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The New Chaco Museum

newchacomuseum

New Museum at Chaco Canyon

Last week I went down to New Mexico for Thanksgiving, and while I was there I stopped by Chaco Canyon to see the new museum there. I had seen the new visitor center last year when I was there last, but the museum was still under construction so I wasn’t able to see it. It’s actually still not totally complete, but it is open to visitation and it is very impressive.

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Old Museum of Chaco Culture

The old Chaco museum was put together in the 1980s and by the time I was working at Chaco it was very outdated. It only had artifacts from the park’s own collection, which is fairly limited and doesn’t include the extraordinary finds excavated by early archaeologists, which are now in various museums elsewhere in the country. The interpretations weren’t necessarily inaccurate, but they were old and didn’t incorporate recent findings. It was also just a generally dark and dingy space, and not very pleasant as an experience.

The new museum is a vast improvement on all these counts. When it is complete it will have artifacts borrowed from those other museums, so the enormously impressive artifacts for which the canyon is famous will finally be available for viewing at the park itself after decades away. I say “when it is complete” because the artifacts are not actually there yet. Due to the lending museums’ strict standards, the park needs to develop and demonstrate very high-quality protective environmental conditions, which takes time and specialized expertise, and that process is not yet complete though park staff told me it is expected to be in the next few months. For now, there are a lot of empty cases with notes explaining the situation.

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Note Explaining Lack of Artifacts at New Chaco Museum

Even so, however, the types of artifacts intended to be shown and the explanatory material already in place shows that the new museum will incorporate current understandings and recent research to an impressive degree. Several interesting concepts that have come up in research discussed on this blog will be highlighted, including the discovery of chocolate residue in cylinder vessels and the idea that the “hachure” designs on black-on-white pottery represent the color blue-green. There is also a much more extensive discussion of modern Native communities and their connections to Chaco.

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Discussion of Modern Native Connections at New Chaco Museum

Aesthetically, too, the new space is much lighter and feels more open. It actually has the same footprint as the old one and isn’t any bigger, but it feels more spacious and comfortable. It’s a very pleasant visiting experience.

I’m looking forward to returning once the artifacts are in place, of course, but even without them it was a very worthwhile visit. This well-planned museum bodes well for the future of the park.

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“Chaco in Color” Display at New Chaco Museum

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Fajada Butte with Green Vegetation

Fajada Butte is one of the most prominent and noticeable landforms in Chaco Canyon. Standing as it does in the middle of one of the larger gaps in the canyon, it never fails to impress new visitors and longtime ones alike. These days it is most famous for the “Sun Dagger” spiral petroglyph near its summit that marks the summer solstice through an ingenious use of naturally occurring rockfall, but there is much more to Fajada than this one site and it seems to have played an important role in human understanding of the canyon for centuries, down to the present day.

We have only the limited information that can be gleaned from archaeology to use to try to understand what Fajada may have meant to the ancient Chacoans, but we are on firmer ground in understanding its meaning to the modern Navajo residents of the canyon and surrounding area. (Whether there is any connection between the two sets of meanings is an interesting question that is even harder to answer.) Navajo traditions about the butte center on a widespread and very interesting story, which serves in part to explain how it rises as an isolated promontory in the middle of one of the larger gaps in the mesas that define the canyon. This is the story of the “Witch Woman” or “Woman Who Dries You Up” who is said to live atop the mesa.

There are many versions of the story told by Navajos from various places, not just in the vicinity of Chaco itself, but the core of it is that the Witch Woman disguises herself as a young woman to seduce a man and bring him back to her house, which is at ground level. When he wakes up in the morning, she has transformed into an old crone and the butte has magically risen up beneath her house. Since there is no source of water atop the butte, the men entrapped this way generally die of thirst, hence the name “Woman Who Dries You Up.” There is an isolated boulder on top of the butte that is locally called the “Witch Woman’s House” from this story.

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Fajada Butte from Road into Chaco

The simple version of the story given above is pretty straightforward and could be viewed as merely an attempt to account for the origin of the notably isolated landform, and that may well be the origin of it. There are some versions that are more complex, however, possibly weaving in parts of other stories that may not have been originally related but that are certainly evocative.

