The Taiga Period: Holocene Archaeology of the Northern Boreal Forest


            Holocene archaeology of the northern boreal forest is not well studied, documented, or understood. Many interior archaeological collections are quite small and often lack adequate radiocarbon dates. Archaeologists have tended to rely on specific artifact traits to help with dating and cultural classification. Ten years ago I proposed the term “Taiga Period” to refer to the Holocene archaeological materials of the northern boreal forest region. This terminology was an outgrowth of even earlier work where I had suggested that “the Northern Archaic in the greater Tanana Valley could be viewed in terms of early and late developments.”
           The Taiga Period is divided into early, middle, and late cultural periods that span the last 9500 calBP. The time prior to Taiga is a “Transitional Period” that is preceded by the “Beringian Period. Briefly the “Beringian Period” includes the earliest yet discovered archaeological remains. The landscape was open, treeless shrub tundra dominated by dwarf birch, but with significant amounts of grasses, sedges, and forbs. It comes as no surprise that at this time, when Alaska is connected to Siberia, we find microblade technology that resembles the style found in Siberia. These early sites belong to the “East Beringian tradition” and have been discussed elsewhere.
            The “Transitional Period” begins at the start of the Younger Dryas climatic shift and is marked by significant changes in climate and animal extinctions, as well as changes in technology. The dwarf birch shrub tundra continues to dominate the landscape; however, willow increases by 12,000 calBP, and Populus is significant by 11,000 calBP. Spruce and alder are important taxa of the vegetation mosaic by 10,000 calBP and that brings in the “Taiga Period”. Figure 1 shows the classification scheme.


