Archeology of the Tundra and Arctic Alaska

Three archeologists walking over expansive tundra, Kobuk Valley National Park
Archaeological pedestrian survey, Kobuk Valley National Park, NPS photo

Tundra and Arctic

In an area stretching along the coastline from Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula, northward along the Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea coasts, around northern Alaska, and eastwards across the Arctic all the way to Greenland, the coastline is ice-bound in winter and the terrain is generally treeless. In this zone, which can be up to several hundred kilometers wide, much of the culture of the modern Eskimo (Inupiat and Yupik in Alaska) people developed. Some decisive and significant adaptations took place here and in adjacent Siberia that allowed for a more efficient exploitation of this ecological zone. Settlements spread and grew, in some places becoming more specialized, as the historically visible cultures appeared.


Arctic Small Tool Tradition

One of the most distinctive and widespread Arctic cultural traditions appeared around 4000 BP. The Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt) was first recognized and named the Denbigh Flint complex by its discoverer, Louis Giddings (1964; Giddings and Anderson 1986), after the archeological type site on Cape Denbigh on the coast of Norton Sound. Subsequently, it has been found throughout the Tundra and Arctic Zone, which is characterized by coasts that are ice-bound in winter and with a treeless hinterland, from the Bristol Bay side of the Alaska Peninsula, northward along the coast, including the Seward Peninsula (Harritt 1993) and throughout the Brooks Range, and eventually along the Canadian Arctic coast and the Arctic Archipelago to Greenland. The archeological assemblage is distinctive. It derives its name from the finely-flaked, tiny lithic tools that are its hallmark. Irving (1964), from the perspective of the Punyik Point site in the Brooks Range, linked the widespread appearance of these distinctive tools into the Arctic Small Tool tradition.

The antecedents of this tradition are not known. It seems to have appeared fully developed in northwestern Alaska and spread rapidly southward and eastward. Its microblade, core and burin lithic technology seems to have similarities or roots in the Paleoarctic tradition (which also has a microblade and microcore lithic industry) as well as in the general lithic technology of Siberia and northeastern Asia. However, it is separated from Paleoarctic cultural layers at most stratified archeological sites in Alaska by the intervening and widespread Northern Archaic tradition (approximately 6000 to 4000 BP), which probably had its roots far to the south and east in the boreal forests of North America. The well-stratified archeological site at Onion Portage (Anderson 1988, 2005, 2009) shows this separation between the Paleoarctic tradition and the Arctic Small Tool tradition very clearly. It seems most probable that the development of the ASTt must have occurred somewhere outside of Alaska, probably in northeastern Asia and probably from roots in the Paleoarctic tradition. Also noteworthy is that this time period marked the development and spread of circumpolar cultural adaptations (perhaps as arctic environments stabilized after the Pleistocene ended ).

During the Arctic Small Tool tradition period subsistence efforts were apparently balanced between hunting and fishing with the mainstay species being caribou and anadromous fish. According to Dumond (1987, 2001, 2005), there is very little evidence for winter ice sealing, consistent use of dogs, or boat use -- all of which are traits of the modern Arctic Inuit (Eskimo) groups. Some investigators feel that the Arctic Small Tool tradition marks the arrival of the ancestral Eskimo cultures while many others feel that, although there appears to be some technological continuity between them, the ancestral development of the historic Eskimo cultures took place in Siberia, on the islands of the Bering Sea and along the coasts of Bering Strait at a later date. Nevertheless, the AST tradition people, by exploiting the resources of the coast and the hinterland, were the first group of people to spread across the North American arctic, going as far east as Greenland (recognizable there as the Pre-Dorset culture).

There are currently two models for the course of prehistory following the Denbigh Flint Complex. Many investigators, including Anderson (2005, 2009) and Irving who worked in northwestern Alaska and the Brooks Range, see the tradition as encompassing a number of subsequent phases after the Denbigh Flint complex, lasting until around 1000 BP. These include the Choris, Norton, and Ipiutak phases. There is certainly a strong thread of cultural continuity through them that indicates some form of connection. Other researchers, such as Dumond (1988, 2001,2005, 2009), whose perspective derives from work on the Alaska Peninsula, see a break following the Denbigh Flint Complex phase of the AST tradition and the shift to a new, but related, tradition named the Norton tradition. In his hypothesis, Dumond subsumes the earlier Choris, the classic Norton, and the later Ipiutak cultures into one broad Norton tradition. This Norton tradition is distinguished by the appearance of pottery on the Alaska Peninsula just after 3000 BP. This pottery was clearly derived from Asian antecedents; it was fiber-tempered and linear-stamped. Microblade use had diminished or ended, projectile points are larger with more lanceolate forms, burins have changed in form, and oil lamps and slate tools make their appearance. By the time of the classic Norton culture on the Bristol Bay side of the Alaska Peninsula, after 2500 BP., the pottery was check-stamped and polished slate implements were present. The settlement pattern seems to have changed to that of large coastal communities that reflect an increased reliance on sea mammal hunting, especially whaling, for subsistence.

