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.
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?
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.