A Shared History: The Discovery and Research of Ancient Human Remains in the Tongass National Forest, Alaska

An Interview with Terence E. Fifield, Former Archaeologist and Tribal Liaison, US Forest Service

On July 4, 1996, Dr. Timothy Heaton, a paleontologist from the University of South Dakota, was completing a two-week excavation in a small, dark cave on Protection Head, a remote location on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. The site, named On Your Knees Cave due to its low ceiling and tight crawl space, had yielded fragments of bear bones four years earlier during a karst vulnerability survey, a survey of sinkholes, springs and caves for a planned timber sale.

On July 4, 1996, Dr. Timothy Heaton, a paleontologist from the University of South Dakota, was completing a two-week excavation in a small, dark cave on Protection Head, a remote location on the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. The site, named On Your Knees Cave due to its low ceiling and tight crawl space, had yielded fragments of bear bones four years earlier during a karst vulnerability survey, a survey of sinkholes, springs and caves for a planned timber sale. The bones were an intriguing find as they were subsequently carbon dated at approximately 35,000 to 41,000 years old, a timeframe prior to the end of the last glacial period when no brown bears were known to exist in the region. In an effort to reconstruct the coastal ecosystem of that late Pleistocene epoch going forward, Heaton returned subsequent years with paleobiologist Frederick Grady of the Smithsonian to recover the remains of other mammals, including seal, vole, fox and marmot. On that day in July, he was working in a wet corner of the “bear” chamber, at a depth below previous excavations, when he came across a human mandible, two loose human teeth, a few ribs, a fragment of a pelvis and a tool created of bone.

It was a remarkable find. Recognizing its cultural and potential historical significance, and his responsibilities under the newly implemented Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), Heaton ceased work on the excavation and put out a radio message to Tongass National Forest archaeologist Terry Fifield in Craig, 75 miles to the south, urging him “to visit the site ASAP.” Fifield hijacked a Forest Service contract helicopter the next day, flew into the rocky shore of Protection Head and hiked to the cave to take photos, inspect the site firsthand and take possession of the cultural materials, as required by NAGPRA. Fifield, an experienced liaison between the Forest Service and the Tlingit and Haida Native groups of the area, began that evening to contact the sovereign tribal governments that would be affected by the discovery of a possible ancestor, starting in motion a government-to-government consultation process that was to define the research and analysis to follow. The close working relationship that developed between the Forest Service, the scientists and the tribes is as important to this story as the skeleton to humankind.

Fifield was first exposed to living Native American culture during four summers (1985-1988) spent working in Alaska for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act: Historic and Cemetery Sites Program (BIA ANCSA). A hard science major in geology as an undergraduate and an anthropology major in graduate school, he came to the program as a “Euro-American archaeologist, educated to be a scientist and to apply the scientific method in the interpretation of archaeological sites and material culture patterns.” He tended to see “historic and archaeological sites, features and artifacts as data—impersonal, sterile, empirically quantifiable.” The program, designed to evaluate claims for the transfer of land from federal management areas (National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks and National Forests) in the state to Alaska Regional Native Corporations, involved interviewing Alaskan Native elders in local communities about their knowledge of the places and their personal connections. “If possible,” Fifield says, “we would transport the elder to a site or cemetery and walk through the place recording our interviews and jotting notes on the archaeological maps we had constructed a day or two earlier.”

Often they were working on sites less than 100 years old, village sites and fishing camps, where living elders had spent time as children. Informed by the elder’s knowledge of the place and memories of people who lived there, the standard descriptive archaeological report they would have otherwise written became a much more human story. They could connect the place to real people, their descendants and the history of the region.

“Visiting the sites with the elders, I heard the emotions in their voices as they told stories about childhood events. I heard two brothers laugh for an hour as they revisited childhood memories. I watched an old man break down in tears, remembering the loss of his twin daughters, as we stood by the grave and grave markers he had carved by hand many years ago.” Alaska Native people seeking to regain ownership of these places “had little interest in their scientific values, in their research potential. These are places they once called home, places where family members are buried, or where ancestral memories reside.” Even in older sites, Fifield says, “traditional oral histories often connect people to the spots on the landscape.”

For Fifield, it was “an eye-opener, a professional-perspective-changing insight, that indigenous people had traditional connections to and understandings of places on the landscape, which their culture associated with their history, world view, religion or mythology.” As important as science remains to him and his understanding of the world, he “learned to believe that there are non-scientific value systems that can be applied to historic places and that it is possible to apply the scientific method through many cultural lenses.”

Later, in 1994, when Fifield, now the archaeologist/tribal liaison in Tongass, and David Putman, an environmental scientist at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, excavated a 6,000-year-old spruce root basket on Prince of Wales Island, Fifield knew immediately that he needed to talk with local Native weavers and leaders before sending the basket off island to the museum. And in 1996, when human remains and artifacts were discovered in On Your Knees Cave, he understood that “Alaska Native people would probably consider him an ancestor. It felt natural to proceed with that mindset, rather than to demand proof before assuming descendancy.” With a lack of scientific certainty, Fifield says, they proceeded as if there was a cultural connection. “I felt it as making a cautious assumption. Ten years later the assumption proved valid.” 

