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On Your Knees Cave
April is Alaska Archeology Month


April 11, 2005

Prince of Wales Island - Since its discovery in 1993 during planning for a proposed timber sale, the paleontological and archaeological site called On Your Knees Cave has yielded a wealth of information about the ecology and early human occupation of southeast Alaska.

jpg Dr. Heaton & Dr. Dixon

Dr. Heaton and Dr. Dixon take a break outside the entrance to On Your Knees Cave.Dr. Timothy Heaton (left, shown with Dr. Dixon) and his partner Fred Grady described the first discoveries at On Your Knees cave.

Those discoveries included the bones of black and brown bear dated to over 40,000 years ago as well as lemming, heather vole, marmot, ringed seal and other species that no longer live on Prince of Wales Island.

This innocuous little cave, 500 feet above modern sea level gave us clues of the environment from before, during, and after the last Ice Age and told us that these islands were not completely covered by ice at the last glacial maximum as scientists had long believed.

In 1996, as Heaton and crew continued their excavation, they discovered evidence of human use of the cave. The first cultural materials unearthed were portions of a human skeleton: a mandible, vertebra, and pelvis fragment along with three tools. These materials were radiocarbon dated to 9,200 years before present, the equivalent of 10,300 calendar years ago, the oldest human bones known from Canada or Alaska.

During the following five seasons of archaeological excavation, Dr. E. James Dixon and crew concentrated on the deeply buried residue of an ancient camp site, also dated to 10,300 years ago. In the ash- and charcoal-rich layer, early users of the cave had discarded hundreds of stone flakes and microblades, the byproducts of stone tool making. Click on the photo of the microblades at the right to see a diagram showing how they were most likely used, inserted into grooves formed in bone and ivory tools. A click on the stone projectile points at the left will show them actual size.

jpg stone projectile points

Stone projectile points recovered from On Your Knees Cave excavations.

From the bones and artifacts, Dixon and crew pieced together a picture of an early maritime people, living on a diet rich in seafood, foraging across the open sea for stone and food resources.

From the study of the ancient past at this small Alaskan cave have come not only insights into the very early human history of the Pacific Northwest, but also a new understanding of the lifeways of these early people, their deep connection with the sea and a maritime way of life.


Story and photographs courtesy U.S.F.S. - Tongass National Forest.


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