ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Before.... Nothing but Ice

Introducing a series of Ancient Maps

by Bill Jones

To Features & Maps by Bill Jones

    The breadth and depth of the subject, "Life before the Ice Age", is so immense that few authors will attack it. Only a few college curriculums venture beyond a re-cap of existing theories.

    But human life did not begin after the ice age, even in the Americas. The ice cap did not extend much further south than Tennessee. A warm and comfortable climate existed from the edge of the ice cap southward to include Central and South America. Human artifacts found in these southern regions are as old or older than any found in the Yukon-Nenana Region.

    Consider the continental divide across western Canada as a gigantic dam holding a lake of ice. The ice lake was some 7000 feet in depth and it extended thousands of miles across. Its eastern edge was the Atlantic Ocean. The southern edge of the ice lake formed a curve that extended to present day Tennessee. The entire surface of Canada, except for a small area below the dam (west of the continental divide) was covered by ice.

    The dam was a double one. It contained the ice cap to the east, and it contained life to the west. To the north, the Continental divide circles westward around the Arctic coast of Alaska to close the Yukon-Nenana behind the ice cap. Along the coastal areas of both Canada and Alaska were barrier mountains and interior glaciers that further strengthened the dam of the continental divide. Human and animal life were trapped behind these barriers just as surely as water behind a dam.

    A diverse arboretum of animals and humans lived westward behind the dam, in the Porcupine, Chandalar, Yukon, and Tanana River valleys. These valleys were rich habitats for animals and humans. Modern geologists have named this life-sustaining zone the Yukon-Nenana Geology Region.

    This map series depicts a time line of 20,000 BP and before. Some modern features and places have been added for orientation. Maps are mostly produced for navigation. These are done to depict culture and habitat. The features depicted are overlays placed upon accurate geographic grids.

    There are no easily-available maps today that give the locations of abandoned villages. Several books that are no longer in print place some of the villages. Some are placed where oral histories describe their existence. Particular troubling for my research was the practice of most explorers, missionaries, and miners, of re-naming existing villages to English or Russian names, presumably because the native names were difficult to enunciate and write in English or Russian. Most of these wrong names stuck and the actual names vanished from all literature and all maps. For example, Tanana, 120 miles down river from Fairbanks, was renamed. Its ancient name was Nuchalawoya. Fort Yukon was named that by The Hudson Bay Company. Its ancient name was Gwichyaa Zhee. The Rev Albert Tritt, a Gwich'in lay minister, renamed the ancient village of Vashraii K'oo to Arctic Village, etc.

    Also depicted in the maps are the caribou which has been the principal life support animal for the inhabitants of the Yukon Nenana region since man existed there. The principle predator species were as today - bears, wolf, wolverine, lynx, martin and fox. There were many hoofed food animals there, including, moose, bison, muskox, a dying specie of shaggy mammoth, and the lowly arctic hare. Many other species of animals that had once lived in the Yukon-Nenana had become extinct. Artifacts of many short-haired animals tell of a period when the climate there was temperate or semi tropic. The ice age then was an aberration of inconvenience. It came so gradually that only the elders could tell that "It is colder now than when I was a boy." Gradually, the existing cultures retreated from the creeping ice pack into the Yukon-Nenana. And then they were locked in the Yukon Nenana for several thousand years.

    For many millennia during the ice age there was balance between the human and animal species, a natural balance, in that when the caribou herd diminished, so did the human population. Sometimes a famine began by an incipient infection of the arctic hare, the lowest animal of the food chain. Wolves and other predators depended largely upon the hare for their food source. When the hare population diminished the predators turned their hunting efforts to the caribou, thus diminishing the herd. The human population would then suffer famine and low birth-to-death rates until the animal population returned to balance. This balance continued until the ice retreated and released the people and animals from their confinement. Both animals and people were then freed to expand into newly opened lands.

    The first expansion seems to have been within the interior of Alaska, up the Tanana River and also down the Yukon River. During the same period an expansion took place from Old Crow southward along the receding glaciers that had spilled over the continental divide. These expansions extended the Yukon-Nenana region, but did not open the ice barrier that isolated the Yukon-Nenana from the rest of the continent.

    Then, over several millennia, the so-called dam began to give way as glaciers receded back from the continental divide. Both people and animals crossed the continental divide near Eagle Plains in the Yukon Territory. The Mackenzie River had formed from glacial melt. Eventually a gap opened along the eastern edge of the continental divide to allow animals and humans to expand southward and laterally into the river valleys formed by the glaciers. Their populations would also expand, by the opening of new habitats. Simultaneously, a gap opened in the low mountains to the south of Whitehorse. And within Alaska, there were passes opening between the Alaska Range and the coastal mountains to Cook Inlet.

    Eventually, paths opened along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains to allow the Athabascans to reach the central continent, likely Montana first. Along the way west-central Canada became a lateral migration zone as the ice cap gradually receded.

    Picture if you will, the ice age Athabascans, already a cultured people, accustomed to a communal life style, the young of the growing families settling a few miles east of their home. Then the young family would grow and subside well there. Later, the young of a new generation would find the habitat richer a few miles further south and east, and a new village would form there. The migration must have been so gradual that several generations would still be able to walk a few days to visit their grandparents.

    There was no stampede to leave home habitats. Actually a strong human instinct is to remain for a lifetime in familiar home lands. New villages would form around a good fishing stream in a lush valley. Over perhaps 200 years, a group of four or five new villages may have formed. Following traditional spacing the villages would be about 20 to 30 mile apart. Then eventually, as the expansion broadened, a sub-culture would develop. Nuances of the language would undergo changes. Such a slow, un-planned, stepping stone expansion of people must have occurred during a time of perhaps 6-10,000 years. The Athabascan people did not evacuate the Yukon-Nenana. New generations just expanded from it as the population increased and opportunity came. As distance increased from the Yukon Nenana, more changes occurred to the language used. New cultures formed that were different from the old. Yet it seems that the basics of Athabascan Spiritual culture remained intact.

Map of the territory of the Koyukon and neighboring people in Alaska
The Koyukon and neighboring people in Alaska.
Click the map to enlarge it greatly (403 Kb).

To Features & Maps by Bill Jones

To more Maps of the North

Maps and text are © 1994-2016 by Bill Jones, and are used here with permission.