2017- A Year in Review

By Chelsi Slotten

    It’s hard to believe it’s already 2018! We’ve had a very busy year with some really incredible highlights. The year started with some of our staff attending the second set of NSF-sponsored workshops exploring the idea of an Arctic Digital Library to increase access to Arctic archival collections. These meetings were followed by a whirl of activity that culminated in two events in April. We invited two scholars from Alaska, Rhonda Sparks and Hannah Voorhees, to present at our annual Ernest “Tiger” Burch Memorial Lecture. Their talk on climate change and indigenous understanding of human-polar bear relationships was particularly well attended.


Narwhal Exhibit
A look at our Narwhal exhibit.

   Earlier in April we launched a new series of blogs which highlights the amazing objects in our collection. We’re working with the Emily Cain and Haley Bryant from Circumpolar Ethnology Imaging Project to showcase some of our favorite items in the collection. Over the past year almost 2,500 object records in our Arctic Ethnology collection have been digitized and made available to the public! As part of our desire to increase digital access to Arctic collections, Igor Krupnik, Nicholas Parlato and Chelsi Slotten attended and presented on the state of collection digitization in the Arctic at ICASS IX in Umea.

    Around the same time, our Alaska Office released two new free educational resources through our Sharing Knowledge Alaska initiative. The new interdisciplinary curricula helps students learn about Alaska Native peoples, including traditional knowledge, subsistence practices, languages and values. We were also thrilled to have Dr. Aron Crowell, director of the Alaska Office, talk about his experience of dialogues with indigenous scholars, artist and educators in their communities and at the museum. In Alaska local artists participated in a moose hide tanning and sewing residency that culminated in several public programs and a workshop.

French Coin
A 1630's French coin from an Inuit site in Quebec.

    Back on the east coast, Bill Fitzhugh went on his annual research expedition to Quebec and Labrador. One of the most exciting finds of the summer was a French coin from the 1630’s which helped to date the Inuit site we have been excavating in Quebec. The students on the trip also got to spend some quality time as Norse re-enactors at the L’Anse aux Meadows Viking site while waiting for suitable weather for boat traveling. Bill’s research trip had a slight interruption when he returned to DC for the opening of our newest exhibit, Narwhal: Revealing an Arctic Legend, which runs through early 2019. The exhibit and its companion volume are already very popular as the narwhal has a somewhat legendary status and is referred to as the “unicorn of the sea.” In fact, the unicorn myth is based on information on narwhals that came to Europe via Greenland Vikings!

    We were also fortunate enough to acquire a large new collection item this summer. Stephan Loring and Igor Krupnik helped with the acquisition and transport of a 28-foot Siberian Yupik Angyapik, also known as an Umiak in North Alaska, from St. Lawrence Island. The traditional skin boat is over 50 years old and is part of a disappearing tradition as more and more boats of this type are now made with synthetic materials.

St. Lawrence Island Angyapik
Our newest collection item, a 28-foot Siberian Yupik Angyapik.

    This year has been filled with collaborations, educational outreach, an exciting new exhibit, new projects, and progress towards understanding the amazing changes underway in the Arctic. We are, as always, excited to continue to learn and ready to face whatever the New Year brings—one of those things will be our forthcoming books on Arctic Animal Crashes and a compendium on Canoes and Kayaks of the Eurasian North. Wishing you all the best from all of us here. Happy New Years!

Free Public Lecture on Life and Death in the Arctic on January 15, 2016

Ernest “Tiger” Burch Memorial Lecture Series, 2016

Caribou, Cod, Climate, and Man: A Story of Life and Death in the Arctic

By: Morten Meldgaard, Natural History Museum of Denmark and University of Greenland

January 15th, 2016, 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. in the Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.



Far from being a remote planetary ‘deep-freeze’, the Arctic region today is recognized as a dynamic environment that has played a major role in the evolution and spread of animals and plants as well as the migrations and development of peoples and cultures. This presentation begins by investigating why Late Quaternary megafauna like the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros went extinct while others like caribou and bison prevailed. What caused these differential outcomes? And what was the role of humans and climate in the dramatic changes that took place subsequently?

