UW News

August 1, 1996

Archaeologists find stone point that may link North America, Siberia

American and Russian archaeologists have found the first fluted point — a common artifact in North America that is associated with early inhabitants of the New World — on the Russian or Old World side of the Bering Strait.

The discovery of the point, which is slightly smaller than a house key, and other artifacts is reported in the Aug. 2 issue of Science by Maureen King and Sergei Slobodin. King is a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington and a staff archaeologist at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas. Slobodin is an archaeologist working for the department of education in Magadan, Russia.

The artifacts were found on a terrace above the Uptar River about 25 miles north of the Siberian city of Magadan. They may generate more questions than answers because the date of the material is unsettled, according to King. The artifacts were discovered beneath a layer of volcanic ash that dates to 8,300 years before the present. Wood charcoal collected from within and below the ash also provides a date of about 8,300 years.

“Beyond that, a more precise age estimate for the occupation of the site is not available,” said King, who added the tools could be considerably older, perhaps 11,000 to 12,000 years, because they are weathered and abraded.

“This suggests they were exposed to the elements and could have sat on the surface for a considerable time before being covered by the volcanic ash. Exactly how long is unknown,” she explained.

The discovery of the first fluted point in Siberia relates directly to unresolved questions about the colonization of the Americas and Siberia by humans and to the origins of fluting. Fluted points have been found across North America and at several places in South America. The oldest fluted points, the so-called Clovis points, date to about 11,200 years before the present. Until now, no fluted points had been found west of the Bering Strait, which separates Alaska and Siberia.

Most archaeologists believe that fluting — the removal of a flake or flakes that leave a characteristic channel or groove from the base toward the tip of the point on a stone tool — was a North American invention that was created south of the huge sheet of ice that once covered much of the continent.

Archaeologists agree that the earliest inhabitant of the Americas crossed the Bering Land Bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska before rising sea levels submerged it about 11,000 years ago. However, the question of when people first entered the New World is still being debated. Archaeologists also debate whether the distribution of early fluted points marks the initial colonization of the Americas, or the spread of a new technology among even earlier inhabitants.

“If the Uptar fluted point is older than 11,200 years, we may ultimately look at it as a precursor to the technology associated with New World Paleoindians, or the earliest inhabitants of the Americas,” King said. Its presence in Siberia raises questions concerning the spread of fluting technology to the New World. We know that there were many migrations to the New World, but before this discovery it appeared that fluting had not crossed the land bridge in either direction.

“This is the first fluted point from Siberia, compared to thousands from North America. Its discovery suggests that the technology associated with Paleoindians was not confined to the Americas. Finding a fluted point in Siberia will not resolve the debate about the earliest Americans and the origins of fluting, but it should change its character. “The material from Uptar also show greater diversity in the colonization of eastern Siberia than we previously thought. This doesn’t fit into the colonization models of eastern Siberia, regardless if it is dated at less than 9,000 years or at more than 12,000 years,” she added

Artifacts recovered at the Uptar site include:

36 biface or biface fragments — tools with flake scars on two faces. These include the fluted point and 16 points or point fragments shaped like a willow leaf.
Four stone cores from which tools are made.
Seven flake tools, pieces of stone removed from a core showing signs of use.
10 blades or blade fragments which are specialized thin flakes with parallel edges.
Two small stone pendants. One pendant is polished with a hole drilled through it from both sides and incised on the surfaces and edges. The second has a hole partially drilled through it.
King said the Uptar point was discovered in two fragments; the first in the mid 1980s and the second not until 1990 by Slobodin. He wasn’t quite certain what to make of the fragments and eventually stored them with other artifacts in the Uptar collection. King first examined the collection in 1992 when she began field work in Russia.
“I was trying to concentrate on work from other sites and it took me a while to fully grasp the uniqueness of the Uptar materials. Working in North America I had seen a lot of fluted points and had even found one while working in Illinois. The fluted point from Uptar is not the most beautiful fluted point because it lacks the marks of fine workmanship evident in many Clovis points. But when I realized it was a fluted point from Siberia, I was astonished. The implications are immense.”

TO OBTAIN A PHOTOGRAPH OR IMAGE: Black and white prints of the line drawing on page one of this release or a photograph of the Uptar fluted point are available by contacting Joel Schwarz at the UW news office at (206) 543-2580.

For more information contact the UW news office. King returned to Siberia this week to conduct more field work and won’t be back in the U.S. until Sept. 9 at the earliest. She can be reached at the Desert Research Institute after that date at 702-895-0443 or by e-mail at maureen@snsc.dri.edu.