UA students discover 1,800-year-old footprint ‘snapshot’ of Athabascan ancestors’ culture

At left, the Swan Point footprint photographed in wet sediment as the excavation was under way, and the feature in dried sediment. (Photo courtesy of Gerad Smith)

University of Alaska archaeologists have announced the discovery of an 1,800-year-old human footprint at a site south of Fairbanks. It’s the oldest such footprint ever found in the North American subarctic, and it’s helping archaeologists understand more about the ancient people who lived at the site for more than 14,000 years.

The footprint was discovered a couple of summers ago by a team of UA archaeologists from both the Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses. Gerad Smith from UAF headed up the team. He says the track was found while they were excavating at Swan Point, an archaeological site in Shaw Creek flats about 30 miles northwest of Delta Junction.

“They’re so rare,” he said. “This is the only footprint that we know of in northern North America – across the subarctic in North America.”

Smith is a doctoral candidate and lead author of an article about the discovery that was published last month in the Journal of Archeological Sciences: Reports.

The study’s coauthors include Steve Shoenhair, the UAA grad student who found the footprint, which Smith estimates was made more than 1,800 years ago. He says it’s an important discovery, because it’s the oldest print found in the high latitudes of North America. And because it reveals a lot about about the people who lived at Swan Point.

At left, a photo and diagram of an indigenous summer barkhouse that’s similar to the pit house at Swan Point. (Photo courtesy of Gerad Smith)

“This was a child who was probably a healthy weight,” Shoenhair said. “That means he was probably happy. He had a nice house that was right there.”

Smith says archaeologists used high-tech devices and forensic methods to determine the footprint was made by a child of undetermined gender who was about 9 years old. He says the track was found just outside a pit house the team was excavating that was bigger and more sturdily built than most pit houses in use at the time. And he says that suggests the child was a member of a family headed by a chieftain or leader of a group.

“Single families in the Tanana Valley, when they living by themselves, didn’t put a lot of effort into creating a winter-habitation house,” Smith said. “But when you had a group of families come together, it was usually the Big Man or Big Woman of the community that had maintained all the relations up and down the river.”

The relatively well-preserved pit-house and other features and artifacts reveal a lot about the ancient people who lived at Swan Point, says Ben Potter, the head of UAF’s anthropology department and Smith’s doctoral studies adviser. He’s also a coauthor of the journal article.

“We don’t have a lot of house excavations,” Potter said.  “We don’t have a lot of sort of residential base camps that we can explore. And that of course gives you a much wider picture of what people are doing on a landscape.”

Swan Point is located near Shaw Creek, about 70 miles southeast of Fairbanks off the Richardson Highway.

Potter says the footprint shows the people living at Swan Point at that time had developed techniques for crafting footwear and warm clothing that were more advanced than what earlier inhabitants produced.

He says that and other evidence bolsters a hypothesis held by Smith and others: that is, the so-called archaic peoples of the Tanana Valley were transitioning at about that time into the forerunner of what became Athabascan culture.

“… The last period of major change in the prehistoric record in Alaska archaeology,” he said, “where you transition from a very sort of ancient northern archaic tradition kind of technology into what we think of as the Athabaskan tradition.”

Smith says that’s one of the main subjects of the doctoral thesis he’s working on, and that he’s scheduled to defend next spring.

From left: Ben Potter; Charles Holmes, a UAF affiliate faculty member who discovered Swan Point; and Gerad Smith. (Photo courtesy of Gerad Smith)

“This occupation is about 2,000 years old,” he said, “and it looks very, very similar to a historic Athabascan or Dine occupation in the Tanana Valley. So I feel very comfortable in saying this is very ancestral to the native people of the Tanana River valley.”

Potter says there’s something about the footprint that makes all that history come alive and captures the public’s imagination, nearly 2,000 years later.

“The footprint is one of those things that give us a snapshot of a very of course brief moment in time, but a very human connection with these ancient populations,” he said.

Potter says the footprint probably will attract a lot more interest than any other feature or artifacts that the archaeologists discover at Swan Point. And he hopes that in turn will motivate the public to learn more about the history of Alaska’s first peoples.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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