12,300-Year-Old Bone Pendants May be Oldest Artwork Ever Discovered in Alaska
Carved bone pendants have been found at a prehistoric site in Alaska that may prove to be the very first known examples of artwork in the northern region of North America.
Two pairs of pendants were revealed at the Mead archaeological dig site in the wilderness of the Alaska interior between Fairbanks and Delta Junction. At a recent lecture at the UA Museum of the North, anthropologist Ben Potter from the University of Alaska Fairbanks said of the find, “It made my heart stop when I saw it.”
Detail, prehistoric bone pendants found at the Mead archaeological site in Alaska may be the first examples of artwork in northern North America. Photo credit: Barbara Crass, Shaw Creek Archaeological Research
Potter has lead the Mead site excavations for the past two years in cooperation with local and regional indigenous organizations. The site has been undergoing annual excavations since at least 2009.
A student uncovered the tiny bone pendants while working in what is believed to be the location of a hide-covered hut from 12,300 years ago, reports local news website NewsMiner.
Reportedly the pendants were discovered in 2013, but announcements of the finds were held off by researchers until further exploration was done to ensure other artifacts hadn’t been missed. The team has also recovered stone tools and animal bones dating to between 11,820 and 12,200 years ago. A brown bear jawbone was found with its pointy canine teeth removed, presumably to be included as powerful talismans in other jewelry.
Missing from the Mead site are weapon fragments – suggesting the location was used as a base camp rather than a hunting camp.
- Two infant graves dating back 11,500 years found in Alaska
- Oldest and largest concentration of ancient rock art under threat from Australian Government
- Stone tool unearthed in Oregon may date back 15,800 years or more
The pendants are considered samples of sophisticated craftsmanship of their time.
Carved from bone, two of the pendants look like zipper pulls, and the other two resemble stylized fish or bird tails. There is a delicate cross-hatching design on the outer edges of the pendants. Researchers theorized they might have been toggles, buttons for clothing, earrings or pendants, or ornaments.
Upon their discovery, Potter first tried to pinpoint their use by discern their function, how the pieces might have benefited the Ice Age people, and kept them alive. However, the team would soon reconsider the artifacts to be very early artwork.
Potter said, “Art serves as a way to fix social boundaries. ‘This is our group, not yours.’ These could be a way to communicate. They could be the first evidence we have for social boundary maintenance (in high-latitude North America),” writes NewsMiner.
Excavationists work at the Mead site in Alaska where 12,300-year-old pendants have been found. Credit: Ben Potter
Barbara Crass, director of Shaw Creek Archaeological Research said of the site in 2014, “Outside of a few beads there’s nothing else that age and artistic in the New World or at least North America.”
Potter and colleagues have been excavating Mead and the nearby Upward Sun River site and have uncovered the remains of three ice-age child grave sites, and tent areas.
- Archaeologists Discover Pre-Contact Native Village in Alaska
- Ancient Bronze Artifacts in Alaska Reveals Trade with Asia Before Columbus Arrival
- Ancient Oregon caves may change understanding of human habitation in Americas
Researchers are excited about the finds which push back the dating on artworks in northern North America and reveal Ice-Age Alaskan life and craftsmanship. The discoveries at Mead and other prehistoric sites in the Alaskan interior show that not all camps were exclusively for hunting, and early humans of the region devoted some of their time to creating ornaments of cultural and decorative importance.
Featured Image: Bone pendants, seen right, were found at an archaeological dig site in the Alaskan interior. Credit: Ben Potter
By Liz Leafloor