Uncovering the frozen remains of a Paleo-Eskimo culture

The Denbigh Flint Complex is the term used to define artifacts left behind by the earliest group of Paleo-Eskimos in Alaska. More broadly, the Denbigh are part of the Arctic Small Tool tradition, the first group of people to colonize arctic America from Alaska to Greenland, after the retreat of the massive ice-sheet that once covered this region around 5000 years ago.

Many questions remain to be answered concerning this colonizing event, including settlement patterns, their level of mobility (meaning how often they moved camp), and subsistence strategies–what food did they eat?

Prior to our work at Matcharak Lake, only a handful of animal bones were known to be associated with Denbigh archaeology sites. Therefore, questions about diet, seasonal rounds, and other hunting strategies were unanswerable. Numerous hypotheses and speculative proposals concerning Denbigh life-ways were postulated.
Uncovering the frozen remains of Paleo-Eskimo culture
Photo: The image shows the placement of the designed bone tool associated with a caribou mandible and other bone fragments. Also present in the soil are tiny flecks of charcoal which are used for radiocarbon dating of artifacts and bone.

With the discovery of the frozen bone midden at Matcharak Lake archaeologists have begun to reconstruct the behavior of this understudied group of Native Americans. Research completed at the University of Wyoming and the University of California Davis shows that the Denbigh people organized their lives around caribou migrations. They placed their spring camp at Matcharak Lake to intercept northern migrating caribou herds and again in the fall to catch the caribou upon their return to their wintering grounds south of the Brooks Range. The bones recovered show over 90% of the Matcharak Lake Denbigh diet was caribou but at least ten other species of animals were utilized here as well.

Contributed by Frontier Scientist Andrew Tremayne 2011 — Paleo-Eskimo Archaeology project

(Uncovering the frozen remains of Paleo-Eskimo culture)

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