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Archive for May, 2018

alaskawelcomesign

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.

barrowwelcomesign

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.

ninilchikrussianchurch

Russian Orthodox Church, Ninilchik, Alaska

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