One such version was reported in a brief article by W. W. and Dorothy Hill published in 1943 based on fieldwork by one of them (it’s not clear which) a few years earlier. It was told by a man from Crown Point, New Mexico, which is one of the closer communities to Chaco but definitely well outside the canyon itself. As reported in the article it is somewhat disjointed, and it’s clear that there must be more detail in the full version, though whether it was abridged by the Hills or by the original teller is unclear.

Anyway, the story centers on a “Holy Man” who has various adventures. He runs a race against Old Man Frog and has to give up his legs, which Frog gives to his wife who then grinds corn for four nights without stopping. Some men put pollen on her and she falls asleep, which allows the Holy Man’s brother to retrieve the legs and return them to him. The Holy Man then heads home and lightning misses him four times, which “initiates” him into something (presumably giving him some sort of supernatural power).

When he gets home he asks his relatives to have a ceremony for him, perhaps to cure him of some sort of bad influence from his adventures so far. At one point in the ceremony he is sent outside the hogan, where he meets the Witch Woman in her seductive young woman form. She brings him to her house, described as “a piece of hard rock where he found all kinds of jewelry, shells, and hides.” He spends the night, during which the rock grows and becomes the butte.

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Fajada Butte with Ramp (Lower Right)

So he wakes up and the young woman has become a crone, and he’s up on top of the butte with no way down. He walks around for a while until a jay and a dove, who are explained to be young girls in disguise, come to him. They make fun of him but also give him water, foiling the Witch Woman’s usual modus operandi.

The birds feed and water him for four days, then they tell him that Big Snake will come up to the east side of the butte and take him down, which does indeed happen. The snake tells him to run when he gets to the ground, which is good because the Witch Woman somehow got down too and is in hot pursuit.

He runs to the east and meets a series of lizards and frogs who can’t help him, until eventually he gets back to his old adversary Old Man Frog. After the Holy Man begs him four times for help, Frog does help him by hiding him in a hole. The Witch Woman comes up and asks about him, but Frog says he hasn’t seen him. Frog and the Witch Woman then race around Mt. Taylor (which is visible from many parts of Chaco including Fajada Gap) with the understanding that if Frog wins she has to let the Holy Man go. It’s a close race through various types of wind and rain, but Frog narrowly wins and the Witch Woman lets the Holy Man go free. Frog then advises him never to let anything like that happen again.

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Mt. Taylor from Chaco

So that’s the story. There are a lot of fascinating elements to it, along with a lot of traditional folktale elements common to Navajo stories as well as Pueblo ones, especially the prominence of the number four. It seems likely to me that some of these elements are from other stories that have been combined with the Fajada Witch Woman story, but some of them have echoes in other Navajo stories, likely of Pueblo origin, that relate to Chaco, such as the Gambler story. The Big Snake part is also fascinating due to the importance of the horned/feathered serpent concept in Pueblo tradition, and the role in plays is interesting in light of the artificial ramp leading up to the summit that appears to have been built in Chacoan times.

I don’t really have a theory tying this all together, and coming up with one would require a more detailed survey of the different versions of this story than I’ve done. Still, it is really interesting. Happy Halloween!

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Fajada Butte at Sunset

Local Action

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Quinhagak, Alaska

I’ve mentioned before that the prehistory of Alaska is much less well-understood than that of many other parts of North America, but there have been some interesting recent efforts to expand the amount of data available and the interpretations it can support. One of the most interesting is the excavation of the Nunalleq site in the small, remote community of Quinhagak. This project is distinctive in that it has been driven primarily by the local community, which saw that the site was in danger of being lost from accelerated erosion (driven in part by climate change). In partnership with archaeologist Rick Knecht from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, local people led by the village corporation, Qanirtuuq Incorporated, worked to excavate this extremely well-preserved late pre-Contact site, which dates to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD. The number of elaborate, well-preserved artifacts is astounding, and it is by far the richest site of the ancestral Yup’ik people of southwestern Alaska known to date.

