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HomeScienceBig Game to Fishing: How Native Populations Survived the Younger Dryas

Big Game to Fishing: How Native Populations Survived the Younger Dryas


Med articulated vertebrae burbot. Credit: Ben Potter

Research led by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks investigated the freshwater fishing practices of ancient Native Americans. In the paper, “Freshwater and exotic fishing in Pleistocene Beringia,” published in Science advancesAnthropologists have detailed analyzes of animal traces and biomolecules of fish remains from several archaeological sites in eastern Beringia, a region of western Alaska.

The team sifted through all known sites over 7,000 years old for fish reports. Ten sites have been identified, all from the Central Tanana Basin, where the Tanana River passes before connecting to the larger Yukon River. Eight sites have material available for study, seven of which date back to the youngest Dryas ~11,650 to 12,900 years ago.

1,110 fish specimens were identified, all of the species Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish). Of these, 627 (56%) could be identified at a taxonomic level. Identified fish included salmon (34%), burbot (58%), whitefish (7%), and northern pike (all of these fish are still caught today in Tanana and northern North America. The authors note the absence of grayling, char, and suckers long-nosed, despite those fish that currently live in the river.It is also interesting that all the fish identified 11,800 years ago are freshwater fish, which may indicate a link to environmental climate change associated with the Younger Dryas event.

The Younger Dryas is a climate-driven extinction event. The planet was leaving a long ice age, continental glaciers had receded, and humans and megafauna were expanding into new territories. Then, suddenly, a climate shift prompted the Ice Age in the northern hemisphere.

The indigenous population survived the smallest drias by switching from large hunting to hunting

Mead dig. Credit: Ben Potter

When it was over, most of the large mammals of the Americas were gone. Horses, camels, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, short-faced bears, and woolly mammoths are all extinct. There has also been a dramatic decline in millions of bison, deer, caribou, and moose, all of which are frequently hunted by the vanished mega-predators.

Too many large animals disappeared so quickly across the North American continent that they fell into the hands of human hunters. The Clovis culture, the most technologically advanced big game hunters on the planet, had largely abandoned big game hunting gear at this time.

Fishing intensity appears in the Tanana River Basin during the “Young Dryas” period, and then diminishes as quickly as it appears. While the practice of hunting eventually becomes an essential part of indigenous subsistence, evidence in the study suggests that the shift to hunting was a response to the disappearance of big game from the landscape, illustrating the ability of humans to adapt to the environment.

The indigenous population survived the smallest drias by switching from large hunting to hunting

USR dig. Credit: Ben Potter

The current study shows evidence that ancient Bering Aborigines increased their dependence on hunting during the Younger Dryas time frame.

What is not part of the study is the mystery of another survivor of Dryas the Younger – the brown bears. While many large predatory mammals were becoming extinct, including the massive short-faced bear known for hunting large prey, brown bears survived. Like humans, these bears were more adaptable eaters and, perhaps more importantly in light of this study, good at hunting.

more information:
Ben A. Potter et al., Freshwater and marine fishing in Pleistocene Beringia, Science advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adg6802

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the quote: Indigenous people survived smaller Dryas by switching from large game to hunting fish (2023, June 6) Retrieved June 6, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-06-native-populations-survived-younger -dryas. html

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