            The “Taiga Period,” as the name attests, begins with the landscape draped in a birch-spruce woodland with alder in damp areas. At 9500 calBP the Denali complex or American Paleo-Arctic tradition is still around, but there are signs that perhaps a non-microblade technology may be present as well, an example being the Eroadaway site with its distinctive biface technology.
            By about 8000 calBP the archaeological record for the Alaskan interior boreal forest stops. That is to say we do not have sites that are securely dated and described for the time between around 8000 to 6000 calBP. The earliest archaeological evidence for the Yukon, outside of Bluefish Caves, is becoming visible at sites like the Canyon and Annie Lake leading some archaeologists to term this evidence “Northern Cordilleran tradition,” implying ties to the northwestern Paleoindian tradition. It can be noted that the c. 7900 calBP Annie Lake microblade component is contemporary with the Canyon site; thereby giving support to Workman’s inclusion of Canyon Creek in his Little Arm Phase, despite the lack of microblades. Nevertheless, in interior Alaska we do not have a firm understanding of what the archaeology was like during the period 8000 to 6000 calBP.  This illustration (Figure 2) is an attempt to plot sites that have reasonably acceptable radiocarbon dates.
            Conventional wisdom has it that during the later part of the “Early Taiga Period”: (1) the Denali complex was transitioning into the Northern Archaic, hence the presence of Denali traits are seen to continue forward, or (2) there was an abrupt change in technology. Denali traits are lost when a rather large-scale population movement, traceable to the Archaic Tradition of the Plains, followed the north and westward expansion of the boreal forest. And this accounts for the so called “pure” Northern Archaic assemblages.  The large-scale migration theory has been challenged by Clark, and others, on grounds that there is considerable regional diversity in the Northern Archaic with numerous examples of assemblages that “amalgamate” microblade technology. However, evidence is lacking that would show a clear continuity of Denali traits across almost 2000 years of time as well, although this hypothesis continues to be tested.
            In this slide we have the modern boreal forest depicted (Figure 3). Note how there are fingers of forest extending into the Brooks Range, the Kobuk and Noatak drainages out toward Bristol Bay, and down toward the Alaska Peninsula. According to Edwards et al. (2000), there is almost no change in the northern position of the tundra/taiga boundary in Alaska from the modern biome distribution by around 6800 calBP. The boreal forest is well established by the start of the “Middle Taiga Period,” having attained its full extent in Alaska by 6000 calBP. Coincidentally this marks the beginning of the Northern Archaic tradition and what I call the “Middle Taiga Period.”
            One may ask does the Northern Archaic satisfy the definition of cultural tradition, defined as any distinctive toolkit or technology that exists for an extended period of time and usually over an extended area?  Anderson defined the Northern Archaic tradition on the basis of the sharp distinction between “Arctic-oriented” and “Interior-oriented” cultural systems. While he has now de-emphasized any “ecological connection between the Northern Archaic and a particular habitat,” there remains a strong correlation between the Northern Archaic and the boreal forests. I would note here that Anderson defined six phases of Northern Archaic at Onion Portage. Notched point forms occur only in Phases 1-3 and are the only “point” form present. Whereas, Phases 4-6 have a variety of stemmed and “oblanceolate” point forms. It is important to remember that the Northern Archaic tradition is more than notched points. So that said, let’s talk about notched points.
            It is striking to find the early appearance of notched point sites over such a wide geographic range. Between 6000 and 5000 calBP notched point forms are found not only at Onion Portage, but also in the Noatak drainage, at Ugashik Lake and Bristol Bay, in the Upper Susitna basin, and in the Tangle Lakes area. The distribution is probably even greater than depicted here (Figure 4). I have only plotted sites that appear to have acceptable radiocarbon dates in association, such as hearth features. A number of sites have bracketing dates or a reported date is only relative to the notched point component. Clearly there was a sudden but widespread occurrence of notched points. Some sites have microblades associated, e.g., Ugashik Knoll, Butte Lake, and Nimiuktuk-51-3; while other contemporary and regionally close sites lack associated microblades, e.g., Graveyard, Onion Portage, and Fog Creek. The point here is: just because microblades and notched point are sometimes found associated and sometimes they are not, we need not divide the Northern Archaic into “pure” and “tainted” sites. Not all sites will display every tool in the tool kit. Furthermore, we all know how small some of our artifact inventories are. Experience suggests that we are likely to find as many sites with as without the two traits associated. I think the data are telling us that microblade technology is integral to the Northern Archaic tradition. In the case of the Tangle Lakes Northern Archaic sites, e.g., Mt. Hayes 35, it is not clear whether or not microblades were part of the inventory.
            It is difficult to know what to make of notched points in Alaska. They appear in diverse locations at about the same time, 6000 to 5000 calBP. But in some regions (Northwestern Alaska, Bristol Bay, and the Susitna Basin) they seem to disappear altogether, while in other regions (Tangle Lakes) they reappear around 2500 calBP. Elsewhere in the Tanana Valley (Minchumina, Chugwater, Dixthada, and Swan Point) and the south flank of the Brooks Range, notched points first appear around 2500 calBP.
            The “Middle Taiga Period” begins with the recognition of the Northern Archaic tradition which occupied a large geographical unit on the order of a “culture area.” The culture area concept requires there be continuity of shared cultural traits that were derived from a common base. And here we encounter some difficulty. That common base for Northern Archaic would seem to be Denali/American Paleo-Arctic microblade technology, but as has been noted, there is a 2,000 year hiatus separating the traditions.  So, what about rapid diffusion of traits from outside Alaska? I don’t find that this is any better explanation. My thought is that there must have been a base of common traits among these widely spaced Northern Archaic groups. Putting the issue of common base aside, it seems clear that in a rather short interval of time these groups were becoming regionally distinct. Also, during the “Middle Taiga Period” there were non-Northern Archaic groups all around the boreal forest borders that likely affected this process.
            Although I have been talking about notched points and microblades, the picture is much more complex than this. I haven’t even mentioned burins, scrapers, or way of life. The hunting technology of the Northern Archaic tradition probably has more to do with various lanceolate projectile systems than with notched points. It is clear that the atlatl was the means for launching both notched and lanceolate projectile points throughout the “Middle Taiga Period” and into the “Late Taiga Period” as well (given the recent evidence emerging from ice patch archaeology). In this slide (Figure 5) Dixon’s 2800 calBP hafted lanceolate point from the Wrangell/St.Elias Mountains is compared to a similar point found in an Alaska Range ice patch last year. In this slide (Figure 6) I have plotted the radiocarbon dates Hare et al. (2004) used to document atlatl and bow use during the Holocene in SW Yukon.
           The “Late Taiga Period” begins around 3000 calBP and lasts up to the Historic Period. The Northern Archaic tradition is highly diversified during this time. Yet much that was seen in the preceding “Middle Taiga Period” is familiar, e.g., there are notched points and microblades along with lots of lanceolate point forms, scrapers, and burins. But the Onion Portage Itkillik complex, which Anderson interprets as a “late phase of the Northern Archaic” lacks notched points. An example of diversification is the “Minchumina tradition,” defined as a local variant of the Northern Archaic tradition with three phases that fall within the “Late Taiga Period.” A Norton tradition influence is evident at Minchumina as well. While the Minchumina Cranberry and Raspberry phases lie comfortably in the “Late Taiga Period” the dating for the earlier Blueberry Phase could use better resolution. I hope to obtain additional material from the Minchumina site for AMS dating in the near future.
The term “Late Denali phase or complex” is often used to refer to interior sites of the “Late Taiga Period” because they have microblades and Donnelly style burins. It is one thing to recognize the presence of “Denali-like” traits in a late context, and quite another to make a cultural connection to the earlier context. I think there is a real disconnect between the Denali complex (or American Paleo-Arctic) and the Northern Archaic. My suggestion 20 years ago was to refer to the post 3000 calBP assemblages as something other than “Denali” to avoid the impression of a cultural connection across 4000 or 5000 years of time. Sometime around 1200 calBP there is a marked change in the archaeological record across much of the interior boreal forest. Examples of this change are found at sites like Gulkana, Dixthada, and Birches. There appears to be less emphasis on lithic technology, more on bone, antler, and copper technology. Microblade and burin technology disappears. The bow and arrow is now the hunting method, as reflected in various small arrow point types and barbed antler points. This marks the end of the Northern Archaic tradition and the beginning of the Athapaskan tradition, which leads to ethnically recognizable Athapaskan groups.
            In conclusion, I encourage researchers to think in terms of the “Taiga Period” as an overreaching framework to accommodate local and regional cultural classification.

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