Even more interesting, the artifacts are being displayed in a newly opened museum right in Quinhagak, rather than being stored in a distant location where they are not accessible to the descendant community. This not only gives the local people an opportunity to understand and access their heritage, but it also provides a tourist destination that can bring in much-needed economic activity to this very poor part of the state. This isn’t a model that can be replicated everywhere, but it’s a fascinating success story of archaeological research and heritage presentation driven by a local indigenous community in cooperation with outside academic experts. Definitely worth noting.

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Qanirtuuq Incorporated Building, Quinhagak, Alaska

Another Great Resource

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Hopi Buttes from Homol’ovi Ruins State Park

One noteworthy trend in recent years has been for publishers and scholarly organizations to increasingly put back issues (and in some cases even new issues) of their journals and other publications online for free. This has opened up a huge opportunity for the interested public to easily access publications that until recently have been difficult to find, in some cases even for specialists. Academics have long had access to a wide variety of publications through university libraries, of course, so this is probably less of a noticeable change for them, but it’s huge for those of us without an academic affiliation.

From time to time I’ve noted here when resources like this have become available for publications of interest in the study of Chaco Canyon and Southwestern archaeology more broadly, and today I noticed another one. The Peabody Museum at Harvard (not to be confused with the totally separate Peabody Museum at Yale) has begun to put online many of its early publications, especially those in its Papers series which includes many classic early works in Southwestern archaeology and ethnography.

Perhaps the best known of these publications are those documenting the early-twentieth-century expeditions of Alfred Kidder and Samuel Guernsey in northeastern Arizona, which excavated many rockshelters with astonishingly good preservation of organic artifacts especially from the Basketmaker period early in the Southwestern prehistoric sequence. Those papers are all among the ones now available online, along with some but not all of the papers from the later Awatovi Expedition that documented a much later period in the Hopi area. There are also papers on the archaeology of the Maya region and various other parts of North and South America, as well as many ethnographic papers including several important studies of modern Navajo culture.

Sadly, not all of the early Papers are included, although some are listed as “Coming Soon.” The order in which they seem to be added is odd, and there are some glaring gaps in the sequence. Most noticeable to me is the lack of Volume 21, J. O. Brew’s classic 1946 report on the excavation of the important southeastern Utah site of Alkali Ridge, but there a couple other unexplained gaps as well. (In addition, and less oddly, the more recent numbers in the series that are still in print are not included.)

Like I said above, I only discovered this resource today so I haven’t had a chance to really dig through any of these publications (so to speak). I’ve seen them before in libraries, but it’s something entirely different to have them in electronic form for download. I suspect they’ll be of interest to many readers of this blog as well.

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Lighthouse on the Coast of British Columbia

In the previous post, I mentioned that the study of Native California solstice observation that I was discussing found that southern California groups had types of observation resembling those in the Southwest, while northern California groups had observation types more like those of the Northwest Coast. This makes sense in terms of the larger cultural patterns tying these California groups to these other regions in general. However, when I started thinking more about this particular pattern I realized that there was something odd, or at least unfamiliar, about it.

The Southwest is of course very well known for its Native astronomy, both ancient and modern. The same is not true of the Northwest, however. This region is ethnographically very well-studied, and is well known for its cross-culturally unusual pattern of complex hunter-gatherer societies with a variety of elaborate social institutions. Astronomical observations, however, are not among the institutions widely associated with the Northwest. In contrast to the wide-open skies, sunny weather, and distant, varied horizons of the Southwest, the Northwest is a humid, rainy area of dense forests and mountains that come all the way to the sea. This would be a hard place to observe the sun! What’s more, astronomy and calendars are often associated with agriculture and the need to keep track of seasons for planting and harvesting, but the Northwest tribes had no agriculture and instead relied on hunting, gathering, and especially fishing for their subsistence. Did they really observe the sun and keep track of the solstices?

To try to answer this question, I followed the references from the California paper and found that those relating to the Northwest pretty much all came back to one publication, a monograph by Leona Cope published in 1919 entitled Calendars of the Indians North of Mexico. This is a systematic survey of the ethnographic information available at that time about the calendrical systems in this large region. To my knowledge there has never since been a similarly comprehensive study with updated information, which is unfortunate as the data available 100 years ago for many tribes and areas was quite sketchy and incomplete.