In order to explore these questions we will consider the history of caribou and caribou hunting in Greenland, where excavations at the important site Aasivissuit (“the Great Summer Camp”) reveal a close human association for several thousand years. Archaeological evidence reveals that dramatic caribou population crashes have occurred time and again, forcing major changes in the human economies. The key to human survival has been the development of broad-based, resilient resource strategies.

To understand what this strategy looked like and how people coped with fluctuating resources we examine the 4000 year old Saqqaq site “Qeqertasussuq” on a small West Greenland island in Disko Bay that has produced a wealth of biocultural information from the frozen remains of seals, fish, caribou and whales. Ironically, in spite of apparent abundance, Saqqaq suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. What happened? Did the marine resource base disintegrate? Did winter sea-ice disappear? Were other agents in play?

Given recent history, one cannot but wonder if humans had a decisive role in cycles of key resource populations over time?  Archaeology and history shows that humans have decimated many Arctic animal populations and that the scale of human impact has changed dramatically with industrialized exploitation. Instances of local prehistoric population decreases and extinctions have been replaced by massive over-exploitation that is resulting in possible irreversible changes in the populations of keystone species and even in the structure of entire ecosystems, in the Arctic and beyond.

Dr. Morten Meldgaard (Ph.D. in Biology, 1990, University of Copenhagen) is Professor of Arctic environmental history at the University of Greenland. He served as the directors of Danish Natural History Museum (2007-2014), The North Atlantic House (a cultural center for culture and art, 2000-2005), and the Danish Polar Center (1995-200). He conducted zooarchaeological research in Greenland and Labrador and published widely on historical ecology, animal fluctuation cycles, Inuit use of animal resources, and application of mtDNA and other genomic data in studying ancient human migrations in the Arctic.

Arctic Crashes: Harp Seals and Eskimos in Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence

By: William Fitzhugh. Originally Published in ASC Newsletter No. 22, pg 29-33.

Harp seals have been intertwined with human history ever since people began living along the Arctic and Subarctic shores of the North Atlantic. Harps were quite likely a resource for Upper Paleolithic cultures of Europe and for hundreds of years and more recently have been a mainstay for Saami, Finns, and Russians living around the White Sea. In the Northwest Atlantic, harps have been important for Maritime Archaic Indian cultures between 8000-4000 years ago from Maine to northern Labrador and have sustained Paleoeskimo, Inuit and Innu peoples who occupied the regions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic and Greenland south to Newfoundland and the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The latter regions have been investigated by the Smithsonian for more than thirty years. The presence or absence of Harp seals may have been a major factor, along with climate change, for cultural migrations and boundary changes between these culturally-distinct populations.

Field Program 2014   

Testing this hypothesis became the focus of a sub-project of the ASC’s “Arctic Crashes” project in 2014-2015 as part of the author’s on-going research into Eskimo and Inuit culture development in Labrador, Newfoundland, and the Quebec Lower North shore. Arctic Crashes is exploring the causes and effects of fluctuations in northern animal populations and its impact on human societies. The recent discovery of Inuit winter occupations on the LNS west of Blanc Sablon has provided a new data-set with which to test the climate/pack-ice/southern Eskimo migration model in which three culturally and chronologically distinct Eskimo/Inuit groups occupied—and then abandoned—the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence and Island of Newfoundland: Groswater Paleoeskimo 2500-2200 BP; Newfoundland Dorset 1800-1400 BP; and Labrador Inuit AD 1500-1750.

Hart Chalet site under excavation by Alaina Harmon and Mariel Kennedy in August 2014. View north through entry passage into house interior.

With support from the Smithsonian’s Grand Challenge Program, we conducted field surveys and excavations in July and August 2014, from Hamilton Inlet (Labrador) to Brador and St. Paul Bay on Quebec’s LNS. Fieldwork was facilitated by the ASC’s research vessel Pitsiulak was staffed by a field team including Alaina Harmon and Notre Dame student Marielle Kennedy. Ted Timreck and Sandra Kingsbury produced video documentation for the ASC and NMNH’s Q?rius Education Center. Our activities concentrated on excavations at the Hart Chalet Inuit winter village site near Brador (Quebec) where we spent ten days conducting excavations in Houses 1 and 2 and recovered a large sample of bone and shell midden material dated to ca. 1700. This sample is now being analyzed by Claire St. Germaine of University of Montreal. After species identifications have been made we will be submitting samples for isotopic analysis to determine water temperature and other characters suitable for environmental reconstruction. (See here for related Crashes studies of the paleo-marine environment conducted by Walter Adey and colleagues.)     

