Bridging the Cold War: Dave Hopkins and Beringia

By Scott Elias and Klaus Dodds

As recent visitors to the Alaska park service office in Anchorage, we were on a quest to discover what the archives might reveal about a remarkable scholar and his role in enhancing understanding of the ancient land bridge (with its own distinctive climatic regime) that once connected Asia and North America.


The scholar in question was the late Dave Hopkins, a long-term employee of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) who devoted his life to understanding this ancient landscape encompassing northeastern Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon.

What struck us as interesting about Hopkins’ long career was not only his commitment to work with and learn from Alaska Native communities, but also his willingness to make connections with Soviet colleagues in the midst of the Cold War. Our project was designed, therefore, to investigate how scientific collaboration and knowledge production evolved in one of the most strategically sensitive regions of the world.

As was well understood by the late 1940s, Alaska, Siberia, and the Arctic Ocean, because of their physical location, represented the political and geographical frontlines of the Cold War. There was a pressing need on both the Soviet and the U.S. sides to improve understanding of the geophysical and environmental characteristics of these regions, as they were being transformed into militarized and securitized zones rapidly, where civilian access was limited.

In the aftermath of World War II, scientists faced a predicament. On the one hand, science was supposed to be an activity driven by curiosity, knowledge transfer, and cooperation. International boundaries, in this ideal view of science, are an irrelevance; however, scientists working on areas such as Beringia faced a profound dilemma. How would it be possible for American scientists to understand the environmental histories of the Soviet Far East if it was not possible to carry out field visits? Moreover, would U.S. scientists be allowed any contact with their Soviet counterparts? In addition, the relevant authorities must believe these scientists were interested only in the pursuit of knowledge about past climates and past environments.

Because of the atmosphere of suspicion between the two superpowers, the idea that science was politically disinterested (or not capable of being used as a cover for secretive activity) was not taken seriously. By May 1948, the border between Alaska and Siberia was closed, as mutual suspicion hardened between the two sides. Ironically, just a few years earlier, American pilots were flying war materials to the Russians by way of Alaska. This Alaskan-Siberian connection was severed by the Cold War.

So, our research into the life and work of Dave Hopkins focused on how it was possible for this academic interest in Beringia to develop during the Cold War. We travelled to the NPS archives in Anchorage, and to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, to try and understand his role in this process. It became immediately clear that there are three factors that help explain why he was successful: credibility, networking, and resourcing.

An Agent of Science

Scientific advances may come about by a combination of patient experimentation, luck, considered judgment, and funding. Dave Hopkins’ career reminds us that there may also be other factors at play as well. Hopkins had credibility with a wide variety of stakeholders including Alaska Native communities, NPS managers, and U.S.S.R. counterparts. His role as an employee of an agency of the U.S. government also gave him the kind of job permanence, stability, and prestige that fostered respect and trust from his Soviet colleagues. Hopkins was passionate about his interest, and in the late 1940s he was working on the geological history of the Seward Peninsula, based in Nome. Under the auspices of the USGS Terrain and Permafrost Section, he was studying beach deposits in an attempt to understand better the ancient land bridge. He travelled widely in Alaska, and was not afraid to drive forward his research efforts via a combination of scientific innovation, inter-disciplinary collaboration, and personal networking.

Hopkins’ credibility in Alaska was due in part to the strong relations he developed with Alaska Natives and other local residents. In 1948, he met an Inupiaq man, William Oquilik, who was a resident at Mary’s Igloo. Oquilik was born in the 1890s and possessed a portfolio of traditional stories about the landscape, people, and environment. He told Hopkins a story about a series of disasters that befell the people of the Seward Peninsula. The first of these disasters was described as a great mountain blowing up, with great rumbling of the earth, smoke and fire, with red hot rock coming out of the mountain top and rolling down the slopes. Hopkins interpreted this story as the local description of the eruption of the Lost Jim lava flow on the northern Seward Peninsula. This lava flow has subsequently been dated to 1,600 years ago. This is just one example of local indigenous knowledge that helped Hopkins understand the landscapes of the Seward Peninsula when he began doing his earliest fieldwork. It showed a willingness that was remarkably progressive to combine indigenous and scientific knowledge and practices.

Hopkins also listened carefully to other Alaskan residents such as the bush pilot, John Cross. While Cross was flying Hopkins around the Seward Peninsula, he pointed out the Trail Creek Caves to him. The following summers, Hopkins enlisted a group of archaeologists to help excavate the site. Artifacts such as stone tools were later discovered and dated to around 8,500 years ago. This was the first important archaeological discovery on the Seward Peninsula. But his most long-standing relationship was with Gideon Barr, an Inupiaq elder from Shishmaref, on the Seward Peninsula. Hopkins acknowledged Barr as an invaluable guide to ‘reading’ the Alaskan landscape, both past and present. Their relationship was incredibly important and long lasting. It was Barr, for example, who provided Hopkins with insights into native settlement history and the oral histories surrounding the Seward Peninsula in particular.