Be that as it may, Cope did quite well with the information she had available. She divided the types of calendars into three categories, based on the origin of the names of the months or “moons”:

  • Descriptive Type, by far the most common and found throughout the continent. The months are named descriptively, often after natural seasonal phenomena but sometimes after cultural phenomena such as ceremonies.
  • Numerical Type, the rarest and most restricted in distribution, running discontinuously along the Pacific coast from southern Alaska to northern California. Some or all of the months are numbered rather than named, though very few calendars use numbers exclusively.
  • Astronomical type, the one of most interest for my purposes here. The calendar, while based on lunar months like the other types, is calibrated in some way to one or both of the solstices. Found in three regional clusters: the Southwest (plus southern California), the southern Northwest Coast, and the central and eastern Inuit groups in Arctic Canada and Greenland.

This is a very interesting distribution of solstice observations! Cope attributes the Inuit observation practices to the unusual seasonal conditions of the far north, which is fair enough though it should be noted that not all of the Arctic or Subarctic groups in her study have astronomical calendars. She notes that the Inuit track the sun by indirect observation of shadows cast by rocks, in contrast to the direct observation of the sun used in the Northwest and Southwest (though recent archaeoastronomical work in the Southwest strongly suggests that at least some indirect observation was done there in the past as well).

Cope also has some information on the function of solstice observation among some of the Northwest tribes. She says of the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island:

The observation of the solstice is of great economic importance. If one
wishes to be successful in the hunting season, he must perform certain magical rites when the days are getting longer and the moon is waxing.

Again, very interesting! This is quite different from the ideology surrounding sun-watching among Southwest agriculturalists, but it has a clear logic to it that would provide an incentive to undertake the difficult task of making these observations in the Northwest.

Also noteworthy is the distribution of solstice observations within the Northwest. Many of the more “complex” features of Northwest Coast societies are generally considered to reach their highest level of complexity at the northern end of the area, among such groups as the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian of southeast Alaska and adjacent parts of British Columbia. Cope’s data show clearly, however, that the area of astronomical calendars and solstice observation is focused on the southern Northwest Coast, with the most detailed accounts of observations and the ideology behind them associated with the Wakashan-speaking groups on and around Vancouver Island. (Cope does classify the Haida and Tsimshian as part of her Astronomical Type, but only because they include a “between period” in their calendars to rectify the lunar months with the solar year. Her data show no trace of an astronomical calendar among the Tlingit.)

These Wakashan-speaking groups are distinctive in other ways; the Nuu-chah-nulth and related tribes are known for their focus on whaling rather than salmon fishing as the basis of their lifestyle, for example. It’s conceivable that solstice observation was originally a Wakashan trait associated with the ideology mentioned above, which later spread to some but not all neighboring groups but not necessarily with the ideological content intact. That’s largely a speculation on my part, though, and I need to research this more to see if it holds up.

After reading this study and seeing the intriguing evidence for ethnographic astronomical observance in the Northwest, I started reading up on the archaeology of this area to see if there has been any research on potential material correlates. The answer appears to be essentially “no,” in striking contrast to the situation in the Southwest where the ethnographic and archaeological evidence is routinely used in combination to better understand both. One major reason for this is surely the environmental context, which is not nearly as good for preservation of structures as the dry Southwest, except in certain unusual circumstances where sites get completely waterlogged. There’s just not much there to study, in other words, if you’re looking for alignments of buildings to astronomical phenomena.

Rock art, however, which is another frequently studied locus for archaeoastronomy, is common in the Northwest. Petroglyph sites here tend to be on beaches and to be associated with the sea, so they may be less likely to have astronomical associations here than in other areas, but it doesn’t appear that anyone has ever really checked.

More fundamentally, it seems like the archaeology of the Northwest has been so heavily dominated by research on economic issues and attempts to explain the complexity of ethnographic societies that things like astronomy don’t really enter into the literature much at all. There is also likely a bias toward focusing on phenomena that can be easily matched to the richly documented ethnographic cultures.

