The First People

The first people in Yukon migrated from Asia near the end of the Ice Age. Although considerable debate still occurs amongst scientists about when the first people arrived in North America, current scientific conscensus places their arrival around 15,000 years ago. Several lines of evidence have helped scientists reach this conclusion.

Bluefish Caves exhibit at YBIC.
Bluefish Caves exhibit at YBIC.

Some of the best sources of evidence are the similarities in DNA and blood types of aboriginal people across the Americas and people in Asia. Genetic evidence from a 24,000 year old burial at the Mal’ta archaeological site in central Siberia indicate that people from Europe spread eastward into Asia, mixing with local populations and eventually crossing the Bering Land Bridge. Ancient DNA from a 13,000 year old human burial of the Clovis culture in Montana confirms that these early peoples, and later North American First Nations peoples, are both descended from these early peoples of Siberia. Even tens of thousands of years later, there are still some similarities in the aboriginal languages of Siberia and people  living in Yukon today.

The earliest evidence of people in the Arctic region dates to around 35,000 years ago at the Yana River Site in northern Siberia during a relatively warm period of the Ice Age. This site contains a wealth of bone and stone artifacts, including an awl, or punch, used to make clothes.

The development of technologies to make warm clothes and adequate shelters was essential to enable humans to inhabit the Arctic and eventually make the journey to Yukon. Evidence of burnt bone used for ancient camp fires indicates one of the ways that people found to survive in the harsh, treeless landscape. Small groups of people slowly made their way across Eurasia into Beringia and North America around 15,000 years ago. Remarkably, people found their way to the most southerly tip of South America within only a few hundred years of this.

By the end of the Ice Age there were few places left in the New World that were not yet discovered by descendants of these first people that crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia.

Yukon’s Ice Age Human History

Microblade core found in the Bluefish Caves.
Microblade core found in the
Bluefish Caves.

The Yukon has only a handful of prehistoric archaeological sites that provide glimpses into the lives of ice age people. One of the most famous is the Bluefish Caves, about 30 kilometres southwest of Old Crow. The tiny caves on a high bedrock ridge were discovered in the 1970s and excavations continued there until the 1990s. The Bluefish Caves contain one of the most important records of ice age mammal communities in Beringia. Stone tools recovered alongside fossil bones were left behind by a small group of people around 14,000 years ago.

Other glimpses of possibly more ancient people can also be found at the caves. Some fossil bones dating as old as 25,000 years ago show marks which suggest that they were butchered by humans. However, many archaeologists contest those findings and suggest that the fractured bones were the work of large prehistoric carnivores and other natural means, not people.

The Little John Site along the Alaska Highway, near Beaver Creek, is another prehistoric camp site dating back roughly 14,000 years. A variety of stone tools, including distinctive “Chindadn” spear points have been excavated from the oldest sediments at Little John. The butchered remains of ice age steppe bison, caribou and elk are found alongside bones of wolf, hare and swans. This site seems to be related to a number of other late ice age camps in the interior of Alaska along the Tanana River valley. Bones or skeletons of these first people, however, have never been discovered in Yukon.

Life-sized diorama of the Bluefish Caves on display at YBIC.
Life-sized diorama of the Bluefish Caves on display at YBIC.

With the end of the Ice Age and its associated impacts on ecosystems and mammals, prehistoric cultures underwent radical change. People in Yukon had to learn to live in the newly established boreal forest. Technologies to inhabit the forest were developed and a more broad based way of life with fishing and hunting smaller game emerged. In many ways, life actually became more difficult because the steppe tundra of the late Ice Age was more productive with a greater diversity and abundance of game than was the boreal forest.

Ancestors of Yukon’s First Nations likely arrived early in the Holocene in a subsequent migration out of Northeast Asia. They are part of what is known as the Dene or Athapaskan language speakers of Alaska and Yukon. Throughout the ensuing 10,000 years these early Yukoners colonized the entire territory and developed lifestyles and cultures dependent on an evolving resource base. Bison, caribou, salmon and moose were all critical food sources at different points in time and all contributed to the diverse and vibrant cultures of Yukon First Nations today.