Expedition to the Yukon

By: F. de L.

Originally Published in 1935

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The following article by Dr. Frederica de Laguna gives an account of the work of the Museum’s recent expeditions to the Yukon.

THIS past summer by aid of grants from the American Philosophical Society and the National Research Council a University Museum expedition was sent to the middle and lower Yukon valley to make an archaeological survey. The party consisted of three besides myself: Dr. A. J. Eardley of the Department of Geology of the University of Michigan, Kenneth Gorton, one of his students, and Norman Reynolds, a student of Anthropology at the University of Washington who had been with me in Alaska on a previous trip. Our object was to explore the archaeological possibilities of the Yukon valley, first for prehistoric Indian sites, second to see if conditions would be favorable for a search for early man. By early man, we mean the ancestors of the people who lived in the Southwest long before the Basket-Makers, chipped the Folsom and Yuma points, and who, we think, migrated to the Southwest at the end of the Ice Age from Bering Strait via the Yukon valley. Before the archaeologist could begin to look for traces of these people in Alaska, the geological history of the country had to be worked out in detail, and the age of the various deposits and terraces of the Yukon determined. This difficult and complicated task was undertaken by Dr. Eardley. While It was too much to hope that we should bring back direct evidence of Ice Age or early recent man in Alaska, we were confident of finding prehistoric Indian sites on the Yukon, since Dr. Hrdlička of the United States National Museum had located a number of promising places during two rapid trips down the river. I was particularly anxious to see what type of culture these sites would yield because I suspected that it might be linked to the prehistoric Eskimo cultures that I had discovered in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet In southwestern Alaska.

Aerial view of Kaiyuh Slough winding through wilderness
Plate IV — The Kaiyuh Slough, tributary to the Yukon
View of an alaskan river
Plate V — An Expedition to the Yukon
The above pictures show the character of the country explored by the Expedition, one of the camp sites and some Indians of the region

After an unusually hectic departure from Seattle, when four out of five lots of equipment went astray and were finally located only five minutes before sailing time, the expedition assembled itself at Nenana. This little town ls located on the banks of the Tanana River, a tributary of the Yukon. The government railway links it with the coast and that world outside, the river with the vast interior of Alaska. Here we set up our first camp beside an abandoned sawmill and built the two 15-foot skiffs that were to carry us down the river. Late in the afternoon of June 19, spotless with fresh white paint, the expedition’s flags bravely waving from the bows, the two little boats began their 1600-miJe voyage, loaded to the gunwales with tents, army cots, bed rolls, stoves, food, gasoline and oil, pots, dishes, water buckets, shovels, cameras, maps, and their four human occupants, for whom space seemed to have been left only by oversight.

Even if I filled all the pages of the Bulletin, there would not be room to write of the wonders of that voyage-the beauty of the river, blazing with sunshine under the blue skies of June; those first long days that offered only a sunset-sunrise as a reminder of the night; the treacherous current whirling us past the somber river banks from which the fallen trees flung out long sweepers across our course; the sandbar onto which I steered my boat and from which it seemed to have no desire to budge; the friendly Indians ready to leave their summer task of drying salmon to tell us a story or suggest where we might find an old village; the smell of putrefaction along the huge cliffs of frozen mud, thawing new for the first time since the Ice Age; the tawny gray river water that made our oatmeal look dirty; the cruel unrelenting mosquitos that swarmed up out of the tundra, burning life fire on our unprotected hands and smearing our notebooks with their blood and ours; the heat of the first half of the summer when we sweltered inside our mosquito-proof clothing and headnets; the rain and cold of the last half, the storm in our faces, the river lashed to white, the bedding damp, all the firewood wet, and meal time long past; striking the tents in the morning, when that one lone space of warmth and comfort in the whole world of wet forest and muddy river had to be destroyed; the wearing changes run on canned corned beef and canned roast beef; the “old” villages that rewarded our hard work with glass beads and iron axes; the hope of around the next bend; the “new” villages that surprised us with stone adzes, slate knives, and bone arrowheads; the last camp; and then at the very end all the beauty and wilderness; the disappointments and triumphs, the hard work and the fun of our eighty days on the river unrolled like a map under the wings that spirited us in half a day from Holy Cross back to our starting place.

View of shelters and a canoe on a river bank
Plate V — An Expedition to the Yukon
The above pictures show the character of the country explored by the Expedition, one of the camp sites and some Indians of the region

When the results of our explorations have been thoroughly studied they will show, we hope, the complicated history of the river that cut its valley long ago, filled it brimming full of frozen gravels and muds during the Ice Age, which it is now carrying out to sea. To look for traces of early man is this region seems to be a hopeless task, for the river has changed its channels so many times that the banks which would have been good camping places for the hypothetical mammoth hunters have long ago been washed away. We only found one terrace where it might be possible to make an intelligent search and here there is no way of telling how much of the original surface has been destroyed. I am afraid that if any early human remains are found it will be by chance.