Project Background    

Thirty years ago when we identified major north-south movements in Labrador’s Eskimo-Indian boundaries, correlations between these changes and climate cycles identified in the pollen records and Greenland ice cores suggested climate as the primary causal factor. The correlation was particularly strong with the distribution of Eskimo groups, who were heavily dependent on sea ice and its associated fauna. The mechanism suggested was shifts in the duration and southward extent of seasonal pack ice. Cooler weather brought more pack ice south and produced longer winters in coastal regions. Eskimo resources that came with the pack ice were ring, harp, bearded, and bladdernose seals, and walrus and bowhead whales. We also knew that the historic period Labrador Inuit had expanded their whale-hunting culture into areas of central and southern Labrador formerly occupied by the Innu. But earlier Paleoeskimo groups like the Dorset and Pre-Dorset were walrus and seal hunters, not whalers. Dorset Paleoeskimos expanded far south of the Thule/Labrador Inuit boundary, occupying the entire Island of Newfoundland and nearby northeastern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. What was it about the pack ice that enabled this Dorset expansion about 2000 years ago, as well as an earlier Groswater expansion, also including all of Newfoundland around 600 B.C.? Walrus remains are not common in Groswater and Dorset sites in Newfoundland, but harp seals are present in great numbers. The more that we researched the question of early Eskimo expansions and retreats from their maximal southern limits, the more it became evident that the answer must be found in changes in the distribution of pack ice and harp seals.

Harp Seal Biology and Ecology

Harp seals are the most abundant marine mammal in the northwestern Atlantic—some 6-9 million animals. Their biology, ecology, and migratory behavior (Sargeant 1991) have been investigated in detail due to the species’ economic importance to traditional and commercial hunters from Greenland to Newfoundland, and because of the controversy over the commercial hunt of its new-born ‘whitecoats’ around Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Harp seals migrate annually from Baffin Bay and Davis Strait in large companies of 20 to 100 or more individuals. The migration strikes the northern Labrador coast in late October or November and proceeds south in waves, with animals hugging the shore and entering the exact same bays and island passages year-after-year just as ice begins to form. Labrador Thule and 16-18th C. Labrador Inuit sites contain large numbers of harp seal bones. During the 19-20th C. thousands of harps were caught annually by Inuit and Europeans with rifles and nets along the Labrador coast and the Quebec Lower North Shore. A Newfoundland hunt (both traditional and commercial) for adult harps and white-coats has been conducted off-shore on the floating pack-ice by ship-borne hunters since the mid-19th century.

The main mass of the harp migration takes several weeks to pass any given location. Reaching southern Labrador, part of the herd remains on the newly-formed pack ice east of southern Labrador and northern Newfoundland in a region called “The Front.” The other segment passes with the drifting ice through the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Part of this group hugs the Quebec coast west to Natashquan and Mingan where they remain a few weeks feeding before turning south to their birthing area on the ice floes north of the Magdalen Islands. The rest of the Gulf herd passes south along the west coast of Newfoundland before re-grouping north of the Magdalens. They remain here and in other areas of stable ice throughout the winter. In February and March, the females give birth on the ice to pups known as white-coats. The mothers tend and feed their pups for several weeks as they cannot feed themselves or even dive because the thick furry white coats that keep them from freezing on the open ice are too buoyant. When their blubber has thickened and the white-coats have been replaced by shorter hair, they begin to swim and feed on their own.

In April, the adult harps gather again, this time to bask in the sun and to moult, and when the pack ice melts in April and May, they head north in small companies. Adults leave first, then the young, following a hydrographic feature known as the “Eskimo Channel” that parallels the west coast of Newfoundland. It is this northward migration that was the primary target of Port au Choix Dorset hunters, as their route passes close to shore at Pointe Riche. After leaving Newfoundland the migration is generally too far off-shore in the outer pack off Labrador to be accessible to shore-based hunters and reaches the summering grounds around Greenland and Baffin Bay in June and July.

