Gateway to the Americas

Underwater Archaeology

James Dixon, anthropologist and Director of the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, is leading a month-long field effort in southeast Alaska. In addition to continuing work on ancient ice patches, his team of five is exploring submerged archaeological sites on the continental shelf with recent funding from the NSF, sites that may yield information that shakes up widely accepted theories of how people came to populate North America.

The team of five will survey offshore near On Your Knees Cave, Suemez Island, and Kosciusko Island in the Tongass National Forest of the Alaskan Panhandle. They will use remotely operated vehicles, multibeam sonar, grab sampling and hydraulic screening methods to search for sites located in target areas determined by their geological and glaciological histories.

Since 1997 Dixon has worked with Timothy Heaton (University of South Dakota) who found animal bear, lemming, marmot, voles, and seal bones in 1994 at On Your Knees Cave, an isolated cave located about a mile and a half from the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island about 500 feet above sea level. In 1996, Heaton found human remains dated at more than 9,800 years old – the oldest ever found in Canada or Alaska. The two archaeologists have been excavating at the site ever since, discovering more human remains and tools. Continued archaeological, paleontological, DNA, and sedimentological studies detailed the local glacial history and showed that the cave has been accessible for the last 50,000 years.


Map showing Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska. Map: Timothy Heaton

Tlingit and Haida oral traditions, and recent artifact discoveries made by local fishermen suggest that similar archaeological sites dating to more than 14,000 years old may lie submerged offshore. Dixon postulates that humans may have migrated to southeast Alaska during the last Ice Age, when sea level was much lower and Alaska’s continental shelf was exposed. When the glaciers melted, sea level rose rapidly and submerged the coast.

Dixon, who usually finds artifacts peeking out of Alaskan glaciers and ice patches, is working with UNM graduate student, Kelly Monteleone, and scientists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology specializing in high-latitude archaeological recoveries.

If found, the submerged sites could be the oldest in North America, and have important implications for theories explaining how people first entered the Americas. Maybe they didn’t first come over the Bering land bridge after all. . . .

Stay tuned for updates on this intriguing study.--Marcy Davis