Alaska’s Thaw Reveals—and Threatens—a Culture’s Artifacts

Precious items of the Yupik people, long frozen in time, are emerging as temperatures rise. Now the rush is on to save them.

This story appears in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The archaeological site of Nunalleq on the southwest coast of Alaska preserves a fateful moment, frozen in time. The muddy square of earth is full of everyday things that the indigenous Yupik people used to survive and to celebrate life here, all left just as they lay when a deadly attack came almost four centuries ago.

Around the perimeter of what was once a large sod structure are traces of fire used to smoke out the residents—some 50 people, probably an alliance of extended families, who lived here when they weren’t out hunting, fishing, and gathering plants. No one, it seems, was spared. Archaeologists unearthed the remains of someone, likely a woman, who appears to have succumbed to smoke inhalation as she tried to dig an escape tunnel under a wall. Skeletons of women, children, and elders were found together, facedown in the mud, suggesting that they were captured and killed.

As is often the case in archaeology, a tragedy of long ago is a boon to modern science. Archaeologists have recovered more than 2,500 intact artifacts at Nunalleq, from typical eating utensils to extraordinary things such as wooden ritual masks, ivory tattoo needles, and a belt of caribou teeth. Beyond the sheer quantity and variety, the objects are astonishingly well preserved, having been frozen in the ground since about 1660.

The remains of baskets and mats still retain the intricate twists of their woven patterns. Break open a muddy, fibrous bundle and you’ll find crisp, green blades of grass preserved inside. “This grass was cut when Shakespeare walked the Earth,” marvels lead archaeologist Rick Knecht, a quiet, grizzled veteran of decades of digging.

Knecht, who’s based at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, sees a link between the destruction at the site and the old tales that modern Yupiks remember. Oral tradition preserves memories of a time historians call the Bow and Arrow Wars, when Yupik communities fought each other in bloody battles sometime before Russian explorers arrived in Alaska in the 1700s. Nunalleq offers the first archaeological evidence, and the first firm date, for this frightful period, which affected several generations of Yupiks.

Knecht believes the attacks were the result of climate change—a 550-year chilling of the Earth now known as the Little Ice Age—that coincided with Nunalleq’s occupation. The coldest years in Alaska, in the 1600s, must have been a desperate time, with raids probably launched to steal food.

“Whenever you get rapid change, there’s a lot of disruption in the seasonal cycles of subsistence,” Knecht says. “If you get an extreme, like a Little Ice Age—or like now—changes can occur faster than people can adjust.”

Today increasingly violent weather has driven Nunalleq to the brink of oblivion. In summer everything looks fine as the land dons its perennial robe of white-flowering yarrow and sprigs of cotton grass that light up like candles when the morning sun hits the tundra. But the scene turns alarming come winter, when the Bering Sea hurls vicious storms at the coast. If the waves get big enough, they crash across a narrow gravel beach and rip away at the remains of the site.

The Arctic wasn’t always like this, but global climate change is now hammering the Earth’s polar regions. The result is a disastrous loss of artifacts from little known prehistoric cultures—like the one at Nunalleq—all along Alaska’s shores and beyond. Ötzi, the Stone Age man whose body was found in 1991 as it emerged from a receding Italian glacier, is the most famous example of ancient remains brought to light by warmer weather. But a massive thaw is exposing traces of past peoples and civilizations across the northern regions of the globe—from Neolithic bows and arrows in Switzerland to hiking staffs from the Viking age in Norway and lavishly appointed tombs of Scythian nomads in Siberia. So many sites are in danger that archaeologists are beginning to specialize in the rescue of once frozen artifacts. They’re having to make hard choices, though. Which few things can they afford to rescue? And which will they just have to let go?

In coastal Alaska, archaeological sites are now threatened by a one-two punch. The first blow: average temperatures that have risen more than three degrees Fahrenheit in the past half century. As one balmy day follows another, the permafrost is thawing almost everywhere.

When archaeologists began digging at Nunalleq in 2009, they hit frozen soil about 18 inches below the surface of the tundra. Today the ground is thawed three feet down. That means masterfully carved artifacts of caribou antler, driftwood, bone, and walrus ivory are emerging from the deep freeze that has preserved them in perfect condition. If they’re not rescued, they immediately begin to rot and crumble.

The knockout blow: rising seas. The global level of oceans has risen about eight inches since 1900. That’s a direct threat to coastal sites such as Nunalleq, which is doubly vulnerable to wave damage now that the thawing permafrost is making the land sink. “One good winter storm and we could lose this whole site,” Knecht says.

