In an area stretching along the coastline from Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula, along the
Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea coasts, northward around 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 broad, developed much of the culture of modern Eskimo (Inupiat
and Yupik in Alaska) peoples. Some decisive and significant adaptations took place here and in adjacent
Siberia that allowed a more efficient exploitation of this 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 called the Denbigh Flint complex by its discoverer, Louis Giddings (1964), after the type site on Cape Denbigh on Norton Sound. Subsequently, it has been found throughout the Tundra and Arctic Zone that is characterized by coasts that are ice-bound in winter and treeless hinterland, from the Bering Sea side of the Alaska Peninsula, northward along the coast 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 appeance of these distinctive tools into the Arctic Small Tool tradition.
The origins of this tradition are obscure. It appeared fully developed in northwestern Alaska and spread rapidly southward and eastward. Its microblade, core and burin technology seem to have roots in the Paleoarctic tradition and in the general technology of Siberia and northeastern Asia. However, the continuity with Paleoarctic is cut almost everywhere in Alaska by the intervening and widespread Northern Archaic tradition which had its roots to the south and east in the boreal forests. It seems most probable that the transition to ASTt must have occurred somewhere outside of Alaska, probably northeastern Asia. Also noteworthy is that this time period marked the development and spread of circumboreal cultural adaptations (perhaps as arctic environments stabilized worldwide).
Subsistence was apparently balanced between hunting and fishing with the most likely mainstay species being caribou and anadromous fish. According to Dumond (1987), 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 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, the ancestral development of the historic Eskimo cultures took place in Siberia and the islands of the Bering Sea at a much 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, as far east as Greenland (recognizable there as the Pre-Dorset culture).
There are currently two models for the subsequent course of the Arctic Small Tool tradition. Many investigators, including Anderson 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 whose perspective derives from work on the Alaska Peninsula, see a hiatus following the Denbigh part of the AST tradition and the shift to a new, but related, tradition named the Norton tradition. In this construct, Dumond subsumes the earlier Choris, the classic Norton, and the later Ipiutak cultures. The tradition is distinguished by the appearance of pottery just after 3000 BP. This pottery is clearly derived from Asian antecedents, is fiber-tempered and linear-stamped. Microblade use has 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 proper Norton culture, after 2500 BP., the pottery is check-stamped and polished slate implements are present. The settlement pattern seems to have changed to that of large coastal communities that reflect an increased reliance on sea mammal hunting for subsistence.
Around the Bering Sea, the Norton culture persisted until around 1000 AD. On the Alaskan
Peninsula this is evident as Norton influence progressively spread across it from the Bering coast to the
Pacific coast by 600 AD. Further north, it seems to have been superseded by the Ipiutak culture (which
others see as all part 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 or
connections in its spectacular art which seems to show Scythian style elements. The type site, found by
Larson and Rainey (1948) at Point Hope, contains hundreds of permanent houses and lavish burials.
Ipiutak sites have also been found away from the coast, in and around the Brooks Range, in NOAT and
GAAR. Cape Espenberg, in BELA, has Ipiutak sites. Ipiutak lasted from around 2000 BP until about 800
AD, when the Thule Tradition appeared.
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), it includes all the prehistoric, recognizably Eskimo remains from coastal Siberia, St Lawrence Island (after about 100 AD), the northern Alaska coast (after 500 AD), and from the southern coasts (after about 1000 AD). The assemblages are characterized by use of polished slate for tools and reliance on coastal resources, especially open water hunting.
The earliest identifiable cultures of this tradition, named Okvik and Old Bering Sea, were found on St Lawrence Island, Siberia, and other islands of the Bering Strait. The assemblages typically contain polished slate, fiber-tempered pottery, and toggling harpoon heads of bone or ivory. Also noteworthy is an elaborate art of carved ivory objects that differs from Ipiutak. It is possible that Okvik-Old Bering Sea evolved out of Norton, but this has not yet been convincingly demonstrated. 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 Ipiutak was extant on the north coast of Alaska and the late Norton was present in the Alaska Peninsula area.
Late Ipiutak was contemporaneous with Birnirk. After 800 AD, Ipiutak was replaced on the north coast by Birnirk. There are various hypotheses on the causes and origins of this transition, from Old Bering Sea-Okvik and Siberian influences (but not Punuk) to indigenous development. Originally, the Birnirk focus was primarily on seals but included some caribou; at ~800 AD whaling harpoons appeared in some Birnirk assemblages. While Punuk was almost exclusively coastal and marine oriented, Birnirk was a mainland culture as well as marine, especially in its use of caribou. Birnirk disappeared by 1000 AD, but not before giving rise to the classic Thule lifeway of winter ice-hunting, kayak and umiaq open sea hunting, dogs and dog sleds, settlement in large villages focused on whale hunting, but still using mainland resources.
Around 1000 AD, Thule culture expanded. Following almost the same path as the Arctic Small
Tool tradition 3000 years earlier, Thule people moved to the east across northern Canada to Greenland.
They also expanded from the coast into more interior regions, such as the North Slope, the Brooks Range,
and along rivers such as the Kobuk and Noatak (where the Arctic Woodland Culture developed). They
exploited a wide range of resources, kept up extensive trade networks and social relationships. Thule
influence also expanded to the south. Following the Norton culture on the Alaska Peninsula, Thule
influence reached as far as Kodiak Island. In the Pacific Coastal region, Thule did not replace the
indigenous cultures but did seem to influence them.
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