Hair from ancient Alaskans offers clues to coastal diet, lifestyle

September 7, 2012 

"I think we'll be looking at a story of resilience in the face of very rapid climate change," says longtime Alaska archaeologist Rick Knecht, leader of the Quinhagak excavation for the University of Aberdeen.


Dozens of 700-year-old sod homes being excavated for the past few years near the Southwest Alaska village of Quinhagak have yielded thousands of Yup'ik tools, pots and carvings that for centuries were preserved in now-thawing permafrost. Human hair has also been discovered in the excavations, and scientists are learning more about the diet and lifestyle of the inhabitants. BBC News updates readers on what the site is revealing.

The site, known as Nunalleq, was inhabited from around AD 1350 to AD 1650, during which time the area suffered through "The Little Ice Age."

By analyzing extremely well preserved hair found at the site, the team hopes to understand how the people of Nunalleq altered their behavior with a changing environment.

"Chemical signatures, the isotopes in your food, become present in your hair. You are what you eat," explained Dr. Kate Britton, also of the University of Aberdeen.

"By analyzing strands of the hair of multiple individuals, we're getting this picture of a very mixed and generalized economy incorporating salmon, caribou and other animal species.

Scientists are in a race against global warming, trying to gather evidence even as the Bering Sea threatens to erode the site away.

Read more at BBC News: Race to save Alaskan Arctic archaeology

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