Copper River Record July 2017
By Robin Mayo
Last week, WISE hikers were treated to a new perspective on an old favorite location. BLM Archaeologist John Jangala led a hike in the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District, and showed us how to discover ancient evidence of hunters and gatherers in the area.
The Tangle Lake Ridge Trail takes off from the BLM campground at mile 21 Denali Highway, and makes a long diagonal traverse up the ridge. This area was heavily glaciated, and the series of rolling hills are actually old eskers, the streambeds under the glacier which create ridges of gravel. The Ahtna people have used this area for over 10,000 years as a prime spot for fall hunting and berry picking.
At the top of the ridge, we emerged from the brush and took a lunch break on the bare domes of gravel that top the ridge. John showed us how to observe carefully, looking for stones that were shaped like chips or flakes instead of the glacial-rounded ones that were the norm. He brought along an example of a larger stone that small tools were flaked from. Soon we were finding small remnants that told the story of ancient hunters sitting on this same spot.
Stone age tools in the area were made of a rock called Landmark Gap Argillite, and there are several sources of it in the Amphitheater Mountains. Compared to obsidian and other stones commonly used for tools, it is very humble in appearance, a sandy grey-brown color. The small pieces we found were often covered with lichens like the other stones, so it took a sharp eye to pick out their distinctive shape and color.
When first flaked off, stone tools have such a sharp edge that they have been used for open-heart surgery. After some use the edge becomes duller, but can be re-sharpened by taking off tiny flakes to create a serrated edge which is useful in cutting tough tendons when butchering game. Dull blades could also find use as hide scrapers.
Ancient hunters also made multi-pointed projectiles by embedding several tiny sharp stone shards in antler or bone holders, which were then lashed to wooden shafts. With a limited range, the hunters relied on their knowledge of the habits of the animals, and patiently waited near trails until the game came close enough to reach with a spear. They also used a one-handed holder to fling the darts or spears, to add to their speed. This technology was also shared with coastal hunters, who needed to be able to keep a boat steady while also throwing their weapon.
As we ate our sandwiches, fruit, cheese, cookies, and other modern treats, we were struck by the difficulty of providing enough calories to live on year-round by hunting and gathering, even in the relatively rich Tangle Lakes area. We are so used to using large amounts of energy to acquire our food, including farming, processing, and shipping it from faraway places. Modern day subsistence hunting nearly always relies on petroleum powered transportation, and plenty of calorie-dense snacks to give the hunters energy. But to stay alive in the wild you’d need to keep ahead of the game, consistently procuring more calories than you consumed.
Exploring and finding artifacts is exciting, but John stressed the importance of leaving things where they are found. Near high-traffic areas like the campground and local trails, they are most likely already known to the archaeologists, and leaving artifacts in place gives others the chance to discover and learn. If an interesting item is found off the beaten track, it should also be left where it is found. A good picture and GPS or Map coordinates are greatly appreciated by the Archaeology teams, so your find can become part of their knowledge base.
BLM Archaeologist John Jangala shares the pre-history of the Tangle Lakes Area with a group of WISE hikers Tommy Matia/WISE Photo
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.