to determine that the human occupation of Swan Point dated as far back as 14000 years ago.
Lithic artifacts from Swan Point are among the oldest in the Americas and relate to stone tools found in northeastern Siberia, which strongly supports the theory that the First Americans arrived from Siberia. ( University of Alaska Museum of the North )
Swan Point: Home to Oldest American Mammoth Ivory Artifacts
According to Holmes, this is the “oldest, well-documented age we have for any humans in Alaska”.
Indeed, up to the 1980s, the oldest known human occupation in Alaska was the Dry Creek site, which was dated to 11200 years ago. This archaeological site is located near Denali National Park. At the site, archaeologists found the bones of large Pleistocene mammals , such as elk and bison, which are now extinct in the area. These bones showed that there were prehistoric hunters who killed these animals at the site. Additionally, various types of stone tools found at Dry Creek provide further evidence of the presence of humans in Alaska 11200 years ago.
Since the 1980s, many more archaeological sites in Alaska that are more than 8000 years old were found. These sites are spread all over Alaska. The oldest of these were found in the state’s interior and this is especially true of Swan Point.
At the Swan Point site, artefacts made of mammoth tusk ivory were found at the lowest levels of the site. By radiocarbon dating the ivory, it was found that the people at Swan Point co-existed with mammoths, and likely hunted these animals with stone tools. This refutes the idea that the ivory was simply scavenged by humans thousands of years after the mammoths died.
Upper Paleolithic (Dyuktai complex) cores: a–d) wedge-shaped microblade cores and core preforms. Unique stone tools like these were found at Swan Point, which provides strong evidence for the Beringia theory. ( Antiquity)
Another notable aspect of Swan Point is the role it has played in understanding the prehistoric migration of peoples into the Americas . A type of stone tool, the microblade, which was unearthed at the site, has been found to resemble those used by the Dyuktai people, who lived in Siberia around the same period. This shows that people crossed from Siberia to Alaska on the Beringia land bridge .
In the Lower 48 (the 48 contiguous US states), however, Dyuktai stone tools were not found, suggesting that this culture did not spread south from Alaska. This was likely because of the so-called “ Canadian ice shield ,” which existed until about 13000 years ago. This massive sheet was a natural barrier that effectively stopped humans and animals from moving easily between the Lower 48 and Alaska.
Gwich’in Hunters at Fort Yukon from Alexander Hunter Murray’s 1847 journal. These people were essentially the descendants of the first Alaskan Athabascans that lived in and around Swan Point Alaska, long after the Bering Strait was crossed. (Alexander Hunter Murray / Public domain )
More Recent Artifacts at Swan Point Indicate Athabascans
Although Swan Point is known for its 14000-year-old archaeological remains, the site has yielded material from subsequent periods as well.
Some of the more recent materials, for example, are dated to around 800 to 1000 years ago, and have been identified as belonging to the Athabascan tradition. The artefacts that were unearthed suggest that a small hunting band had set up a camp on a hill near Swan Point. There, they were able to observe wildlife in the wetlands below, built campfires, butchered the animals they killed, and repaired their weapons.
In an article published in 2013 (and updated in 2016), it was reported that during the previous archaeological season, hearths dating to 800 years ago were discovered at Swan Point. These hearths contained stone tools, and burned, white bone fragments, leading Holmes to speculate that this may have been a way to render the grease out of the bones, i.e., “by boiling them in water and skimming off the grease.”
In 2008, Swan Point Archaeological Site was listed under the National Register of Historic Places. Although Swan Point is known for its archaeological discoveries, the site does not seem to have been developed as a tourist attraction so far . . .
Top image: An area of the Swan Point, Alaska dig site that is currently yielding more and more evidence that the First Americans crossed over from Siberia on the Beringia land bridge. Source: Swan Point / University of Alaska Museum of the North
By Wu Mingren
Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Office of History & Archaeology, 2021. The Swan Point Archaeological Site. [Online]
Available at: http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/oha/projects/swanpoint.htm#discovery
Holmes, C. E., 2008. The Taiga Period: Holocene Archaeology of the Northern Boreal Forest, Alaska. [Online]
Available at: http://www.alaskaanthropology.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/akanth-arti…
National Park Service, 2021. Swan Point Archaeological Site. [Online]
Available at: https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail?assetID=c50520a5-67e0-4372-ac…
Retting, M., 2016. Prehistoric tools uncovered at Swan Point, oldest record of humans in Alaska. [Online]
Available at: https://www.adn.com/science/article/prehistoric-tools-uncovered-swan-poi…
Saleeby, B. & Wygal, B., 2017. Old is Getting Older. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nps.gov/articles/aps-v4-i2-c3.htm
University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2021. Swan Point. [Online]
Available at: https://www.uaf.edu/museum/collections/archaeo/online-exhibits/alaskatre…