In a time before time

9,500 B.C.

Story by Ned Rozell, illustrations by Phil Raymond

Bird in sky

I wake in early morning to the woofs of a great horned owl. No, two of them, in the hollow to the south. Silhouetted in branches 20 feet away, with those concave eye sockets, they can probably sense my whiskers scratching the sleeping bag’s nylon as I turn to look. I imagine talons reaching for my scalp, but the owls don’t mistake a synthetic orange grub for snowshoe hare.

 

A few hours later, over coffee in his cabin, I tell Dave about the encounter. He appreciates hearing, and telling, a good wildlife story. My 84-year-old friend remarks on my choice of resting spot, about five feet away from what resembles an open grave with a fading pillow of snow inside.

“People have been using that spot for a long time,” he says.

The moss on which I had slept was my second choice; the flattest piece of ground is unavailable, as archaeologists have there troweled a perfect rectangle, three feet deep. Near Dave’s cabin and at his invite, the scientists found sharp chips of rock, the debris of men who sat here thousands of years ago, working tools made of the only material they could find that could pierce a bison’s hide.

Dave’s cabin sits on a rise that most people would not recognize as an ancient sand dune. To the untrained eye — a pair of which belongs to most of us — these central Alaska hills are pleasant mounds of poplar and aspen, where sage crushes sweetly underfoot. Many of the dunes are on south-facing slopes, the heat of which keeps the mosquitoes away; they are as appealing to humans today as they were thousands of years ago.

No one, in more than a century
of searching, had found human remains
that old on the Alaska side
of the land bridge.

Cave mourning

On one of these bumps not far from here, back when this fading winter was first hardening the landscape, archaeologists made the startling discovery of the bones of a 3-year-old child who took his or her last breath 11,500 years ago. The child’s bones endured because the toddler’s parents deserted the house site shortly after. I picture the mother and father collapsing their skin-covered shelter and covering it with loess, the brown flour soil that explodes like baby powder at a footstep. Perhaps taking one last tear-blurred look at the pile, the nomads abandon the site and move on.

The find was remarkable not because it told researchers people had been here — stone tools thousands of years older have turned up in Alaska — but because no one, in more than a century of searching, had found human remains that old on the Alaska side of the land bridge. Bones, though the most enduring of our parts, don’t preserve well, and — unlike blades made of stone — they are food for bugs, bears and everything in between.

Sitting on Dave’s dune, with a view of Quartz Lake and with Mount Hayes shouldering into the blue sky, I wonder what it might have been like to live at the time those heartbroken parents turned their summer home into a funeral pyre.

It might have smelled like this. The sage releasing these clean peppermint vapors was here then. Clinging to sun-baked slopes, this species is one of a few survivors of the time when the broad swath of grasslands known as the land bridge was not yet cleaved by the rising sea. The last great ice age had almost warmed away, and the ice load on the landscape was not much different than it is now. Mount Hayes was still Mount Hayes, its white pyramid a landmark for all who chased food across central Alaska.

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