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Ancient Salmon Bones Suggest Ice Age North Americans Had a Broader Diet

Sep 22, 2015 12:21 PM EDT
Upward Sun River Excavation
Researchers excavated ancient salmon chum bones from the Upward Sun River site in Alaska. This suggests that Ice Age humans were open to eating more than just mammoths.
(Photo : Ben Potter, UAF)

Ice Age humans apparently fished for salmon too. While scientists previously thought that early humans were mainly big-game hunters, 11,500-year-old chum salmon bones found in Alaska suggest ancient North Americans had a broader diet.

"Salmon fishing has deep roots, and we now know that salmon have been consumed by North American humans at least 11,500 years ago," Carrin Halffman, lead author and a University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) anthropologist who helped analyze the fish bones, said in a news release.

The young salmon fish bones were found in the Upward Sun River site in Interior Alaska. The Pleistocene epoch, also known as the last Ice Age, was marked by the large-scale glaciers that covered Earth. The Pleistocene ended 11,700 years ago. The salmon bones excavated from the Upward Sun River site signify that these fish arose earlier and breeded further north than researchers had theorized. When the researchers performed an isotopic analyais of the bones, they also discovered that the ancient fish and mondern salmon may have even had similar migratory patterns. 

"We have cases where salmon become landlocked and have very different isotopic signatures than marine salmon. Combining genetic and isotopic analyses allow us to confirm the identity as chum salmon, which inhabit the area today, as well as establish their life histories," Ben Potter, a UAF anthropologist and one of the researchers that discovered the bones, said in a statement. "Both are necessary to understand how humans used these resources."

Fishing as an alternative means of hunting suggests Ice Age humans also utilized complex strategies and specialized technology to acquire food, researchers noted. Potter added that, "This suggests salmon fishing may have played a role in the early human colonization of North America."

Their findings were recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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