Working as a research scientist at the USGS between 1942-1984, mostly in Menlo Park, California, Hopkins had the opportunity to network with colleagues in the lower 48, and to develop connections with Soviet counterparts from the 1960s onwards. It is worth remembering that Hopkins was one of the first U.S. scientists to work cooperatively with Soviet counterparts. In 1969, for example, he was an exchange fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, which enabled him to meet all the important Beringian scientists in Moscow and Leningrad. These Soviet scientists were keen to have their Siberian sediments and fossils analyzed by western researchers. In the NPS archives, there are fascinating insights into what Hopkins was allowed to take after his first visit to the Soviet Union, including plant samples, volcanic material, glacial clay, pollen, and loess collected by Soviet scientists from multiple sites in the Lena, Amur, and Ob River basins.

Hopkins’ detailed reports of his visits to the Soviet Union record his social and professional networking. He notes, in his private diaries, the bureaucratic obstacles confronting researchers, but at the same time he shows an uncanny capacity to earn the trust and respect of Soviet colleagues. In 1969, Soviet colleagues allowed him to see their geological and stratigraphic data, which Hopkins concluded was largely “plain incompetent”. He further writes that “field visits in the Soviet Union are rapidly becoming a more realistic possibility and I believe that we are now in a position to insist on equal treatment”.

He brought Soviet and U.S. scholars together, not only in person via symposia and field visits, but also through publications including the highly acclaimed Bering Land Bridge (1967). In the University of Alaska archives, there are fascinating records of how Hopkins worked diligently with Soviet authors to ensure their papers were produced to a high standard. His editorial determination is also evident in terms of generating debate about the origins and evolution of the land bridge.

The final element that helps explain Dave Hopkins’ extraordinary influence lies in the area of resourcing. As an employee of the USGS, Hopkins was able to fund visits to the Soviet Union and host visitors, which in turn helped encourage scientific innovation in areas such as geochronology. In 1971, Hopkins hosted the Soviet geologist Olev Petrov in Alaska. Hopkins also encouraged U.S. colleagues such as Allan Cox and Richard Doell to work on marine stratigraphy in the Bering Sea and consolidated his academic contacts with other colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard, in the areas of paleobotany and plant stratigraphy. In 1963 with USGS funding, Hopkins travelled to the Kenai Peninsula with Jack Wolfe, a paleontologist specializing in using fossil leaves to reconstruct past climates in northern North America. Hopkins’ strategic sense of inter-disciplinary collaboration was vital in his determination to lobby for support of studies in marine geology and plant botany.

The changing geopolitics of the Cold War played a part as well. In the early 1970s, improving relations facilitated new opportunities for scientific exchanges. A visiting scientist exchange agreement was the main catalyst for U.S.-Soviet interaction. Hopkins invited Soviet scientists to Menlo Park, and gave his visitors the opportunity to date samples and access basic laboratory equipment such as microscopes. In April 1972, the Director of the Geological Institute of the Academy of Sciences (A.V. Peyve) visited Dave Hopkins and the USGS. Hopkins realized that cross-strait scientific cooperation was essential, for Soviet science in general was poorly developed and funded. In 1971, Hopkins undertook a second visit to the Soviet Union and proposed that efforts be devoted to producing a more advanced geological map of Alaska, Siberia, and the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Specimen collection and exchange was judged to be critical for future scientific development, and Hopkins returned again in 1973 to encourage further collaboration. He met a receptive audience with many Siberian-based colleagues keen to swap materials, take their U.S. counterparts to ‘forbidden places’, and circumvent bureaucratic restrictions.

These three factors—credibility, networks and resources—played their part in encouraging the NPS to propose, in 1971, a ‘Russo-American Land Bridge International Park’. The proposal did not develop any further until the early 1990s, but its genesis in the early 1970s owes much to Hopkins’s collaborative activities. In 1992, for instance, the NPS and the University of Alaska Fairbanks were able to collaborate with Russian counterparts (e.g. the Geological Institute in Moscow, the Komarov Botanic Institute in St Petersburg, and the Pacific Institute of Geography in Vladivostok) and undertake an inventory of Arctic biota as well as execute anthropological research relating to the Seward Peninsula and Chukotka Peninsula. Importantly, colleagues were able to visit field sites on both sides of the Bering Strait, compare regional deposits, and reflect on cross-strait linkages. Such cross-strait exchanges were, of course, pioneered by Hopkins and his Soviet colleagues including Olev Petrov and Andrei Sher, some 20 years earlier.

As we reflect on the recent announcement concerning the establishment of a trans-boundary area of shared Beringian heritage, the role of Dave Hopkins will continue to loom large. We believe, however, that there is more research to be done on the period between the mid 1960s and late 1980s in charting not only how Alaskan communities continued to contribute to understanding past environmental history, but also U.S.-Soviet collaboration, field visits, and exchange of materials. The archival materials in the NPS, in combination with the archives housed in the University of Alaska, deserve further examination.

Efforts to bridge the gap between Russian and American scientists were also vigorously pursued by some Russian scientists in the 1960s through the 1990s. We wrote about one of these Russian trail blazers, Andrei Sher, in a recent article (Elias and Dodds 2011). But, there is more work to be done, and we hope to carry out further interviews and archival research in Russia in the future.

Part of a series of articles titled Alaska Park Science - Volume 12 Issue 1: Science, History, and Alaska's Changing Landscapes.

Last updated: January 17, 2024