What You Didn't Know About Katmai National Park: Its Rich Archaeological History

Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska is world-renowned for its brown bears that while away their days fishing in the Brooks River. But the park also has a rich archaeological history, one that shows human life there dating back at least 4,500 years.

In a recent blog post on the park's website, Kathryn Myers points out that the Brooks River area is a National Historic Landmark and an Archeological District consisting of 20 different prehistoric sites. During the 2002-2003 field season National Park Service archaeologists working with the Council of Katmai Descendants partially excavated one of the sites to learn what they could about that prehistory before the site was lost to erosion.

Alternate Text
Archeologists excavating the floor of the third house at the Cutbank site. NPS photo.

The so-called "Cutbank site" is one of the largest archaeological sites in the Brooks River area. According to archaeologists, dozens of houses once stood there. A decade ago, the remains of the houses were little more than depressions in the ground, which the river was steadily eroding. Digs were started then to recover what artifacts and insights into the past could be obtained before erosion claimed the site.

"Some of the artifacts found during this excavation were delicately designed incised pebbles," Ms. Myers noted in her post.

Thirty-eight incised pebbles were found during excavation—34 of which were from one feature. All of these local indurated sedimentary pebbles have stylized intricate anthropomorphic designs incised onto them. While all of the designs are of a similar style, no two pebbles are exactly the same. While it is impossible to postulate what design elements such as arcs, clusters, lines, dots, triangles, diagonals, and tree-like patterns might mean, archeologists have suggested that they could represent facial features such as eyebrows, eyes, or mouths or clothing and personal adornment such as headgear, necklaces, or jewelry. It is also possible these designs are not anthropomorphic at all but rather part of a counting or tallying system; or perhaps they represent mythical or magical creatures. Along the same lines, the function of these pebbles is impossible to determine. They do not appear to be tools, so perhaps they were either of a ceremonial function or game pieces.

What is very interesting is that hundreds of these artifacts have been recovered from Kodiak Island in various sites, and similar pebbles have been excavated in Aniakchak National Monument. While the designs of the Kodiak and Aniakchak pebbles have different elements in them, they are similar, suggesting a similar function. Generally, the Kodiak and Aniakchak incised pebbles date to the Koniag period (AD 1300-1500).

These similarities suggest a past connection between the people at Brooks River, Kodiak, and Aniakchak: Could the people of Brooks River be from Kodiak? Could the designs have been inspired by meetings between the Brooks villagers and those from Kodiak or Aniakchak? If so, did they meet frequently? Rarely? Were the meetings friendly?

Alternate Text
Archaeologists have been working to decipher these etchings. NPS graphic.

The archaeological work at the Cutback site also determined that large houses probably were used by family groups, and that the society was similar to one living at the same general time on Kodiak Island more than 150 miles to the east.

Additionally, the etched pebbles found at the site were similar to etched pebbles commonly found on Kodiak Island, something the archaeologists say suggests "a past connection" between the two groups.

Comments

Three very interesting stories this morning, Kurt. This one in particular. I've known a number of folks to whom visiting Katmai NM was important but I've never heard an interest in archaeology expressed. The archaeology adds an entirely new element of interest to the site. I hope some interpretation is available.

Great story on the cannons at Saratoga as well. I often inquire which are original and which are reproductions but Jim is right in that their presence adds so much to the site.

The National POW museum at Andersonville doesn't get enough attention. I had two probable relatives involved in the SS Sultana disaster. One survived, one did not so my interest in Andersonville is somewhat personal.

I appreciate that none of these stories contain the seeds of political discussion that drive so many of the comments here. These are the stories I come to the Traveler for. Thanks.

Ditto.

MikeG: the archaeology of Katmai at the Brooks River IS interesting, and National Park Service archaeologists for years have been aware of it. Although there is some interpretation, there could be more, because when the archaelogists talk about the site they compare it to places like Onion Portage and Cape Krusenstern. That is because, like those sites, people have been coming to this exact spot for thousands of years.

The reason is the Brooks River that connects the Naknek Lake with Brooks Lake.. Salmon for thousands of years have been pouring int the lakes and streams of Katmai. As they come upstream to the enormous Naknek Lake the salmon then have to get through the very small (1 mile) and narrow Brooks River to get up to Brooks Lake.

And that means that all those fish have to churn through that very narrow shoot. Food can be hard to find in Alaska, and the bears and people have known for thousands of years that this is the place to come for food. As time passes, as the eras pass, the evidence of every cultural period of Alaska is piled one above or next to another.

During periods of high water when the river was submerged and the two lakes met, there are big changes in the survival strategies, because no longer does the fish runway exist. An archaeologist who has found hundreds of archaelogical sites in Alaska told me once that discovering sites was not as hard as i though. He said, just think about surviving in the Arctic or subArctic, and go where you think they would go. A place to watch or scout. A place to hunt or fish. A place of shelter. For me, easier said than done. While I was looking around for evidence of a site, this archaelogist would just casually lean over and pick up one arrowhead or stone scraper after the other. I don't think he realized that what was second nature for him was impossible for me and others.

But Brooks Camp is one such obvious site.

Very interesting. Thanks for rounding out the story, d-2 (and for other recent posts).

Thanks again, d-2. Fascinating how seemingly small things in an environment affect so much of everything else in the neighborhood --or indeed, the world.

Now, how do we get other people to understand that?

To me, that is the real reason why interpretation is so vital in our parks. If we make no effort to educate the next generations, we're gonna lose it all.

Very informative posts. Lee, I agree that the educational efforts made in our parks by the interpretive personnel are of the utmost importance. We cannot thank these educational and scientific employees enough.