Broken Mammoth

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Temporal Period(s) PERIOD

Summary Details

  • Location: Broken Mammoth, Alaska, United States (Approx. 64° 50' 16" N, 146° 0' 7" W)
  • Period: Paleo-Indian Period
  • Date Range: circa 12000 BC to 2500 BC


Although numerous excavations have been conducted throughout North America on paleoindian sites, archaeologists are still unsure as to when and how the peopling of the Americas occurred. Various archaeologists have suggested the use of an ice-free corridor which linked Russia to Alaska (2001). Broken Mammoth is an early North American site located in Alaska whose radiocarbon dates have produced evidence for human occupation as early as 12,000 BP (West 1996) with other evidence to suggest an even earlier occupation date. Furthermore, the absence of microblades amongst the lowest layers suggests that these occupants predate microblade technology (West 1996). This site would later be continuously reoccupied until 2,500BP (West 1996) which is made evident by the various tool types and faunal remains found showing a changing of either ideas and or people.

Broken Mammoth may provide more insight into how these peoples were able to survive in such a harsh landscape which can be used to draw patterns with neighbouring sites. Furthermore, archaeologists may be able to better understand the cultures of these early peoples through lithic and architectural discoveries. Lastly, further research may reveal the relationship of these early groups with other indigenous populations throughout North America, as whether these people were simply replaced by others or integrated into different groups remains a mystery. Nonetheless, Broken Mammoth may produce vital information about North America’s earliest peoples and its overall history.

Research History

Broken Mammoth is located near the confluence of Shaw Creek and the Tanana River in east-central Alaska (West 1996). The site was discovered by C.E. Holmes and D. McAllister in 1989 as part of a series of excavations sponsored by the University of Alaska Anchorage with support from the National Geographic Society (Alaska Department of Natural Resources). The majority of the site’s excavation concluded in 1993 with approximately 24% of the site area haven been excavated (West 1996). Named after the copious amounts of mammoth fragments recovered, Broken Mammoth has produced approximately 20,000 items (ca. 10,000 lithics and 10,000 faunal elements) and is one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America (West 1996).


The earliest occupation periods at Broken Mammoth had environments that were similar to lowland tundra with vegetation comprised primarily of shrubs and other low vegetation (Holmes 2001). With the onset of the Younger Dryas (12,900 BP), the landscape became woodland with the growth of spruce and alder trees (Holmes 2001).

The environment was rich in resources with a wide diversity of animals being present. Large ungulates, carnivores, small game, birds and fish remains were all uncovered at Broken Mammoth (West 1996).


The site is made up of a series of Aeolian sediments (sand and loess) overlying a frost-shattered and weathered felsic gneiss bedrock (West 1996)

  • Unit A: Oldest sedimentary unit made up of fine sand that is light brown-grey in colour that is interbedded with silty sand
  • Unit B: Compact Aeolian silt that is pale brown in the upper portion and light yellow-brown in the lower portion
  • Unit C: Very fine sand that is light brown-grey in colour
  • Unit D: Sandy silt that is pale brown in the lower portion, yellow-brown in the middle portion and brown in the upper portion

Site Use, Occupation, and Peoples

An initial interpretation for the purpose of the site was that it was used as a lookout for tracking migratory herds (Yesner 2001) and that Broken Mammoth was a seasonal settlement comprised of small, highly mobile groups who were following migratory animals (Holmes 2001). However, subsequent findings have provided evidence for a wide range of activities occurring here. Site activities included tool manufacturing, butchering, food consumption, small-scale caching and food storage (Yesner 2001) , however no mammoth kill sites have yet to be found, likely because ivory was collected rather than actively hunted for (Holmes 2001). Presently, the only potential kill site within the region is the Erode Away Site in the upper Nenana Valley (Alaska Department of Natural Resources]. This site produced some evidence for biface manufacturing, repair and re-shapring but unfortunately very little faunal material was found (Alaska Department of Natural Resources). What is notable about the Erode Away Site was its location as it was found by chance during a highway construction project (Alaska Department of Natural Resources). Rather than being found on a bluff, as expected of kill sites, it was located along a glacial out wash feature of low topographic relief (Alaska Department of Natural Resources). Perhaps then, the lack of kill sites found may be attributed to archaeologists searching in the wrong areas. Rather than focusing on edge bluffs more work should be conducted along lower leveled areas.

Two distinct lithic traditions have been noted at Broken Mammoth; the Nenana and the Denali complex. The Nenana complex is one of the earliest archaeological occupations in North America (12,000BP) and may be ancestral to Clovis, however no Clovis points have been found at these sites (West 1996). It is most likely that the Denali complex represents a continuum that evolved from Nenana (Dumond 2001). The Denali complex emerged shortly after the Nenana complex and had similar settlement strategies as they both preferred to occupy elevated areas (Vasil’ev 2011) as well as tool kits that only differ with the emergence of microblades and lanceolate points in the Denali tradition (Dumond 2001). Some scholars have argued that they are two distinct cultures as the initial peopling of the Americas occurred in waves of migration resulting in different cultures coexisting during these early occupation periods (Vasil’ev 2011).

Major Finds

Four distinct “Cultural Zones” have been identified at Broken Mammoth each containing distinct assemblages and have been associated with various occupations, whether these belong to the same peoples and their descendants or by different groups is highly debated.