Like the arrival and departure of geese and of salmon, the harp migration was a relatively dependable phenomenon during the historical period. Catch statistics varied considerably though, as a result of variable hunting access due to storms, dangerous ice, or inaccessible locations far from shore. Throughout the historical era the harp catch was a crucial early winter and spring resource to the Inuit, European settlers, and some Indian groups throughout Labrador, along the Quebec LNS, and northern and western Newfoundland. When unavailable due to population decline, abandonment of the Gulf, or inaccessibility, the loss of harp seals caused hardship for European settlers, and for traditional cultures, it could spell disaster.

Whale bone and caribou antler implements from Hart Chalet Inuit winter village site (House 1).

It has long been known that the economy of the Phillip’s Garden Dorset site at Port au Choix, one of the largest Paleoeskimo sites in the Eastern Arctic and Subarctic, was based predominantly on harp seals.  This dependence, particularly at the key site of Port au Choix, has led to speculation that a change in migration route or a precipitous population crash may have caused the site’s abandonment, and subsequently, in a domino-like effect, the disappearance of Dorset culture throughout the rest of Newfoundland (Bell and Renouf 2008, 2011; Renouf and Bell 2009). In earlier years, the discussion was all about the ice—how close and how thick it was; where was it moving; and how to get to it—because this was where harp seals congregated. Every year conditions varied from region-to-region, but western Newfoundland in early spring was where seals could be expected most dependably (Hodgetts (2003, 2005; Hodgetts et al. 2003), especially at Port au Choix where the cape bordered the Harp seal migration north following the Eskimo Channel (LeBlanc 1996, 2000). For many years local hunters have reported that shifting spring winds and currents in the Gulf ice sometimes caused harp migrations to shift from western Newfoundland across to the Quebec Lower North Shore, taking the animals out of reach of Newfoundland hunters (D. Sargeant pers. comm. 1972). Similarly, LNS hunters frequently speak about winters when harps become unavailable during their early winter migration because of lack of ice or from ice having been blown too far off-shore to reach with small boats (pers. comm. with Harrington Harbor hunters, 2001-10; Murray 2011).

Archaeozoological studies have made cultural and environmental reconstructions more specific. Hodgetts et al. (2003), citing a decreasing percentage of harp seal bones and diversification of diet to include more fish and birds in the later Dorset components at Port au Choix, suggest a broadening of the diet and less dependence on harp seals than in earlier years. Changes like this could be a response to reduced harp seal availability. Citing chronomid midge frequency changes in sediments from nearby Bass Pond, (Rosenberg et al. 2005) suggested that terrestrial warming at Port au Choix peaked at 1100 BP, coincident with the end of the Dorset occupation. Marine pollen transfer function studies off southwestern Newfoundland (Levac 2003) indicated a warming of Gulf waters at this time. Based on these studies, Renouf and Bell (Renouf and Bell 2009; Bell and Renouf 2011:37) speculated that climate warming may have undermined sea ice conditions and destabilized the harp seal population and its migration routes, ending Dorset tenure at Port au Choix, and through cascade effects, severing Dorset contacts with Labrador and bringing an end to Dorset culture throughout Newfoundland.

Seal mandible from Hart site H1 midden which produced shells and large amounts of caribou bones.

Based on observations of the past few years, a variation of this hypothesis may be suggested that more explicitly links advances and retreats of Groswater, Dorset, and southern Inuit occupations south of Cartwright to cycles of harp seal availability. Johnston et al. (2005, 2012) report that, since 1996, the formation of pack ice in the Gulf has declined dramatically, such that in many areas there is no ice at all, and where it is present it is weak and breaks up in storms. This situation has become even more dramatic since 2007 and has been widely reported in the press. If ice thins or disappears before the white-coats have molted, they usually drown. The winters of 2010-2012 in the northern Gulf were so mild that many areas had no ice, and female seals had to give birth in the water or on shore. When this happens pups drown or are abandoned and die on shore or are lost to gulls and other predators. Poor ice conditions are thought to have resulted in a large losses of pups in 1981, and in 1998-2005.

Hart Chalet House 1 west midden, where shells, mammal and fish bones were recovered.

