The three-thousand-year-old Old Whaling culture is enigmatic, known only from the type site at Cape Krusenstern, Alaska. Mystery aside, Old Whaling is very important in the development of Eskimo culture because its members are believed to have been the first people to hunt large baleen whales in the Bering Strait region. The existence of Old Whaling culture in Chukotka has been hypothesized, but until now has not been demonstrated. This project will investigate the Old Whaling culture in Chukotka by excavating a recently discovered archaeological site near the village of Nunligran. The project is will include archaeologists from the Institute of Heritage in Moscow (Sergey Gusev and Igor Makarov) and the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography - Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg (Dmitri Gerasimov) who will work in close collaboration with archaeologists (Daniel Odess and Caroline Funk, University of Alaska Fairbanks), a zooarchaeologist (Erica Hill, University of Alaska Southeast), and a graduate student (Sarah Meitl, University of Alaska Fairbanks). The project will also include a Yup'ik high school student who has been working with the PI in the field and the laboratory for three years, as well as students and other community members from Nunligran. Together the research team will excavate the site with the goal of answering the following questions: What is the nature of the Old Whaling occupation at Nunligran, and how is it related to the Old Whaling occupation at Cape Krusenstern? What evidence is there for cultural ties across Bering Strait around 3000 years ago? How did people at the site make a living, and did the people who lived there hunt whales? How is the shift to whaling, as a subsistence activity, reflected more broadly in social and community organization and changes in land use? The project is intended to foster international collaboration and community involvement in research important to people on both sides of Bering Strait.

Project Report

PI: Christopher B. Wolff The initial goals of this research was to examine evidence in Chukotka of early whale hunting cultures and compare them with the enigmatic Old Whaling Site across the Bering Strait in Alaska (Figure 1). The origins of active whale hunting, as opposed to opportunistic use of beached whales, has long been thought to have only begun in the Bering Sea a little over 1000 years ago by the ancestors of modern Inuit. However, the Old Whaling Site located at Cape Krusenstern, Alaska, was considered by Dr. J. Louis Giddings and others to contain evidence of active whale hunting 2000 years earlier. The artifacts originally recovered at the Old Whaling site are unlike other contemporaneous cultures of coastal Alaska, so it was hypothesized that the Old Whaling people may have originated elsewhere and brought with them a new whale hunting technology. To investigate this possibility the original principal investigator of this project, Dr. Daniel Odess, thought to examine contemporaneous archaeological materials across the Bering Strait, a likely original homeland to the Old Whaling peoples. The Un’en’en Site, a 3000 year old contemporaneous site, was identified in Chukotka and was partially excavated by Odess and his Russian collaborator, Dr. Sergei Gusev. They made amazing discoveries, that included architecture and technology that somewhat resembled the Old Whaling materials; however, the most intriguing find was a walrus tusk that was incised with decorations of people hunting whales (Figure 2). This tusk was dated to just over 3000 years, demonstrating that people were indeed actively hunting whales at that time. The initial results of this research were published in the journal Science. Unfortunately, collaborative relationships with Russian colleagues disintegrated and the focus of the remaining grant funds were shifted towards further examination of the Old Whaling Site itself. Earlier researchers suggested there might be underlying deposits below previous excavated material that could shed light on the origins of the Old Whaling people. Dr. Christopher Wolff and a geophysicist, Thomas Urban, conducted new research at the site using ground penetrating radar and magnetometry to assess if there were deeply buried deposits. These methods were chosen because they were less invasive and the site now sits in the middle of a National Monument area, so conservation is important. The results of the geophysical research revealed that there are no substantial deposits underlying the main Old Whaling Site, leaving the origins of the people who occupied it still unknown. However, this research did reveal a broader story about climate change and its effects on permafrost in this environment (Figure 3). Using data from the original excavations and subsequent research, Wolff and Urban were able to trace the loss of permafrost from the middle of the 20th century to modern times related to generally warming conditions in the Arctic, demonstrating that the northwestern coast of Alaska–and probably well beyond–are undergoing environmental change leading to the decline in permafrost in this region. The results of these effects were published in the journal Polar Science. This has broader implications concerning the conservation of archaeological sites in the north. The loss of permafrost will increasingly be a factor in the preservation and alteration in cultural resources, and can even create natural features that resemble archaeological features (e.g. pithouses, tent pads, ditches, etc.). Therefore, while the origins of the Old Whaling peoples were not found, the combination of Chukotkan and Alaska research revealed many important findings. First, that there is evidence of active whale hunting at least 2000 years before ancestral Inuit began this practice in the Bering Strait Region. This gives future researchers new questions to pursue, and is very important to our understanding of the cultural history of the region, and the depth of impact that humans may have had on whale populations in the Arctic and Northern Pacific regions. Second, the Old Whaling Site does not contain buried evidence of ancestral Old Whaling peoples. Finally, what the Old Whaling research did reveal is that general global warming is affecting the volume of permafrost in northwestern Alaska, which has implications regarding cultural resources of the past, but also could inform policy makers concerned with modern development and human impact in Arctic regions in the future.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Polar Programs (PLR)
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Anna Kerttula de Echave
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Brown University
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