This bias became clear to me when I saw a passing reference in a review article on the archaeology of British Columbia to undated burial mounds on the South Coast. Burial mounds? In the Northwest? This is another phenomenon often associated with “complex” societies that is not often mentioned in connection with the Northwest Coast, presumably in this case because there is no ethnographic evidence for it having survived into the recent past. Mounds are also often associated in other areas with astronomical observations and alignments, which is why this reference piqued my particular interest.

I followed the reference, which went to a 1947 paper in a local historical journal summarizing a lot of information on these burial mounds, often called “cairns” as they were typically built with large rocks covering a burial in a complex but very regular pattern. Earthen examples are also known, however. The area of the mounds seems to have been focused once again on Vancouver Island, but in this case the focal point seems to have been the area now occupied by the city of Victoria. This area is occupied in modern times by speakers of Salishan rather than Wakashan languages, so there may not be any connection to the astronomical pattern. It is intriguing, however.

The 1947 article focuses largely on the excavations of the mounds in the late nineteenth century by an early settler named James Deans, who reported much of his work in brief letters to a local newspaper though he did write at least one longer unpublished report. Many of them were later excavated in the 1890s by the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, with Deans’s assistance. This expedition was a groundbreaking and highly influential project, with its results including the mound excavations extensively published in reports by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which at the same time was also sponsoring the Hyde Exploring Expedition excavations far away at Chaco Canyon. The presence of prehistoric mounds in the Northwest Coast was hardly obscure, that is to say. And yet it seems to have been largely forgotten in the modern archaeological literature of this region, or at least rarely seems to rate even a mention in a review article.

Part of this puzzling lack of continued attention to the mounds was likely due to the fact that virtually all of them have since been destroyed by urban and agricultural development, so unlike in other areas known for mounds there’s no longer anything to see. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were. I suspect that the other factors I mentioned above also played a role, however.

While mounds in other areas often have archaeological associations, there is no evidence that I can see that these burial mounds did, though again they have not been studied from this perspective. Another of Deans’s letters to the newspaper provides evidence for a different sort of prehistoric phenomenon which also seems to have disappeared and been forgotten. These are straight, paired stone alignments, of considerable age and consistent orientation to 12 degrees north of east. This is the sort of thing that may indeed have had an astronomical function, although that azimuth is not particularly meaningful as far as I can tell. Sadly, when Deans wrote in 1872 they were already mostly destroyed so there is presumably no way of studying them now.

I don’t really have a point here as I’m continuing to study all this, but it sure is fascinating. You just never know what’s out there.

 

Sunny California

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California Welcome Sign

Today is the summer solstice, on which I tend to write about archaeoastronomy. This time I’d like to briefly discuss an area with a rich heritage of Native astronomy that seems to get relatively little discussion: California.

California is known in anthropological circles for the astonishing variety of cultural and sociopolitical groups that traditionally inhabited this climatically favorable, highly productive area. Although these groups were all devastated to varying degrees by the influx of Anglo settlers in the nineteenth century, and some were also heavily affected by earlier Spanish colonization starting in the late eighteenth, most of them are fairly well documented ethnographically due to the extensive “salvage ethnography” pioneered by Alfred Kroeber and his students at Berkeley in the early twentieth century. There is therefore a rich base of data in which to look for evidence of Native astronomical observations, and a paper published in 1979 by Travis Hudson, Georgia Lee, and Ken Hedges does just that, in addition to reporting some early archaeoastronomical observations at California archaeological sites. The paper focuses specifically on solstice observations, which tend to be among the most important astronomical practices in many cultures.

The authors’ review of the literature shows that observation of the solstices was widespread in Native California. The vast majority of groups they investigated had some record of solstice observation, and most of those that did not may just not have had it documented. Only two groups were associated with definite statements that they did not observe any solstices, and even these might be due to mistaken information.

