This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5).

Archaeologists have long looked to Beringia, the region encompassing Alaska and far northeastern Siberia, for clues about the origins of the first Americans and spread of humans into the Arctic. The traditional view holds that humans first migrated from Siberia to Alaska across the Bering Land Bridge, a land mass that connected Asia to America during glacial episodes of the Ice Age. Beringia, however, has not yet revealed a clear archaeological predecessor to Clovis, the earliest indisputable archaeological culture in North America dating to about 13,000 years ago. Instead Beringian sites contain an altogether different and highly varied set of stone-artifact assemblages. Explaining this archaeological variability is a topic of much debate in Beringian archaeology today. The archaeological differences either resulted from the presence of at least two distinct early Beringian populations or from one population that used site locations differently. Another issue has been tying human settlement in Beringia to dramatically fluctuating climatic conditions that characterized the region at the end of the Ice Age.

With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Kelly Graf and her colleagues will conduct archaeological excavations of the Owl Ridge site, located near Denali National Park, central Alaska. Their work in 2009-2010 will provide evidence needed to explain early Beringian archaeological variability and tie human adaptation to fluctuating climatic conditions. Test excavations at Owl Ridge have already yielded three separate archaeological components that date to terminal Ice Age times, between 13,500 and 8,000 years ago. Full-scale excavations of the Owl Ridge site will be conducted during 2009-2010 to determine the character of each of the site's artifact assemblages, investigate aspects of human technological and settlement change, and consider how these past human behaviors relate to climate and environmental change at the end of the Ice Age.

The results of this study will help to answer some of the most compelling questions in peopling of the Americas studies today. What is the meaning of artifact variability in early Beringia? How did Ice Age environments condition human settlement of Beringia's landscapes? When and how did humans spread from the Bering Land Bridge area to the Americas? The project will provide invaluable learning experiences for both graduate and undergraduate students and further our understanding of the behavioral evolution of humans in the far north, specifically in the context of significant climatic and environmental fluctuation at the end of the Ice Age, 14,000-7,000 years ago. Therefore, the proposed study will lead to greater appreciation of the human experience in harsh arctic environments and the impacts of global climate change on small-scale human societies.

Project Report

Archaeological sites in central Alaska record evidence of the initial peopling of the Bering Land Bridge (or Beringia) region that took place over 13,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene. Investigation of Beringian archaeological sites is important in explaining how early humans adapted to extremely northern environments and dispersed to the New World. One little-known, but important, site going a long way to help us understand lifeways of the first Beringians and how people settled this new, empty land is the Owl Ridge site. Owl Ridge is a well-stratified, multiple-component archaeological site located immediately north of Denali National Park in central Alaska. By investigating Owl Ridge through large-scale archaeological excavations and geological and paleoecological studies at the site and nearby, we have attained our research objectives. Field data we collected in 2009-2010 will continue to provide information regarding who these earliest Americans were and how they made a living at the end of the Pleistocene. Our first objective was to understand when people visited Owl Ridge. Through detailed geoarchaeological excavations, we established that Owl Ridge is situated in a deeply buried and well-stratified setting with good preservation of archaeological materials. We found that the site has three cultural layers, clearly separated from one another vertically and horizontally, with two cultural layers dating to the late Pleistocene at 13,300 years ago and 12,000 years ago, respectively, and one dating to about 5000 years ago during the Middle Holocene. Our second objective was to understand and explain what early Alaskan hunter-gatherers were doing at Owl Ridge, how behaviors changed through time, and how behavioral changes reflect the settling process of the region. The site is located on a high ridge overlooking the confluence of a creek and the Teklanika River, a major central Alaskan stream flowing north from the Alaska Range to ultimately feed the Yukon River. By 13,300 years ago, initial inhabitants of Owl Ridge carried a toolkit containing what many archaeologists call Nenana-complex tools (specifically small, triangular-shaped bifacial points) and used mainly resources local to Owl Ridge. At 12,000 years ago, the site was revisited by hunter-gatherers with a Denali-complex toolkit that included lanceolate-shaped bifacial points and probably stone-antler composite spears (represented by microblades). Hunters visiting Owl Ridge at this time were using both local and non-local stone resources they transported to the site. By 5000 years ago, hunter-gatherers visited the site again, making processing-related tools from the local stones found in the Teklanika River. They left behind more than twice the amount of artifacts during this occupation event than people did during either of the previous visits. We found that during the late-Pleistocene occupations, people were using the site as a short-term hunting location. In contrast, during the Middle Holocene the site was used by a larger group that was not just hunting, but collecting and processing animals and perhaps plants. Through continued post-fieldwork analyses, we are exploring these behavioral changes in more detail. We are also reconstructing the regional and local paleoenvironments through several paleoecological studies so we can place human behaviors reflected in the archaeological record at Owl Ridge in the larger context of late-Pleistocene global warming. These analyses are informing on the settling-in process of this northern region by early modern humans. Intellectual Merit: Because in recent years the early archaeological record of Beringia has become much more complicated than what was initially thought, little-known, well-stratified sites such as Owl Ridge will continue to help us assess the early record in central Alaska. Data from Owl Ridge collected during this project will continue to contribute to the story of Beringian human ecology. Owl Ridge potentially holds an important key to unlocking this past because it chronicles multiple occupation events, affording a glimpse into the changing lives of earliest Americans, Beringians, and Native Alaskans. Broader Impacts: This project has enhanced education of both graduate and undergraduate students by providing valuable field-research experiences to five graduate students and four undergraduate students. It has also provided important lab-research experiences to four graduate students and two undergraduate students. Two undergraduates conducted independent subprojects through REU supplemental funding. Both students are females; therefore, members of an underrepresented group in American Paleoindian archaeology. Their REU subprojects contributed to our findings and served as senior-thesis projects in partial completion of the student’s B.A. degrees. To date, one graduate student has also incorporated stone-tool data from Owl Ridge in her M.A. thesis research. The project has also provided a valuable research experience to a young female scientist who received her Ph.D. in 2008, thereby also sponsoring a member of an underrepresented group in American Paleoindian archaeology. This project has lead to greater appreciation of the human experience in harsh arctic environments, and will continue to enhance our understanding of the impacts of global climate change on small-scale human societies

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
John E. Yellen
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Texas A&M Research Foundation
College Station
United States
Zip Code