Race against climate change in Alaska excavation

Coastal erosion at Nunalleq siteWhen people in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Quinhagak saw artifacts from their pre-historic heritage being swept into the Bering Sea due to erosion of coastal land exposed by melting permafrost in 2008, they called in the cavalry: archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen. In Nunalleq, the site of the 2008 erosion event, the Aberdeen team has undertaken the first large-scale archaeological exploration of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, home of the Yup’ik people.

The Yup’ik, the largest indigenous group in south-western Alaska today, was one of the last groups contacted by Europeans (in the early 19th century). There’s plenty of ethnographic documentation of the culture, but almost no archaeological research. That adds even more urgency to this project of excavating and recovering artifacts of the prehistoric Yup’ik settlement before climate change and erosion takes them all to sea.

Wooden harpoonsInterestingly, the Yup’ik who inhabited Nunalleq between 1350 and 1650 A.D. themselves experienced a period of climate change, namely the Little Ice Age. Researchers hope that the artifacts and organic remains discovered at Nunalleq will illuminate how the Yup’ik responded to the rapidly cooling environment, how their diets and lifestyles changed. University of Aberdeen’s Dr. Rick Knecht hopes that the pre-history they find might help create a predictive model of how to cope with climate change in the future as well as explaining the past.

Certainly the excavations thus far have provided researchers with an extraordinary wealth of material. In additional to the bone, stone, sod, and charcoal that often survive the centuries, the permafrost has preserved masses of organic materials. Wooden artifacts like carved dolls and harpoons have been found in pristine condition, as have berry seeds, matting, ropes and baskets woven out of grasses, even animal fur and human hair.

Stable isotope analysis of the human hair will reveal what the early Yup’ik ate.

Cut human hairDr Kate Britton from the University of Aberdeen’s Department of Archaeology said: “Stable isotope (chemical) ‘signatures’ in human hair are directly related to the ‘signatures’ of foods consumed – literally, you are what you eat.

“In archaeological studies, this is used to provide evidence for which animal species were being hunted and eaten. Furthermore, human hair grows at an average rate of 1cm per month – so by chemically analysing it 1cm at a time we can obtain a month by month dietary ‘signal’ which indicates what these people were eating over a period of time. […]

“We hope our analysis will allow us to evaluate dietary changes in Western Alaska at this time, determine the contribution of marine and terrestrial animals to the human diet and explore the implications for early subsistence strategies and maritime adaptations.”

With stable isotope and DNA analysis of the animal fur, archaeologists hope to identify which animals donated that fur, if they were domestic animals or hunted, and whether they were butchered for eating or for their pelts.

Carved wooden doll with charred faceThe archaeological record has already been found to support the oral histories of Yup’ik lore. According to stories handed down through the generations to contemporary Yup’ik residents of the nearby town of Quinhagak, the village was destroyed in the mid-17th century by the Kinak warriors during the “bow and arrow wars.” The enemy descended upon the village in the summer, burning the buildings and killing everyone they found. In fact, the remains of burnt houses with arrow points embedded in them, charred wooden dolls and few human remains confirm the village’s demise was a violent one. Radiocarbon dating supports the traditional date as well. A burnt house dates to around 1650.

One of the most exciting finds was a long stretch of wooden planking. Archaeologists initially thought the split driftwood planks formed the roof of an entrance tunnel dug to a sod house. An opening in the central room would have led to the tunnel, which would have also been used for storing food and supplies. According to Yup’ik oral histories, people tried to hide in the tunnels during the bow and arrow wars, but the houses were set on fire and the refugees smoked out and killed. Again the archaeology supported the stories, as the doorway of the sod house was coated with a thick layer of charcoal and ash. Sixteen slate arrow points were also found in the entry area, including one embedded in a structural post.

When the team removed the planks, though, they found that there was no tunnel dug down beneath. The planks were flooring instead, probably a grand boardwalk leading to the entrance of an important house, so the fire was set at the door and arrows were shot at people inside the house itself rather than hiding in a tunnel.

Here’s a video of the excavated boardwalk. You can see how precipitously close to the Bering Sea these important archaeological remains have gotten.


There’s a wonderful blog documenting this year’s three-week dig season: Nunalleq 2012. It’s an easy read and a fascinating one, each entry accompanied by copious photographs. I recommend starting from the bottom and working your way up. Although the archaeological team has packed up the artifacts and brought them to the University of Aberdeen for further study, the blog will continue to be updated with new information as they discover it.

4 thoughts on “Race against climate change in Alaska excavation

  1. Their blog is so full of high spirits despite all the discomforts and stresses offered by the dig! It was a delight to read.

    1. Yes! That’s exactly what impressed me the most, how funny, playful, excited and curious the entries are even amidst setbacks and frustrations. I think they must make a wonderful and supportive team.

  2. Please send me the link to their blog and to subscribe to your blog so I can read the articles referred to. I am not a student, just an abnormally curious person. Thanks.

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