Cavemen on the Porcupine River

Iíve told this story many times over the years at campfires in archaeology field camps but have never written it down before.

It was the summer of 1979 and archaeologists from the University of Alaska Museum were excavating three caves on the Porcupine River near the mouth of the Coleen River in interior Alaska. It was just a small crew, four or five archaeologists. I was one of them.

Our small field camp, consisting of not much more than our sleeping tents, was located a short distance back in the woods away from the edge of the river. We had arrived by float plane and supplies, when we got them, were brought in by chartered float plane from Fort Yukon. There was no sign of a camp from the river itself, and the caves being excavated were on limestone outcrops well back from the riverís edge. You could float right past the excavation on your trip down the Porcupine from Old Crow in the Yukon Territory to Ft. Yukon and believe you were the only people within a hundred miles.

Now, this story is admittedly second-hand because the small cave I was working in was about half a mile from the river. A larger cave that we called Cave 1, being excavated by three other museum archaeologists, was only a couple of hundred yards from the river, and on a slope about fifty feet above the floodplain. The entrance to the cave couldnít be seen from the river because of the vegetation along the river bank. I got the story from Dave Plaskett, one of the archaeologists working in Cave 1, back at the field camp at the end of a long day of screening cave sediments looking for artifacts and faunal remains.

It was a pretty steep climb up to Cave 1, but there was a nice ledge in front of the cave that provided a level area directly in front of the cave entrance. From the entrance the cave angled down so it wasnít possible to see into the cave from below. Cave 1 was a fairly large cave, large enough so that the screen and all the field gear could be set up inside the cave, back a ways from the entrance. It was mid-July, temperatures were in the high 80s. Digging cave deposits and screening sediments was hot, dusty work and the three archaeologist, all lanky, bearded graduate students stripped down to just their shorts and tennis shoes. As typical anthropology graduate students, Dave and his two friends had rather long unkempt hair, and after several hours of screening cave sediments in the confine of the rock shelter they were pretty well covered with dust and dirt. Theyíd been in the field for three weeks without a shower so they probably didnít smell all that great either.

So here comes a canoe down the river with two German tourists on a wilderness adventure in Alaska. Itís likely they hadnít seen anybody else since they put the canoe in the water at Old Crow. Floating along quietly in the gentle current of the Porcupine River they thought they could hear something going on back in the woods - voices maybe? But no sign of a camp or a boat tied up. They pulled in to shore to investigate. Pushing their way through the thick willows along the riverbank they reached the base of a steep slope and looked up to see the top of a dark cave opening behind a narrow ledge. There was nobody around and no evidence of a cabin, But they were pretty sure theyíd heard human voices. One of them gave a shout.

Inside the cave Dave and his friends were startled to hear a shout from below. The three long-haired archaeologists all stripped to the waist and covered with dirt from screening cave sediments scrambled out to the cave entrance to see who was there. You have to realize that from below the two Germans could only see the three shaggy creatures with matted, dirty hair that appeared at the cave entrance from the waist up. There was a moment of stunned silence and then the two German tourists said something in German to each other and started backing up - then turned and ran before Dave and his friends could shout a greeting. Iíve always wondered about the stories told later in Germany bars about cavemen living on the Porcupine River in Alaska, and whether anyone ever believed those stories.


Bob Betts

Sandpoint, Idaho

November 20, 2004