In July 2010, during fieldwork on the Quebec LNS, we found harp pup carcasses on-shore, and local hunters told of “thousands” dying in the vicinity of their villages. Without the winter ice platform, wildlife officials cannot conduct aerial population counts, so the effect of these recent low-ice winters on the population is not easily quantified. Johnston et al. (2005) documented a significant reduction in sea ice cover on the east coast of Canada since 1995. These data show cyclicity in ice presence and absence that seems to be keyed to the North Atlantic Oscillation. A more recent study (Johnston et al. 2012) using satellite photography has shown that “warming in the North Atlantic over the last 32 years has significantly reduced winter sea ice cover in harp seal breeding grounds, resulting in sharply higher death rates among seal pups in recent years.” This study found that seasonal sea ice cover in all four harp seal breeding regions around the North Atlantic has declined by up to 6 percent each decade since 1979, when satellite records of ice conditions began, and that in low ice years virtually all the young of the year die. Whether the current pattern will persist long enough to have a significant impact on harp seal population remains to be seen, because these losses can take a decade to have an effect, after the current cohorts reach sexual maturity. If the ice does not return, the Gulf portion of the herd will decline or disappear, and the remaining animals will have to shift to the Labrador Front or to other locations where pack ice remains. If this happens, it will result in the loss of the most dependable marine mammal resource in the eastern Gulf and the one that has been the sustaining resource for southern Dorset and Inuit population extensions. Its negative impact on Labrador Eskimo populations would diminish northwards, since harps would still be migrating south, though in smaller numbers, to whelp on the Labrador Front. Its importance to Maritime Archaic and later Indian populations is difficult to determine, because their economies were more diversified, judging from their settlement systems and rare instances when faunal remains or organic tools have survived.

Ice cover is the sine qua non for harp seal availability in the Gulf. Warmer temperatures, both of sea water and air, have been steadily reducing the winter and spring build-up and persistence of pack ice in the Labrador Current. Owing to the narrow and shallow Strait of Belle Isle most of this winter ice does not enter the Gulf but rather follows the south-moving Labrador Current along the northeast coast of Newfoundland. For this reason the amount of Gulf pack ice that forms is mostly dependent on local conditions, especially wind and temperature, which can vary depending on whether air masses are Arctic or Atlantic in origin. For the past several years conditions have produced little or no ice, and a strong correlation has been found between Gulf ice and the North Atlantic Oscillation (Johnston et al. 2005, 2012). According to this research we may expect the trend toward low ice years in the Gulf to continue for some time. Since rising temperatures are generally thought not to have reached the peaks known from the Hypsithermal or Medieval Warm levels, the loss of ice in the Gulf in recent years suggests that these waters may have been free of winter ice even in periods of moderate warmth. If so, the Gulf harp herd may be seen as a marginal or episodic population that comes and goes in step with climatic cycles. While the loss of the Gulf harp population may not have serious consequences for Labrador and possibly eastern Newfoundland, which are ‘upstream’ in the harp southern migration, it would cripple intensive adaptations to this resource in the northern and eastern Gulf. As a result, it seems likely that climatic conditions controlling the appearance and disappearance of winter ice in the Gulf have also governed whether cultures with a high degree of dependence on this one marine resource, most particularly Groswater and Dorset Paleoeskimo and Historic 17-19th C. Inuit cultures, could survive here over the long-term. There is therefore a good chance that these climate/ice/seal cycles explain the southern Groswater expansion and at least the disappearance of Newfoundland Dorset. Absence of large, dependable harp populations in the Gulf and around Newfoundland may also offer a possible explanation for the dominance or resurgence of Indian cultures on the Central Labrador coast during warm climatic periods.

New Findings

New research techniques and more local studies are beginning to allow us to investigate these issues. The development of more paleoenvironmental records from Newfoundland noted above have contributed to understanding human-environmental interactions in the island’s prehistory (Bell and Renouf 2008; Renouf and Bell 2009). New studies from the Gulf that document changes in the annual monthly duration of sea ice cover in the Gulf, on the Labrador coast, and around Newfoundland will provide the key data for substantiating the hypothesis presented here. Recent studies of corraline algae, a slow-growing coral-like species that formed encrustations on underwater rocks, has provided information on marine climate along the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts (Halfar et al. 2014) that begins to corroborate other proxies with data specifically keyed to seasonal sea ice duration and overall reductions in southern extent of pack ice. If physical conditions can be correlated with modern population numbers we may have a solid foundation for understanding southern Eskimo territorial expansions and retreats. Another line of inquiry presently being followed is reconstruction of local paleo-marine temperatures from isotopic studies of harp and other marine mammal bones from dated archaeological deposits. These tests are currently being conducted under the ASC’s ‘Arctic Crashes’ project using fauna from our Labrador and Lower North Shore (Quebec) collections.     