Faunal and Floral Assemblages

Excavations at Broken Mammoth have produced high quantities of organic materials which have helped with the creation of radiocarbon dates as well as the reconstruction of diets.

  • Cultural Zone I (2,000-4,500 BP): Has only yielded a few unidentified burned bone fragments (West 1996)
  • Cultural Zone II (4,500-7,200 BP): The remains of both large and small animals were found and include animals such as; small rodents, ground squirrel, hare, beaver, caribou, moose, bison and unidentified birds (West 1996)
  • Cultural Zone III (7,200-11,000 BP): A wide diversity of faunal remains was uncovered in this zone. Bison, elk, caribou, small rodents, ground squirrel, snowshoe hare, possible otter, swans, geese, ducks and other birds, fish and numerous unidentified burned bone fragments were found (West 1996)
  • Cultural Zone IV (11,000-12,000BP): This zone was comprised of similar faunal assemblages as Zone III but also yielded incredibly high amounts of waterfowl remains. Proboscidean tusk fragments were also uncovered during the initial excavations in 1989 but it is undetermined whether they belonged to Zone III or Zone IV (West 1996). Three ivory fragments were found that dated to approximately 15,800 BP (West 1996). This incredibly early date suggests that the ivory was in fact "fossil ivory" and that it was collected from the landscape rather than actively hunted for (West 1996). However, dates of 12,000 BP were collected from other ivory collagen samples and were close in age to the charcoal samples obtained from the hearths at this layer which strongly suggests that mammoths and humans coexisted (Alaska Department of Natural resources).

While flotation samples were recovered from pollen present in the loess of the various cultural zones, they were all too poorly preserved to be of use for analysis (West 1996).

Lithic Assemblages

Similar to the faunal assemblages, the Cultural Zones at Broken Mammoth also show changes in tool types with the materials that they are made from becoming more diverse in the later zones.

  • Cultural Zone I: Comprised of retouched flakes, end scrapers, side scrapers, point fragments, flake burins, burin spalls, microblades, and small wedge-shaped cores. These lithics are made from a wide variety of materials such as; rhyolite, chalcedony, chert, basalt and obsidian (West 1996).
  • Cultural Zone II: Only a few flakes, fire-broken rocks and hearthstones were recovered (West 1996).
  • Cultural Zone III: Numerous tiny flakes that were primarily made of rhyolite and chert were found along with retouched flakes, large biface fragments, point fragments, hammers and anvils were found (West 1996).
  • Cultural Zone IV: Finished stone tools found included retouched flakes, various scrapers and large quartz choppers were found, however these finished tools were rare finds with more tools being partially finished and made from primarily chert and quartzite (West 1996). No microblades have been produced in this oldest layer leading to some claiming that this site was apart of the Nenana complex (Dumond 2001). Scholars such as Vasil'ev (2001) argue that the lack of microblade technology in this layer is due to small amounts of lithics that were recovered during excavations. Other scholars have claimed that Broken Mammoth did indeed produce microblade-like lithics in this early occupational layer (Dumond 2001), whether or not these lithics represent true microblades remains debated.

Some scholars have argued that the earliest occupational layers shows that these groups had little knowledge of the lithic resources available as the majority of the lithics came from the immediate region (Yesner 2001). This type of behaviour is typical of early colonizers. As these groups became more familiar with the landscape, the use of regional long-distance lithic resources become more prominent which is evident in the later occupations (Yesner 2001). Others have argued that that the widely distributed source of obsidian in Alaska originating from the Batza Téna source suggests that these early peoples must have lived in the region long enough not only to be made aware of its presence but also for it to have become widely distributed, hence suggesting earlier dates than what has originally been documented from radiocarbon dates (Alaska Department of Natural Resources).

Changes in Material Culture

From faunal and lithic assemblages there seems to have been a shift in tool types that corresponds with changing subsistence patterns ([[Ref:YesnerDYPearsonGP-2008 |Yesner and Pearson 2008]]). The earliest occupational layers has been associated with the Nenana complex as it was dominated by the use of tear-dropped bifacial points and unifacial tools and the overall absence of micro blades (Graf and Bigelow 2011). Amongst the later occupation periods, it appears that the Denali complex replaces the Nenana tradition and are characterized by the presence of wedge-shaped microblades, burins, scrapers, and lanceolate bifaces (Dumond 2001). One theory suggests that the changes between tool types was due to human response to climate change as the onset of the Younger Dryas. While the Younger Dryas was marked by a period of global cooling, Alaska experienced a climatic reversal resulting in a period of warming (Graf and Bigelow 2011). This climatic reversal may have been the cause for the shifts in tool types as a human response to changing subsistence patterns. The Younger Dryas was followed by the emergence of microblades and lanceolate bifacial points (Graf and Bigelow 2011). Prior to the Younger Dryas, people survived on a wide variety of fauna, focusing on both large and small game (Graf and Bigelow 2011). However, during the Younger Dryas there seems to have been an increased emphasis on larger game, especially on bison. Therefore, microblades were essential as small bifacial and unslotted points would have made it especially difficult to hunt these animals (Graf and Bigelow 2011). These microblades were primarily used for hunting and were likely inset into slotted bone, ivory or antler in order to increase their piercing potential ([[Ref:YesnerDYPearsonGP-2008 |Yesner and Pearson 2008]]).

General Notes

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