He speaks from experience. Since the start of the excavation, the relentless action of the sea has torn about 35 feet from the edge of the site. The winter after the 2010 dig was particularly brutal. Residents of Quinhagak, the modern village just four miles up the beach, remember huge chunks of ice slamming into the coast. By the time Knecht and his crew returned, the entire area they had excavated was gone.

Since then Knecht has pressed on with a renewed sense of urgency. Rain or shine, during the six-week dig season, about two dozen archaeologists and student volunteers spend long summer days on their hands and knees gently stripping away soil with their trowels.

On an August day that begins warm and buggy but soon turns overcast and cold, Tricia Gillam finds a common artifact that was created with exceptional artistry.

It’s a women’s cutting tool popularly called an ulu—uluaq in Yupik—with a curved blade of slate and a carved wooden handle. The archaeologists often uncover a blade, a handle, or an occasional complete ulu, yet this one brings gasps from everyone. The handle has the graceful shape of a seal. But that’s only half the design, it turns out. When local carver John Smith takes a look later from another angle, he sees the outline of a whale.

The artifact speaks to the fundamental Yupik worldview that nothing is a single, inflexible entity because everything is in a state of transformation. The ulu handle is a seal, but it’s not a seal. It’s a whale, but it’s not a whale. Other finds embody that same idea: A mask that’s a walrus, or a person. A small wooden box that’s a kayak, or a seal.

“That dynamism is a constant part of their lives,” Knecht says. “And climate change is part of that.”

If anyone’s going to survive the changes occurring in the natural world, he believes, it’s these people who have always seen their environment as something fluid, requiring adjustments and adaptations. They know firsthand the seasonal patterns of plants and animals, and if there’s a shift, they’ll shift with it.

The village of Quinhagak sits on Yupik land at the mouth of the Kanektok River, which winds across the tundra in wide loops before spilling into the Bering Sea. A few gravel streets run past a school, church, post office, supermarket, hardware store, health clinic, gas station, washateria, cell phone tower, and three sleek wind turbines that spin in the brisk sea breeze.

Officially, 745 people live here, in metal-roofed, wood-frame houses that perch on stilts a foot or so above the once frozen ground. But on any given day the actual population may be larger, swelled by relatives who have come to stay for several weeks, and residents of nearby villages who have come to shop, visit friends, and maybe pull in a few fish.

Based in an office building that also serves as the archaeologists’ headquarters, 50-year-old Warren Jones is president of the local Yupik corporation known as Qanirtuuq, Inc., managing its 130,564 acres, overseeing its businesses and financial assets, and negotiating contracts with the outside world. But he’d really rather be hunting, he tells me. Along with almost everyone else here, he follows the same cycles of subsistence as the generations of Yupiks who came before him.

“Most of our diet is from the stuff we gather, hunt, or fish,” he says. “My grandpa used to say, if you don’t have wood, fish stored away, berries, birds, you might as well be dead, because you don’t have nothing.”

Early August, when the excavation is in full swing, is a busy season for the villagers as they tap nature’s larder. Berries are ripening across the tundra, and fat coho salmon, known here as silvers, are swimming up the Kanektok on their way to spawn. In keeping with Yupik tradition, Misty Matthew helps her mother, Grace Anaver, gather food for the winter.

On the days she goes berry picking, Matthew drives an ATV deep into a flat, green landscape dotted with others on the same mission, hunched over as they fill their plastic buckets. Salmonberries ripen first, one small, sweet, orange cloud per plant. Then blueberries, with a vivid, sweet-tart flavor that no supermarket fruit can match, and low-growing black crowberries that are crunchy and subtly sweet.

No one here thinks in pints. It’s gallons they need. Matthew stirs up some of her haul with sugar and fluffy shortening to make a snack called akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream. Then she makes jam in her grandmother’s old stainless steel pot, and jelly with the leftover juice. But the bulk of the picking goes into big chest freezers in a backyard shed. She opens all three to show me what her mother already has gathered. One is stuffed with berries in clear plastic bags. Another has berries, salmon, seal oil, trout, and smelt. The last holds moose, clams, geese, swans, caribou, and two kinds of wild greens.

Kids in Quinhagak, the village near the archaeological site, are growing up very differently from their parents and grandparents. Instead of hand-sewn fur parkas, they wear the same store-bought clothing as other children around the world, and English, not Yupik, is their first language. Their time is occupied not with gathering food or making tools needed for survival, but with school, television, and the Internet.
Kids in Quinhagak, the village near the archaeological site, are growing up very differently from their parents and grandparents. Instead of hand-sewn fur parkas, they wear the same store-bought clothing as other children around the world, and English, not Yupik, is their first language. Their time is occupied not with gathering food or making tools needed for survival, but with school, television, and the Internet.

