This is an ethnoarchaelogical investigation into the seal poke storage system that was utilized for storing subsistence resources by Arctic peoples since prehistoric times. The seal poke storage system was a highly innovative and efficient subsistence technique that was used across the Arctic and until just recently by the Yup?ik people of coastal southwestern Alaska. Women would expertly construct the airtight storage container from the whole skin of seals. Inside they would put the blubber, other fish, and greens and place the containers in pits of cool water. Inside the blubber would render into oil and the other contents would marinate and could be successfully stored for up to five years. Today however AlaskaNative people store their oil in plastic buckets, which can go rancid in the summer heat. This research will document how the pokes are made and used and the possible effects that traditional storing and processing methods in this region may have had on the quality of foods. In addition, long term food storage systems are a key element to increasing populations, which in turn can lead to more complex social systems.

The PI has worked in villages along the Alaskan coast since 1996 and will collaborate with Yup?ik elder women and men (the last generation to know how to construct the pokes) to reconstruct two seal pokes and store them in the traditional manner. Over a two year period the project will compare the nutritional composition of the seal poke oil with samples from families who will keep their oil in plastic buckets. This projects? combination of field and laboratory analysis will contribute to a finer understanding of subsistence foods, health, and changed technology. The data generated on the nutritional and toxicological differences between traditional and contemporary practices may have significant impact on health and practice in this region (and elsewhere) and promises to benefit Alaskan Native people. This investigation will not only provide ethnoarchaeological information on how people constructed this specific storage system but ultimately information that can be applied to the archaeological record and provide insights into the evolution of social complexity in the Arctic.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Polar Programs (PLR)
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Anna Kerttula de Echave
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University of Nevada Las Vegas
Las Vegas
United States
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