Denbigh Flint Culture

Interpretation of the Denbigh Flint Culture comes from archaeological sites widely scattered in northwest Alaska. The Denbigh Flint complex is the earliest manifestation of the Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt) in the western North American Arctic. The ASTt is most likely to have spread from Alaska across Canada and Greenland about 4000 years ago.

Early ASTt variants differ across their wide range from Alaska to Greenland. In Alaska, the Denbigh Flint complex appears to be the precursor to several subsequent archaeological cultures, whose relationships are not yet clear: Choris, Norton, and Ipiutak phases and an overall Norton tradition. In the east, however, significant differences appear very early in the archaeological sequence of ASTt variants; archaeologists call these variants Independence I and Pre-Dorset cultures. So much territory remains to be explored archaeologically, however, that relationships between eastern and western variants, the age of all the remains, and their interpretation may well change with further research.

The Denbigh Flint Culture takes its name from Cape Denbigh, on Norton Sound, Alaska, where J. Louis Giddings first identified it at the type site, Iyatayet, between 1948 and 1952. At Iyatayet,

Giddings and his colleagues found an assemblage dominated by very finely made small stone tools. Giddings found the closest stylistic connections for these tools in the European Aurignacian assemblages. The tool kit includes numerous microblades, burins, and burin spalls, many of them reworked to serve as very fine engraving tools, microblade cores, flake knives, and larger knife blades; a relatively small number of triangular blades that may have served to tip harpoon heads; and numerous bifacially chipped side-blades and endblades, most pointed at both ends. Only a charred seal bone was recovered, all organic implements having decomposed.

These lithics came from what appeared to be a temporary campsite; while there were fire-cracked pebbles and a tiny bit of charred seal bone, there was no evidence of any sustained occupation, such as an excavation for a dwelling or stone siding for a hearth, or flooring.

The earliest date for Denbigh finds is at Kuzitrin Lake, on Alaska's Seward Peninsula, and may be as early as 5500 years ago. At the deep, stratified site of Onion Portage on the Kobuk River, a proto-Denbigh layer clearly underlay the classic Denbigh remains, but is dated only to about 4000 years ago. On the basis of his excavations at Kuzitrin Lake, Harritt questions the interpretation of "proto-Denbigh" as an antecedent to classic Denbigh remains.

As Giddings wrote in his 1964 monograph, "we learn almost as much (about the Denbigh Flint Culture) from the things lacking in their site as from those collected and observed" (1964: 239). The extensive Denbigh lithic remains and the pattern of their site locations show us temporary campsites for both caribou hunting and sealing. We know that skin clothing and bone implements were as essential as meat, but the original Denbigh complex lacked needles, awls, and all but the smallest stone scrapers. The ubiquitous microblades must have served all of the cutting and thinning purposes for which later Arctic groups developed specialized knives such as ulus. No drills were evident; burins must have been used to groove, gouge, and perforate softer materials. We suspect that Denbigh people must have been quite capable of hunting seals from ice and perhaps from boats, but there is very little evidence for breathing-hole sealing or boats. Likewise, despite the tundra distances traveled, there is next to no evidence for dog traction. Yet, these people, and their relatives, descendants, or peers in the ASTt, were the first to occupy all of the North American Arctic and northern shore of Greenland.

After Giddings's discoveries at Iyatayet, other Arctic archaeologists found Denbigh complex assemblages across northern Alaska and in Yukon, although not all artifact types from Iyatayet occur in the sites farther east. Initially, Giddings believed that the people who made the Denbigh flint tools may have migrated across the North American Arctic, but later he wrote: "While it is possible that the Denbigh people themselves moved, their mastery of both the interior and the coast suggest instead that their flint forms, rather than they, drifted across the Arctic..." (1973: 276). Thus, the Denbigh Flint complex has come to be grouped with other variants under the more encompassing label of ASTt.

The culture of the Denbigh Flint people was highly adapted to hunting on the coast and farther inland on the tundra, especially along streams. Fishing was also important. Most remains come from temporary campsites, some with an artifact distribution that indicates a small tent space. At four locations, however, more permanent dwellings have been located. All of these are well away from the coast and appear to be the remains of habitations used in winter. At the Onion Portage site, the classic Denbigh artifact assemblage was found in roundhouse remains that had central hearths lined with stone. These were excavated into the sod-covered ground, making them warmer in winter than surface structures or tents. Elsewhere, on the Bering Sea side of the Alaska Peninsula and at Howard Pass in the Brooks Range, house remains holding Denbigh artifacts are square, with a central hearth sometimes lined with stone slabs placed vertically. These house remains also have entryways that slope into the houses—excavated at least through the sod and up to 50 cm in depth, with tunnellike entrance passageways.

We do not yet understand the origins of the Denbigh Flint Culture, nor the broader ASTt of which Denbigh is a part. Its earliest remains in northwest Alaska are those of a fully developed cultural complex. Clearly, these people were skilled at exploiting caribou on the tundra and, perhaps to a lesser extent, seal on the coast. While they did not use marine oil lamps, they were comfortable enough on the Arctic tundra with twig and driftwood fires in efficiently adapted winter homes. When they first became evident in the archaeological record, Denbigh people appeared to be moving into lands not occupied at the time of their arrival. Only on the Alaska Peninsula do their remains appear to replace those of the Northern Archaic tradition peoples, who may have then withdrawn from the coast for life in the interior forest. Archaeologists currently think that the formative stages of the Denbigh Flint complex and the ASTt as a whole must have taken place in northeast Asia.

Ellen Bielawski

See also Arctic Small Tool Tradition; Giddings, Louis; Iyatayet

Further Reading

Ackerman, Robert E., "Prehistory of the Asian Eskimo Zone." In Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution, 1984, pp. 106-118 Anderson, Douglas D., "Prehistory of North Alaska." In Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution, 1984, pp. 80-93

-, "Onion Portage: the archaeology of a stratified site from the Kobuk River, northwest Alaska." Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, 22(1-2) (1988)

-, The Eskimos and Aleuts, London: Thames and

Hudson, 1987

Dumond, D., "Prehistory of the Bering Sea Region." In Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution, 1984, pp. 94-105

-, "Prehistory: Summary." In Handbook of North

American Indians, Volume 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution, 1984, pp. 72-79 Giddings, J.L., The Archaeology of Cape Denbigh, Providence, Rhode Island, Brown University Press, 1964

-, Ancient Men of the Arctic, New York: Knopf, 1973

Harriatt, Roger K., "Paleo-eskimo beginnings in North America: a new discovery at Kuzitrin Lake, Alaska." In Etudes/Inuit/Studies (1998), 22(1) Schaaf, Jeanne, "Seward Peninsula Prehistoric Lifeways." In Prehistoric Alaska, edited by Penny Rennick, Anchorage: Alaska Geographic Society 21(4) (1994): pp. 82-85

-, "Seward peninsula prehistoric lifeways." In Prehistoric

Alaska, edited by Penny Rennick, Anchorage: Alaska Geographic Society 21(4) (1994): 82-85

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