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Archive for December, 2011

Junction of Alaska State Highways 1 and 2, Tok, Alaska

I’ve been reading about Alaska a lot mostly, trying to get a handle on this very complicated place where I now live.  Archaeologically, it’s fantastically complicated and not very well understood.  I’ve been meaning to do some blogging about Alaskan archaeology, but I feel like I still don’t have a very good grasp of it except at an extremely superficial level.  Unlike with the Southwest, however, that’s probably still more than virtually anyone else knows about it, so I’ll probably be doing some posts on it in the near future.  I still haven’t fully settled on whether to start a new blog or just use this one, but any near-term stuff I’ll probably just stick here.

One of the things I’m realizing is that there’s a major disconnect between the archaeological evidence known from Alaska and the role Alaska plays in a number of larger archaeological questions.  Alaska is the presumed starting point for (at least) three very important migrations that defined the cultural history of the entire Western Hemisphere, but so far the archaeological record within the state has shed virtually no light on two of them, and relatively little on the third.  Indeed, it has even been proposed that archaeological research in Alaska has been overly driven by these bigger questions, and that it would be better to try to understand it in its own terms first before trying to tackle them.

The first of these migration is, of course, the initial peopling of the Americas in the Late Pleistocene.  I’ve written before about my belief that this initial migration from Asia doesn’t matter when looking at much later developments such as those at Chaco Canyon, and I still believe that, but it is still an important issue in its own right.  Recent research in various places has increasingly indicated that the Clovis culture of around 13,000 years ago was not the direct result of the earliest migration into the Americas, but it is still the case that any migrations during the Pleistocene (and it’s increasingly looking like there were at least two) almost certainly would have had to go through Alaska.  Unfortunately, despite several decades of looking, no sites have yet been found in Alaska itself that can plausibly be taken to reflect the first immigrants into North America from Asia.  An increasing number of early sites have been identified in the past twenty years, but these are all still too late to represent a population ancestral to Clovis or any of the other early cultures found further south.  Part of the problem here is that preservation conditions for archaeological sites in most of Alaska are atrocious, and in many areas even finding early sites is extremely difficult.  The fact that the state is huge and sparsely populated also means that very little of it has even been surveyed for sites, although that is starting to change a bit with some recent efforts.  Still, we have a long way to go before archaeology within Alaska can shed much meaningful light on the issue of the peopling of the Americas.  I’ll definitely have some more in-depth discussion of this, probably fairly soon.

The second of the migrations I mentioned above is that of speakers of Athapaskan languages to the south, ultimately as far as the Southwestern US and the extreme north of Mexico.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s long been quite obvious that Navajo and the various Apache languages, as well as several languages of California and Oregon coasts, are closely related to a larger number of languages in Alaska and northwestern Canada.  The distribution of the languages, as well as some internal evidence in the southern branch, strongly suggests that the direction of the migration that led to this situation was north-to-south, and similar evidence similarly suggests that the start point was somewhere in what is now Alaska.  Despite the enormous distance over which Athapaskan languages are now spread, the greatest diversity of the languages grammatically is actually found within Alaska.  That is, some Alaskan languages are more closely related to Navajo than they are to other Athapaskan languages in Alaska.  While this is all clear linguistically, tracing the actual migration archaeologically has been enormously difficult at both ends.  Athapaskan archaeology in Alaska in particular is remarkably poorly understood compared to the archaeology of Eskimo groups, due in part to the fact that Athapaskans have mostly occupied the interior areas that are harder to investigate than the primarily Eskimo coastal areas.  I’ll definitely be writing more about this issue from both linguistic and archaeological perspectives, and given the obvious Southwestern connection a lot of that discussion will probably be on this blog even if I start another one.

The third migration, and by far the best understood, is that of so-called Thule peoples from northwestern Alaska eastward across the Arctic as far as Greenland.  The descendants of these migrants are the modern Inuit of Arctic Canada and Greenland, who have close linguistic and cultural connections to the Inupiat of northern Alaska.  While the exact time this migration took place is not totally clear, dates of around AD 1000 to 1200 are usually suggested, which makes it roughly contemporaneous with the major events at Chaco.  Unlike with the other two migrations, the starting point for this one has been fairly well established through extensive archaeological work along the Alaska coast that has defined a series of archaeological cultures leading up to the Thule culture.  Eskimo archaeology has been the main focus of most research in Alaska to date, and it shows in the level of knowledge about these cultures compared to the much more obscure Athapaskan and early cultures.  Still, however, many aspects of Alaskan Eskimo cultures are poorly understood.  (I am aware that the term “Eskimo” is generally avoided in Canada in favor of “Inuit.”  This is not the case in Alaska, where “Eskimo” is widely used and “Inuit” is not considered appropriate in most contexts.  The terms are not synonymous, and in the Alaskan context I think “Eskimo” is probably the best general term to use despite the very real problems with it.  I’ll definitely be discussing this issue further in the future.)

These are the big issues that make the archaeology of Alaska important to New World archaeology in general, and they have been the main impetus for much of the archaeological research done in Alaska to date.  The results have been stubbornly unhelpful in addressing most of them, however, while at the same time bringing to light the unexpectedly diverse and complex prehistory of Alaska itself.  It has long been much more than a corridor or starting point for people going elsewhere.  While the stories of the migrations from Alaska are definitely interesting and important, the ones that took place entirely within Alaska are interesting and important too.

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