“It’s good to be fat in this village. It means you’re eating well,” she says. “You’re supposed to have three years of food stored away to get you through the lean times.”

On another day, early in the morning, Matthew and her brother, David, take out their family’s motorboat to net salmon on the river. An hour later they bring 40 silvers, easily 20 pounds each, to the wooden drying racks along a quiet side creek where their mother is waiting. The two women spend the rest of the day gutting the fish, cutting fillets, and slicing strips for brining, drying, and smoking—everything done with deft strokes of their ulus.

Like many people who grew up here, Matthew has sometimes left Quinhagak to find work, but the people, the tundra, and the river keep pulling her back. Yet even after years away, she can see that the natural rhythms of life are out of whack.

“Everything’s two or three weeks ahead now,” she says as she cuts into a fish. “The salmon are late. And the geese are flying early. The berries were early too.”

If there’s one thing everyone in Quinhagak agrees on, and talks about often, it’s all the changes brought by the weird weather.

“Twenty years ago the elders began to say the ground was sinking,” says Warren Jones, as we chat in his office. “The past 10 years or so it’s been so bad everybody’s noticed. We’re boating in February. That’s supposed to be the coldest month of the year.”

The strangest thing? Three successive winters without snow. On his computer, he pulls up a YouTube video made by a teacher at the village school. As the song “White Christmas” plays in the background, fourth graders try to ski, sled, and make snow angels on bare ground, in December.

This angled piece of wood once formed part of a kayak’s stern. The wooden frame of such a craft, covered with waterproof seal skins, was made to measure for the person who would be doing the paddling. It was so finely calibrated that a kayak often was destroyed when the owner died.
This angled piece of wood once formed part of a kayak’s stern. The wooden frame of such a craft, covered with waterproof seal skins, was made to measure for the person who would be doing the paddling. It was so finely calibrated that a kayak often was destroyed when the owner died.

Even without warmer winters, the children’s lives are very different from what their elders experienced. Qanirtuuq chairperson Grace Hill, 66, sees trends that concern her—like the fading language. “When I went to first grade, I only spoke Yupik. Now the kids only speak English,” she tells me in the fluent, slightly accented English that she learned in school. And then, of course, there’s the modern technology that’s changing everything everywhere. “The kids are more into computers—and they’re forgetting about our culture,” she worries.

Like other older villagers, Hill at first opposed the excavation of Nunalleq because Yupik tradition says ancestors shouldn’t be disturbed. But now she believes that archaeology can serve a greater good. “I’m hoping this will get the kids interested in their past,” she says.

Henry Small has the same thing in mind one sunny afternoon when he brings his 11-year-old daughter, Alqaq, to Nunalleq to check out the progress of the dig. This is their second visit this summer. When I ask him what he hopes his daughter learns here, he responds as if the answer were obvious: “Where she comes from!”

Alqaq, in a pink T-shirt, plaid capris, and movie-star sunglasses, is getting the message. On previous visits she has helped sort artifacts and sift the excavated soil for small things the archaeologists might have overlooked. She especially likes the dolls, she says, and the lip plugs. And what about the ulus, like the one her father made for her birthday, with her name carved into the handle? “It’s cool that we get to use what our ancestors were using,” she says without hesitation. Today’s visit is brief, with no work to do, so Alqaq and her father soon head up the beach toward home on an ATV.

Archaeology’s potential to inspire such appreciation for the past is what motivated Jones to get the dig started. He asked Knecht to assess the eroding site, then helped convince the village’s board of directors that excavating Nunalleq was a good idea. He also got the board to fund the first two years of digging and provide ongoing logistical support. “It wasn’t cheap,” he says. “But to get the artifacts for our future generations, money didn’t matter.”

At the end of each field season the archaeologists have packed up what they’ve found and shipped it to the University of Aberdeen for conservation. But all the artifacts will be sent back later this year, destined for an old school building that Quinhagak has converted to a heritage center. Jones envisions this as a place where people can see, touch, and share stories about the beautifully worked possessions of their ancestors.

“I want our kids who are in college now to run it and be proud that it’s ours,” he says. And when this dream takes shape and the center opens its doors? “I want to be the first to go in and say, ‘I’m Yupik, and this is where I come from.’ ”

Erika Larsen has photographed Sami herders in Scandinavia, tourists in Yellowstone, and writer Garrison Keillor in Minnesota.

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