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Caribou Stew at Onion Portage

Onion Portage is one of the most important archeological sites in Alaska. Excavation of the soil there has revealed layers of tools and other artifacts extending back to at least 8000 years.

A seemingly un-Alaskan name, Onion Portage derived its name from the wild onions that grow on this shortcut between two parts of the Kobuk River. The use of the site by man over such a long time span is evidently related to this being a location where caribou have always crossed the river on their annual migrations between feeding grounds. Before guns were available, man speared the swimming caribou from small canoes and then butchered the carcasses on the beach at the Onion Portage site.

Archeologist Louis Giddings discovered the site in 1940. Since then, excavations revealed layer upon layer of sand and silt containing the refuse and tools of many cultures. Except at the very bottom of the opened pits, where signs of ancient soil slumped were evident, the horizontal soil and refuse layers were undistributed. Thus a detailed chronology based upon Carbon age dating could be developed.

The very oldest artifacts taken from Onion Portage were similar to those found in the Aleutians and from Northern Japan of the same period, about 6000 B.C. At that time the Bering Land Bridge did exist, so people could easily travel on foot over this broad region. How many exciting archeological sites like that at Onion Portage must now lie beneath the waters of the Chukchi and Bering Seas.