At the time of the discovery in On Your Knees Cave, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 was new. Under NAGPRA, federal agencies and federally funded institutions are obligated to return Native American cultural items—human remains, funerary objects and other sacred objects—to lineal descendants and affiliated tribes, and provide grants to assist in the repatriation process. It also establishes procedures of Native consultation and consent—sovereign nation to sovereign nation—in the event of an inadvertent discovery or planned excavation of Native American cultural items on federal or tribal lands. For Fifield, who “went to work for the federal government to affect change in how cultural resources are managed,” NAGPRA was being implemented just in time for the “inadvertent discovery” of human remains in On Your Knees Cave. 

Within 24 hours of documenting the discovery, Fifield had notified tribal governments. Within five days, he was meeting with representatives of three tribal groups to discuss how to proceed—should they commence the study; should they stop now and rebury the remains. Enlisting the help of University of Colorado archaeologist E. James Dixon, who became principal investigator on the project, a plan was developed to involve the local Native clans through student interns, who would work at the site, and through immediate and ongoing communications with the tribal groups before information was released to the greater public. 

“The stereotype of archaeologists is that they typically come in, dig things up and take them home. Nobody knows what happened and what was found. It was an especially sensitive situation for Native Americans whose ancestors were being excavated. They wanted to make sure that didn’t happen; they wanted to know what was going on throughout the project.”

At first, not everyone agreed to go ahead with the investigation, study and further excavation, Fifield says. Ancestral burial grounds are sacred places, not to be disturbed, not for science, nor any reason. Some people felt the bones should be brought back and reburied. But after discussion, the vote from the assembled Native groups was in favor of the project proceeding. “They wanted to go forward, to learn who the person was, where he might have come from, how he might have lived and how he was related in either life-style or ancestry. Curiosity, from both the traditional and the scientific point of view, linked scientists, agencies and tribal interests together.” If the site turned out to be a burial ground, the archaeologists would cease work and return to the tribes for further consultation.

During the first year, Dixon built into a National Science Foundation grant funding for four interns to work during the summer. The program was so well received that Sealaska, the Regional Native Corporation for Southeast Alaska, funded four more interns in subsequent years. “The interns,” Fifield says, “came back from several weeks’ work at the cave to the villages and shared what they learned with the elders and their friends. They knew firsthand what we were doing up there, they knew where everything was going and exactly what we were finding.” The program, together with annual presentations by Dixon, Heaton and Fifield at local community centers, summarizing the work to date, the new information and ideas, created mutual respect and shared ownership in the project. “People felt they were very much a part of it.”

The discovery of human remains in On Your Knees Cave on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest turned out to be one of the most significant finds in recent years. The remains, the scattered bones of one individual, were ultimately dated at 10,300 years old, the oldest ever discovered in Alaska and Canada. The size and shape of the pelvis indicated a male, and his teeth, which were in excellent condition, were of a younger person in his early twenties. Stable isotype analysis, which identifies markers of certain foods in human bone and teeth, indicated the man was raised on seafood—fish, shellfish and marine mammals. Plus, DNA analysis of one tooth linked the man, living at the end of the last Ice Age, directly to the DNA of living Native Americans. 

The results of this analysis have large implications. First, they suggest that the man belonged to a sophisticated seafaring culture, with skills in navigation and established intercoastal trade routes. This hypothesis is supported by additional tools discovered in the cave, which are made of obsidian not found on Prince of Wales Island today, but on a neighboring island and the mainland. Second, they lend support to the newer theory of Pacific Coastal Migration, that humans with boats migrated south from Asia along a coastal route into the Americas during the end of the last Ice Age, creating North American settlements in glacial refugia, pockets where flora and fauna could survive, much earlier than previously thought. Equally important, the results parallel the oral histories of the Tlingit people, verifying traditional beliefs that their ancestors lived in the Southeast Alaska archipelago, not for a couple thousand years, but for a much, much longer time. As the local Tlingit groups learned of the findings through their close involvement in the project, they understood them to be a gift of knowledge from their ancestor, “his spirit looking out from the cave.” 

Combined archaeological and paleontological excavations continued for five seasons, 1997-2000 and 2004, eight years after the momentous discovery in the small cave. In 2006, two Tlingit local governments submitted a claim for the return of their ancestor under NAGPRA, and in 2007, the Tongass National Forest transferred custody of the ancient man to the tribes. It was the first time that human remains of that age were transferred to the custody of Native peoples under NAGPRA.   

In 2008, the Native groups buried the remains in an undisclosed location in a cedar bentwood box created by a Tlingit master carver, with an inner cedar liner woven by a Tlingit weaver. A council of elders suggested naming their ancestor Shuká Káa, or “the Man Ahead of Us,” a name inscribed on the stone memorial marker. A two-day ceremony followed in his honor, bringing together clan leaders, project volunteers, interns, Forest Service personnel, archaeologists and scientists in celebration.


Kuwóot yas.ein (His Spirit Is Looking Out from the Cave). Film produced by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, Tongass National Forest, University of Colorado and National Park Service.

2003 Public Archaeology on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. youtube.com/watch?v=wm2vm07fLm8&list=PLc78Pp1QjvCa6lnSvUzoLgLh4s0Z_jFw-

David Hurst Thomas, “Epilogue” in Skull Wars (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

Ice Age Paleontology of Southeast Alaska, Timothy H. Heaton, University of South Dakota.  apps.usd.edu/esci/alaska/

Yenie L. Tran and Terence E. Fifield, “The Discovery of Ancient Human Remains in Southeast Alaska,” in The Pinchot Letter. researchgate.net/publication/309430828

Photo: David Anderson