A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Excavations near a Yup’ik village in Alaska are helping its people reconnect with the epic stories and practices of their ancestors
In recent years, Quinhagak, a small southwestern Alaskan village just inland from the Bering Sea, has, along with other coastal communities in the state, witnessed dramatic erosion due to climate change. The area, located at the southern end of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, has historically been prone to damaging storms and flooding, but now, melting sea ice is resulting in larger waves and has left the shoreline more vulnerable to storm surges. Land once held firm by permafrost has softened and is now easily eaten away by the tides, with the result that anything previously embedded in the permafrost is released.
Around 2007, carved wooden objects started washing up on the beach near Quinhagak, and the source seemed to be a site several miles to the south known to have once been inhabited. The native Yup’ik people who live in the area generally believe in not disturbing their ancestors’ settlements, but they recognized that this was a special case. Artifacts of their past were in danger of being lost forever, and they believed that if these objects could be recovered, younger, culturally adrift members of the community might forge a deeper connection with their heritage. So they called in Rick Knecht, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, who has extensive experience excavating in Alaska, to examine the threatened site. “We landed there,” Knecht says, “and right away found a complete wooden doll on the beach. We followed the tide line and saw more and more evidence of wooden artifacts. A couple miles down the beach, we could see where they were coming from.” A dark midden partially concealed carved wooden shafts and half of a bentwood bowl. Knecht could tell that large chunks of earth had calved off, and big, grassy clumps could be seen on the beach with artifacts essentially pouring out of them.
The site has been dubbed Nunalleq, which means “Old Village” in the Yup’ik language. Since 2009, Knecht has led an excavation team there for up to six weeks each summer. He now recognizes that Nunalleq was occupied on and off between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, well before the first contact between the Yup’ik people and Russian traders, which took place in the 1830s. The archaeologists have found tens of thousands of artifacts—most made of wood or other organic materials, preserved only because they had been embedded in permafrost—that are providing a rare glimpse of precontact Yup’ik life. Hundreds of wooden dolls, from simple flat sticks to three-dimensional carvings, and a number of wooden masks, some large enough for use in a masked dancing ritual and some small enough that they appear to have been designed for use as playthings with the dolls, have been found. Carvings in wood and ivory of animals important to the Yup’ik people, such as seals and birds, have also been discovered. “On average, a person might find two hundred pieces a day,” says Knecht. “There’s so much information there.” Among the most striking finds has been evidence of a period of fierce internecine conflict that may have gone on for hundreds of years.
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