Kushtaka Cave

Kushtaka Cave is a near-shore solution tube located in a cove on the east side of the El Capitan Passage (in center of photo at left). It is very similar in size and configuration to other den sites such as El Capitan and Bumper Caves. The entrance crawlway is very tight. Inside the entrance is a large otter nest made of sticks (see photos below). The cave splits into two low crawlways, one of which loops around to a second entrance. Piles of modern fish bone from otter scat are scattered about the cave. Deep in one of the passages cavers found numerous bear bones. Near the entrance several bones of domestic dog were also found (see photo below).

Dr. Heaton and a small crew were taken to the cave on a one-day trip by Dave Love in a skiff in the summer of 1995. The cave was very wet, and the crawlways that had to be negotiated to get to the bear bones were very tight and muddy. The cave was mapped, and many exposed bones were collected. Two small text pits were excavated and the sediments washed at the nearby beach. Nearly all of the large bones were of black bear (see photo below). No skulls were found, and the remains represented several individuals. Two of the bear bones were radiocarbon dated at 9,330 and 8,645 years old.

One of the bone fragments, when cleaned, turned out to be a human artifact (see photos below). Because it was closely associated with bear bones, it was thought perhaps that a bear had been speared and had subsequently gone into its den and died. The artifact was turned over to archaeologist E. James Dixon for study. When the radiocarbon dates on the bears were reported, Dr. Dixon hoped that the artifact would be of equivalent antiquity. But unfortunately a radiocarbon date obtained on the artifact revealed that it was only 2,790 years old. (However, Dr. Dixon's wishes were fulfilled the following year with the discoveries at On Your Knees Cave.)

A second one-day trip was made to Kushtaka Cave in the summer of 1996. More sediments were collected and screened in hopes of finding additional artifacts, but none were found. Many small bones were recovered from the sediment, but nearly all were ground fish bones from otter scat. It was also noticed that new otter scat had been deposited since the visit the previous year.

All the bear bones from Kushtaka Cave match black bear (Ursus americanus). This species is mostly represented in lowland caves, whereas brown bear fossils are usually found in higher-elevation caves. Because of the similarity of Kushtaka Cave to the better-studied den sites at El Capitan and Bumper Caves, it can be concluded that bears used this cave as a den during the early Holocene. The bears of Kushtaka Cave are younger than most of the black bears found in other caves, and Kushtaka Cave has fewer and less complete bear remains than the other dens excavated.

The bears of Kustaka Cave include the bones of at least two subadults, found along the back of a long crawlway in an area that was difficult to reach (left). Some of the foot bones have pathologic growth. A few domestic dog bones (above) were found scattered about the entrance room, and they are assumed to be recent. These are the only domestic dog bones that we have found in an Southeast Alaskan cave.

This tip of a bone harpoon was the first artifact found in a solution cave on Prince of Wales Island. It is broken at a barb (a weak spot) as can be seen in the photo at the right. This artifact is much younger than the black bear bones that it was found with, and how it got into the back of the cave (beyond several tight crawlways) is unknown. The shape and stable isotope signature suggests that this artifact may have been made from a black bear limb bone.

© 2002 by Timothy H. Heaton