The more recent archaeology is, however, quite promising. While most of the prehistoric Indian villages are lost, forgotten under the lush forest growth, or destroyed by the undercutting of the banks, we located a number of sites that ought to be thoroughly excavated. Our samplings from them yielded specimens of an Eskimo-like culture, in type half-way between the culture of Kachemak Bay III in Cook Inlet and the modern culture of Bering Strait. In point of time it probably also stands half-way. The sites farthest upstream were certainly Indian, the two sites farthest downstream (near Holy Cross, the present boundary between Eskimo and Indian) were probably Eskimo, but curiously enough, we found no striking change in culture to suggest where the prehistoric boundary between the Eskimo and Indian used to be. Careful excavations in the future might establish such a boundary, but I am inclined to believe that the culture of the prehistoric inhabitants of the Yukon knew no sharp frontier. Today as then, the Indians copy the Eskimo in many ways, the races are mixed, its is really the difference in language and their own tribal consciousness that separates the two peoples.

View of an excavated wall and a shovel
Plate V — An Expedition to the Yukon
The wall of a house excavated by the Expedition in the lower Yukon region
View of a cliffside
Plate V — An Expedition to the Yukon
The above pictures show the character of the country explored by the Expedition, one of the camp sites and some Indians of the region

Our most important single archaeological discovery was finding pottery at the mouth of the Tanana River. Indian pottery has previously been reported from Anvik about forty-five miles above Holy Cross. Our discovery now extends it five hundred mites farther upstream. The Indians et Tanana said that they used to get clay for their pots from a place about forty miles farther up the Yukon. This may mean that all the Yukon Indians below the Kutchin tribes were pottery makers. We also found pottery ninety miles up the Koyukuk, and at Hologochakat on the Innoko River. Reports of the natives indicate that pottery was made on the headwaters of the Nowitna and Innoko Rivers, both tributaries of the Yukon.

The site on the Koyukuk and the other sites on the Yukon below the mouth of the Koyukuk yielded decorated pottery. The decorations are simple patterns of lines and dots. The ranged in size from little saucers used as lamps to big cooking vessels that would hold several galloons. The clay was mixed with sand and hell-diver feathers, kneaded like dough and moistened with grease, then slowly dried beside the fire. It is not an imitation of Eskimo pottery, which is very coarse and black and poorly made, but is much finer in texture, and varies in color from dark gray to red or yellow, depending on the heat at which it was dried.

Several painted masks, some hung on a wall, some on a shelf
Plate V — An Expedition to the Yukon
A group of dance masks collected by the expedition
View looking down a narrow winding river
Plate V — An Expedition to the Yukon
The above pictures show the character of the country explored by the Expedition, one of the camp sites and some Indians of the region
An open tent with a group of people sitting around and inside it
Plate V — An Expedition to the Yukon
The above pictures show the character of the country explored by the Expedition, one of the camp sites and some Indians of the region
A skeleton in a burial in fetal position
Plate V — An Expedition to the Yukon
An Indian Burial

The prehistoric inhabitants of the lower Yukon lived during the winter in semi-subterranean houses, roofed with bark and turf. Of these houses all that is left is a shallow depression in the ground, in which often quite sizable trees are& growing. When excavating one finds the birchbark slabs and beams of the roof, the stakes set along the sides of the pit to retain the earth walls, the pile of ashes marking the fireplace in the middle of the room, and all the junk, animal bones, and artifacts which the former inhabitants lost or left behind them. Among our most interesting finds are bone tools ornamented with typical Eskimo geometric patterns, a bone carving of a mouse, and two scrapers made of caribou scapula on which are scratched crude pictures of a man and several birds. To the best of our knowledge the latter are the first prehistoric examples of realistic Indian art from this region, Under the floor of one house we found a skeleton, wrapped in grass matting and birchbark. This is a new type of burial for the district.

Besides collecting archaeological specimens, we obtained a few ethnological objects, the most interesting of which are a group of dance masks. We also brought back a collection of Indian myths. Another valuable piece of work was mapping the Kaiyuh Slough and Khotol River, along whose labyrinthine channels we located several sites.

Our survey of this country and the sampling of archaeological specimens which we obtained offers, of course little more than a glimpse into the past. Before even one chapter of the prehistory of the lower Yukon can be written these sites must be thoroughly excavated and their contents studied in the light of Alaskan archaeology as a whole.

F. de L.

Cite This Article

L., F. de. "Expedition to the Yukon." Museum Bulletin VI, no. 2 (December, 1935): 50-57. Accessed July 15, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/1705/

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