The winter solstice was by far the most commonly observed, with relatively few groups also observing the summer solstice and none observing summer but not winter. This ties in to a widespread pattern of keeping a calendar that often began with the winter solstice. A general geographic pattern held that Southern California groups were more likely to observe both solstices, while Northern California groups tended to only observe the winter one. This is in keeping with broader geographic patterns, with Southwestern groups generally observing both solstices but Northwest Coast groups focusing on the winter. There are many other cultural patterns connecting these two parts of California to these adjacent culture areas as well.

In addition to the ethnographic data, the authors report on several observations of potential solstice observation alignments at archaeological sites, mostly those involving rock art. These again showed a general pattern of most often aligning with the winter rather than the summer solstice. In some cases the rock art associated with these observation points contained apparent solar imagery, and in a few cases the authors even suggest that some of the rock art symbols represent the actual horizon line along which the sun was observed. This is a fascinating suggestion that I have not seen made of any other area, so it may be distinctively Californian if it holds up. They include examples of other rock art of similar form that may also be interpreted this way, although it has not been tested for alignments.

All in all, this is a fascinating introduction to the astronomy of a culture area that doesn’t get as much attention in this respect as others like the Southwest and Plains. While this was an early paper in the development of archaeoastronomy and not all of its conclusions may hold up, it is still an excellent starting point. Happy solstice!

 

Ancient Alaska

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Welcome Sign at Alaska/Yukon Border

I’ve lived in Alaska for almost seven years now. It’s a really interesting place in a lot of ways, and right now is a fascinating time to be here. People often think of it as being extremely different from the Southwest, but there are actually a lot of similarities, and there are a number of parallels especially between New Mexico and Alaska that make the two feel pretty similar to me.

One major difference, however, is the status of archaeology and understanding of prehistory in Alaska versus the Southwest. Southwestern archaeology has been going on in earnest for over a hundred years and has led to quite detailed understanding of many aspects of the region’s prehistory. The findings of archaeologists, especially at iconic sites like those at Chaco Canyon, have also been well incorporated into the region’s self-understanding and sense of identity. While the mythology of the Southwestern “mystique” has a lot of problems and doesn’t always accurately reflect what is now known about the historical and prehistoric record, there is no denying the importance of archaeology there.

Alaska is a very different story. While the region’s obvious importance to theories about the peopling of the Americas from Asia has led to a long history of archaeological interest, the research that has been conducted over the years has been frustratingly difficult and its results highly fragmented and confusing. Part of this is because of the remote location and poor preservation of archaeological remains in many parts of the state, but those factors don’t come close to explaining all of it. It seems like the prehistory of Alaska is just very complicated and doesn’t easily fit any of the straightforward theories people have come up with for its role in continental or hemispheric events.

That said, part of the issue is the relatively small amount of research done in Alaska to date, and that does indeed reflect in part the region’s remoteness and the difficult conditions for both preservation and research. As a result, the archaeological literature on Alaska is frustratingly thin and largely technical and specialized, with a relative lack of the sorts of introductory, popularized accounts that are a dime a dozen in the Southwest. One good introduction, however, that I have recently come across is Ellen Bielawski’s In Search of Ancient Alaska.

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Welcome Sign, Utqiagviq (Barrow), Alaska

This book is definitely a very general introduction, and it doesn’t go into very much detail at all about the various archaeological cultures that have been identified or the theories about how they relate to each other. It is however a good starting point, especially for the absolute beginner. It is primarily organized by culture area, according to the general schema used by modern Alaska Native institutions like the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which is a reasonable approach to organize the archaeological data.

There is also a chapter on the archaeology of the very early inhabitants of the state, which is probably of the most interest to general readers outside Alaska due to its relationship to the peopling of the Americas. What this chapter shows, however, is both how little we actually know about these early inhabitants and how hard it is to relate their remains to either comparably early people elsewhere or to later people anywhere. This is an accurate reflection of the state of knowledge on this, despite how frustrating it seems.

I don’t have much more to say about this book, but I do recommend it as a general introduction to a topic that I find very interesting even though it is so poorly understood. I would really like to be able to write more about Alaskan prehistory the way I write about Southwestern prehistory, and I’ve tried to some extent, but the data currently just isn’t there for the same level of discussion and interpretation.

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Russian Orthodox Church, Ninilchik, Alaska