Remains of ancient inhabitants found in Kivalina

August 25, 2009 

Construction workers unearthed the remains of three humans in Kivalina last month. The bodies are believed to have been members of a mysterious tribal group from about 1,000 years ago.

"It's a very significant find," said Peter Bowers, principal archaeologist with Northern Land Use Research, which is studying the site. "Prior to the discoveries this summer, there was little known about the prehistory -- prior to white contact -- of the specific Kivalina locality."

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium was doing excavation for Kivalina's new wastewater treatment plant when it came across some old bones, which an onsite archaeologist determined to be animal bones. Construction resumed until more bones were found -- this time human. And there were more.

Three bodies were found close to one another, two together and one in what could have been a wooden house. Archaeologists won't be certain how old the Kivalina remains are until radiocarbon dating is done, but they believe the people were members of the Ipiutak -- a group that lived in Alaska from about 500 to 900 A.D. Items found with the bodies include stone arrow points and carved ivory artifacts.

The discovery shows that Kivalina was occupied by humans about a 1,000 years longer than historians previously knew. It also sheds light on a mysterious group whose range and numbers are only just coming to light. Ipiutak are culturally distinct from the western Thule, whale hunters who were more clearly ancestors of the modern Inupiaq. Ipiutak hunted seals and smaller mammals on the coast but don't seem to have hunted whale. Caribou bones and the use of wood suggest that they also used areas in the Interior.

DISCOVERIES FROM 1940s

The number of the Ipiutak is a matter of speculation among historians. Ipiutak remains were first found in Point Hope in the 1940s, in a settlement that might have housed hundreds -- the largest settlement found so far north thus far. Ipiutak remains have since been discovered in Cape Krusenstern, Deering, Cape Espenberg, Barrow and, now, Kivalina.

How the Ipiutak could have sustained a village of hundreds on the resources of the area, without evidence of whaling, is a puzzle to historians and archaeologists, as is where the Ipiutak went.

"It seems to be a prehistoric population that was functioning quite well on both the Siberian and the Alaskan side up until 900 AD," Bowers said. Finding out what happened after that is "one of the mysteries we're trying to solve and the reason this is important."

MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARENCEAfter the Ipiutak faded out in Deering about 900 AD, the area was unoccupied for several hundred years before the western Thule moved in to the area.

Historians don't know why Deering was abandoned by humans for so long and then repopulated, but one theory for the relocation will probably sound familiar.

"It's quite likely environmental changes," Bower said. "The archeological record shows we've seen this in the past."

Just as coastal communities are experiencing today, changes in temperature could have subjected Deering to more erosion and raised the sea level, driving inhabitants elsewhere until conditions became favorable.

As for the bones unearthed in Kivalina, city administrator Janet Mitchell said that the remains are being kept by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium until the excavation is finished in case more bodies are found. After that they will be turned over to the Episcopal church in Kivalina for Christian burial, their plots marked with a simple cross and a plaque reading "unknown."

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