Archaeologist finds links with Eurasia

 Olivier Uyttebrouck

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University of New Mexico anthropologist E. James Dixon searches for artifacts at the edge of a melting ice patch in Alaska. Ice patch archaeology has turned up rare artifacts such as thousand-year-old arrows with feathers still attached. PHOTO COURTESY OF E. JAMES DIXON

Humans and their cultural achievements flowed between North America and Eurasia for thousands of years before Columbus’ voyage, and new evidence is emerging from melting ice.

That contact continued even after rising sea levels submerged the land bridge between Alaska and northeast Asia about 10,000 years ago, said E. James Dixon, a University of New Mexico anthropologist.

The truth of the matter is that there was contact between Eurasia and North America for probably 14,000 years” before Europeans arrived in the New World, said Dixon, director of UNM’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.

Dixon and other anthropologists are finding some of the best evidence for that long contact in the slurry of organic material left behind by melting glaciers and “ice patches” in Alaska and other northern lands.

Dixon’s research centers on an area archaeologists call Beringia – a vast region that linked North America and Asia during the last ice age, between 10,000 and 25,000 years ago.

But human contact continued long after rising sea levels severed the land bridge, bringing new technology to North America, including the bow and arrow and copper, bronze and iron implements, he said.

In recent years, global warming and melting ice have given rise to a new type of research called “ice field archaeology” that yields rare and well-preserved organic artifacts, such as ancient arrows, spear shafts and bits of clothing preserved in ice for thousands of years.

Each summer, Dixon and others travel to Alaska to search for artifacts at the edges of melting ice fields.

The behavior of animals and ancient hunters make ice fields a rich source of artifacts, he said. Large mammals, particularly caribou, seek out ice patches in the summer to escape heat and insects.

People figured this out thousands of years ago,” he said. “They would go up to these ice patches to hunt these animals.” Hunters then lost hunting implements that remained frozen in ice.

I’ve found ancient arrows – 1,000 years old – with the feathers still attached and the points on the end,” he said.

Other ice-field archaeologists have found items such as a 10,000-year-old wooden spear shaft and a moccasin that is thousands of years old, Dixon said.

This is a phenomenon that we’re experiencing all over the high-altitude high-latitude regions of the world,” he said.

Ice field anthropology is finding new evidence that human contact continued across the 50-mile-wide Bering Strait into the 20th century, he said.

They were crossing back and forth, and people were related actually on both sides, right up until the Cold War.”