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Archaeology in the Arctic

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 13 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Arctic Circle Weapon Stone Artefact

Surviving in the severe environment of the Arctic Circle has tested the endurance of human beings ever since they travelled into this harsh northern region. The history of humanity is a relatively short one, yet in trying to understand our development, we can examine the last five to ten thousand years of satisfactory records including the period commonly called the Stone Age.

Oral traditions from this period are rare and there is an extremely sparse record of artefacts in the ground. All that remain for analytical observation are a few broken skull fragments, teeth, bones, and a handful of simple tools - simply very little to help us in our search to understand their remote journey in the past.

Furthermore, unless we diligently and carefully study the little that does remain then even these simple remains may tell us false stories and cause us to misunderstand the people we desire to know more about. The few relics discovered in the Arctic Circle region are but fragments of a far larger collection of other objects that have not been preserved.

Cultural Comparison

Archaeologists have much to offer the researcher in interpreting these fragments of Arctic human adventure and existence. The professional archaeologist must utilize one of their guiding principles: Cultural comparison. Without such a principle, these investigators of the ancient Arctic could simply be presenting a conglomeration of unrelated and misleading opinions. When so few artefacts are extant then gaining contextual meaning becomes the essential feature of any serious inquiry of the Circumpolar North.

Cultural comparison means observing the existing peoples, their tools, their methods, and their customs. By understanding the present, archaeologists are better equipped to defrost the frozen past and propose application, meaning, and purpose to ancient artefacts.

The First Arrivals

Given the present environmental limitations, present day inhabitants have met the survival challenge with incredible ingenuity and skill. Yet they were not the first in the land. Earlier, humans had entered the New World long before Columbus by way of an intercontinental land bridge that once connected the area of the Bering Strait with Russian Siberia. The bridge was immensely wide and was ‘open’ during a remarkably hot, dry period of the earth’s history, strongly suggesting that global warming is a cyclic phenomenon. Archaeological remains from the lake region of the Trans-Baikal date as far back as recorded history yet little has been deeply researched on the people of that continental corner.

The former inhabitants of the Russian steppe-tundra were domiciled in well-constructed permanent dwellings made from natural resources. One of the most productive archaeological sites is located on the Angara River near the modern city of Irkutsk. It contains numerous semi-subterranean houses constructed of large animal bones and reindeer antlers, suitable for winter habitation they are covered by skin or sod exteriors.

Russian archaeologists were able to distinguish between men's and women’s activities based on artefact distribution, the latter group staying closer to the settlements and the former ranging widely over the area possibly in search of food supplies such as mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, or reindeer.

Why Move?

It is hard to imagine why anyone would desire to leave the warmth and comparative luxury of their homeland and venture into the hard, harsh realities of the bitter Arctic north. However, such a rationale is predicated on the view that the Arctic was then as it is today. Not so.

How or why they crossed is not difficult to envisage. The Yup'ik Eskimo of Alaska have travelled back and forth between the two sides of the Bering Strait using skin boats, so it is not difficult to imagine earlier similar water crossings. However, boats were probably not needed by these land-based Siberians, for in their day the Strait was mostly dry land, part of a massive northern land mass linking the two continents together. When the first Arctic peoples arrived in Alaska, they most likely had no particular destination in mind much rather they were simply extending their existing environment, hunting beyond the range of their forefathers and enjoying the wealth of a new, untouched land. The climate was likely very comfortable.

Modern Tribes

Approximately 3,800 years ago, the Eskimo and Alaskan Aleut groups separated from each other, the Eskimo eventually establishing a unique and highly adaptable culture primarily based on sea and land mammal hunting and both salt and freshwater fishing. From this period onward, archaeologists have been able to trace relatively accurately the technological development of American and Greenlander Arctic peoples.

Known as the Northern Archaic Period, it is represented by a significant diversity of notched, pointed, projectiles, notched pebbles, other types of hand tools, and even scappers. This period was followed by people who developed what is now categorised as the Arctic Small Tool Tradition. This period is typified by a technologically sophisticated mini blade industry using finely made stone weapon inserts.

The Arctic Circle is an enduring legacy of man’s ability to adapt in the extremist of conditions. Survival in temperatures that fall below minus 60 degrees is not conducive to an expanding civilization and archaeologists remain hard pressed to understand the people who once flourished in the pre-Ice Age land.

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