Around the Bering Sea, the Norton culture persisted until around 1000 AD. On the Alaskan Peninsula, this is evident as Norton influence spread progressively southward from Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea coast to the Pacific coast of the Peninsula by 600 AD. Northward along the Bering Sea coast, it seems to have been superseded by the Ipiutak culture (which others see as a phase of the Arctic Small Tool tradition), which lacked pottery, ground slate, and oil lamps, but otherwise maintained a technological continuity with Norton. Ipiutak shows Asian influences in its spectacular ivory carving, which seems to show elements of the Scythian style. The type site, found by Larson and Rainey (1948) at Point Hope, contains the remains of hundreds of permanent houses and lavish burials. Ipiutak sites have also been found away from the coast, in and around the Brooks Range, in Noatak National Preserve (NOAT) and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (GAAR). Cape Espenberg, in Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (BELA), also contains Ipiutak sites, as does Cape Krusenstern National Monument (CAKR). The Ipiutak tradition lasted from around 2000 BP until about 800 AD, when the Thule Tradition appeared.


Thule Tradition

This tradition, ancestral to the historic Inupiat and Yupik cultures of Alaska, has also been called the Northern Maritime (Collins 1964) or the Neo-Eskimo tradition. As defined by Dumond (1977, 1984, 2009), it includes all the prehistoric, recognizably Eskimo sites from coastal Siberia, St Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait (after about 100 AD), the northern Alaska coast (after 500 AD), and from the southern coasts (after about 1000 AD). The tool assemblages were characterized by the use of polished and ground slate for tools and the reliance on an exploitation of coastal resources, especially open water hunting of sea mammals, including whales.

The earliest identifiable cultures of this tradition, named Okvik and Old Bering Sea, were found on St Lawrence Island and other islands of the Bering Sea. The assemblages typically contain polished and ground slate, fiber-tempered pottery, and toggling harpoon heads of bone or ivory. Also noteworthy was an elaborate art style of carved ivory objects that differs from that of the earlier Ipiutak culture. It is possible that Okvik-Old Bering Sea evolved out of Norton, but this has not yet been convincingly demonstrated as yet. What is known is that it evolved into the Punuk culture on both sides of the Bering Strait after 500 AD, at the same time that the Ipiutak culture was extant on the northwest coast of Alaska and in the interior areas around the Brooks Range, and at the same time as the late Norton tradition was present in the Alaska Peninsula area.

Late Ipiutak was contemporaneous with the Birnirk culture, which was centered on the north coast of Alaska. After 800 AD, the Ipiutak culture there disappeared from the archeological record and was replaced on the north coast by Birnirk cultural material. There are various hypotheses on the causes and origins of this transition to the Birnirk culture, ranging from Old Bering Sea-Okvik influences, or Siberian influences (but not Punuk), to indigenous development (Giddings and Anderson 1986; Freisen and Arnold 2008; Harritt 2004; Mason et al. 2008; Stanford 1976). Originally, the Birnirk subsistence hunting focus was primarily on seals but included some caribou. At approximately 800 AD whaling harpoons appeared in some Birnirk assemblages. While the Punuk were almost exclusively coastal inhabitants and marine resource-oriented, Birnirk was a mainland-using culture as well, especially in its use of caribou. Birnirk culture completely disappeared by 1000 AD, replaced by the classic Thule lifeway of winter ice hunting, the use of kayaks and umiaqs (large skin boats related to kayaks and used for open-sea hunting), the use of dogs and dog sleds for land travel, settlement in large villages focused on whale hunting, but still using mainland resources.

Around 1000 AD (Mason 2009), Thule culture expanded. Following almost the same path as the Arctic Small Tool tradition people 3000 years earlier, Thule people moved to the east across northern Canada as far as Greenland. They also expanded from the coast into more interior regions, such as the North Slope of Alaska, the Brooks Range, and along rivers such as the Kobuk and Noatak (where the later Arctic Woodland Culture (Giddings 1952) developed as an interior variant of the Thule culture). They exploited a wide range of resources, kept up extensive trade networks and widespread social relationships (Burch 1998, 2005, 2006). Thule influence also expanded to the south. Following the Norton culture on the Alaska Peninsula, Thule cultural influence reached as far as the Alaska Peninsula (KATM, LACL), Cook Inlet (KEFJ) and Kodiak Island. In the Pacific Coastal region, a local variant, the Pacific Eskimo, developed and dominated the northern Gulf of Alaska (Crowell 2004, 2008; Crowell and Mann 1996, 1998; Dixon 2007).

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Last Updated: January 14, 2014