Ancient Eskimo Artifacts Reveal Animal Connection: Photos

Artifacts from an early Eskimo winter village reveal how intertwined human and animal lives were at the site.

[slideshow 9712]

"Nunalleq," a.k.a. "Old Village," was a winter village bustling with Eskimo and animal life from 1350 to 1650 A.D. The Yup'ik people lived at the site, located at Quinhagak in western Alaska. Ancestors of these early Alaskans still live near there. The village, described in the latest issue of British Archaeology, overlooks the Bering Sea. Aberdeen University archaeologists who are excavating the site unearthed this figurine of a "palraiyuk," or monster. "There is a traditional myth involving a sea monster that Europeans thought sounded like an alligator or a dinosaur, so decided the story must be quite recent," archaeologist and author Mike Pitts, who also edits British Archaeology, told Discovery News. "But archaeologists went and found a carved ivory head of the monster in a prehistoric context." It's still a mystery as to what animal, or animals, might have inspired the creature.

Pitts explained this is "a decorated caribou antler gut scraper, used for making waterproof garments." They learned that seal or walrus intestines -- once scraped, cleaned, soaked and dried -- could be shaped into wearable garments that kept out moisture. Coats made of animal fur would often go over this sturdy, functional apparel. When an animal was killed, virtually every bit of it was put to some use.

The beauty of the site today is proving to be a mixed blessing. Rick Knecht, an archaeologist working at the location, explained that permafrost, which once preserved the remains, is now melting away. One of the goals of the project, he said, is to rescue "northern coastal sites threatened by the impact of global warming" and "to understand the impact of climate change on Bering Sea prehistory."

"House interiors were lined with short planks made from split driftwood logs," according to Knecht. He added that on mild weather days, homes were entered through a long hallway, which was "useful for storage and for keeping the wind out. "On blustery days, access was "via a long tunnel, which came out in the middle of the main room." The winter entry acted as a cold trap and served double duty for food storage. Such sod homes were so well built that they usually lasted for 50 years or more. Hearths were very small because the homes were so well insulated.

This large wooden doll with inset ivory eyes is one of over 60 ancient Eskimo dolls that have been found so far. Pitts explained that they were "used as toys and in rituals, and to represent people absent from important events."

While the other doll definitely sported a smile, this one shows a very different expression. It too was carved out of wood. Here, it is shown right after it was unearthed, still at the winter village site.

Knecht said that "Yup'ik belief systems are in evidence" at the village, "such as depictions of human/animal transformations." This ivory toggle, for example, looks part-human and part-animal. Both Inuits and Yup'iks had such beliefs and created these kinds of objects. Joslyn Cassady of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA wrote in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal that "Inuit myths, folklore, and material culture are filled with examples of people who turn into animals." The line between humans and non-human animals were often blurred, given how connected the early Alaskan natives were to nature and to local wildlife.

These antler harpoon heads were used in sea mammal hunting, Pitts said. Their construction reveals just how deadly the weapons could be. The sharp tips could pierce the tough exteriors of animals such as seals, with the other sharp points ensuring the harpoons stayed fixed once inside the flesh that was covered by slippery, wet skin.

This caribou antler arrow point was found on the floor of a house, perhaps having just been used. It was slotted at the end for a slate blade. The weapon might have been used to shoot into other caribou, which could provide meat for an entire family.

Numerous arrows and blades have been excavated. This one might tell a particularly gory tale, as it was found in a burnt house. The skeletal remains of an adult were discovered lying in a partially dug hole near a wall. "An outstretched arm suggests that this person may have been trying to dig themselves out of the burning house," according to Knecht.

Like the dolls, this wooden owl figure, held by Aberdeen University archaeology student Lindsey Stirling, could have been used as a toy or ritual item. Items were usually carved out of wood, ivory or animal antlers.

All of the artifacts belong to the Qanirtuuq Corporation, which is owned and operated by the people of Quinhagak. Traditional Yup'ik Eskimo culture is under pressure but remains strong, Knecht said. "Traditional Yup'ik belief systems favored old village sites being left undisturbed as a mark of respect to ancestors and to the past itself," according to Knecht. "Increasing losses of ancient sites to erosion, however, and worries about a younger generation distracted from traditional cultural values, have led many Yup'ik elders to reevaluate their position about archaeology."