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.


Bell, Trevor, and M.A.P. Renouf
2008    The Domino Effect: Culture Change and Environmental Change in Newfoundland, 1500-1100 cal. BP. The Northern Review 28:72-94.
2011    By Land and Sea: Landscape and Marine Environment Perspectives on Port au Choix. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gathers of Northwestern Newfoundland, edited by M.A.P. Renouf, pp. 21-41. Springer.

Halfar, Jochen, Adey, Walter H., Kronz, Andreas, Hetzinger, Steffen, Edinger, Evan, and Fitzhugh, William W.
2014    Arctic sea-ice decline archived by multicentury annual-resolution record from crustose coralline algal proxy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(49): 19737-19741. doi:10.1073/pnas.1313775110.

Hodgetts, Lisa M.
2005    Using Bone Measurements to Determine the Season of Harp Seal Hunting at the Dorset Palaeoeskimo Site of Phillip’s Garden. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 20(1):91-106.
2007    The Changing Pre-Dorset Landscape of Southwestern Hudson Bay, Canada. Journal of Field Archaeology 42 (4) 353-367.

Hodgetts, L.M., M.A.P. Renouf, M.S. Murray, D. McCuaig-Balwil, and L. Howse
2003    Changing Subsistence Practices at the Dorset Palaeoeskimo site of Phillip’s Garden, Newfoundland. Arctic Anthropology 40(1):106-120.

Johnston, David W., Ari S. Friedlaender, L.G. Torres, and David M. Lavigne
2005    Variation in Sea Ice Cover on the East Coast of Canada from 1969 to 2002. Climate Variability and Implications for Harp and Hooded Seals. Climate Research 29:209-222.

Johnston David W., Matthew T. Bowers, Ari S. Friedlaender,and David M. Lavigne
2012    The Effects of Climate Change on Harp Seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus). PLoS ONE, 7(1): e29158 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029158)

LeBlanc, Sylvie
1996    A Place with a View: Groswater Subsistence-Settlement Systems in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. MA Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s.
2000    Groswater Technological Organization: A Decision-Making Approach. Arctic Anthropology 37(2):23-37.

Levac, Elisabeth
2003    Palynological Records from Bay of Islands, Newfoundland: Direct Correlation of Holocene Paleoceanographic and Climatic Change. Palynology 27:135-154.

Murray, Maribeth S.
2011    Whitecoats, Beaters, and Turners: Dorset Paleoeskimo Harp Seal Hunting from Phillip’s Garden, Port au Choix. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gathers of Northwestern Newfoundland, edited by M.A.P. Renouf, 209-226. Springer.

Renouf, M.A.P., and Trevor Bell
2009    Contraction and Expansion in Newfoundland Prehistory, AD 900-1500. In The Northern World AD 900-1400, edited by Herbert Maschner, Owen Mason, and Robert McGhee, pp. 263-278. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. 

Renouf, M.A.P., Trevor Bell, and M.A. Teal
2000    Making Contact: Recent Indians and Paleoeskimos on the Island of Newfoundland. In Identities and Cultural Contacts in the Arctic, edited by Martin Appelt, Joel Berglund, and H.-C. Gulløv, pp. 106-119. Danish National Museum and Danish Polar Center. Copenhagen.

Renouf, M.A.P., Michael A. Teal, and Trevor Bell
2011    In the Woods: the Cow Head Complex Occupation of the Gould Site, Port au Choix. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gathers of Northwestern Newfoundland, edited by M.A.P. Renouf, pp. 251-269. Springer.

Rosenberg, S.M., I.R. Walker, and J.B. MacPherson
2005    Environmental Changes at Port Au Choix as Reconstructed by Faunal Midges. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 20(1):57-73.

Sargeant, David E.
1991    Harp Seals, Man, and Ice. Canada Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 114. Canada: Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Ottawa.


2014 Baffin/Labrador cruise of the M/V Cape Race

By: Walter Adey, Geologist & Curator in the National Museum of Natural History's Department of Botany. Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No. 22, pg. 33-35.

Passage MV Cape Racedivecollections sites
Passage of M/V Cape Race and dive/collections sites.

Natural population crashes of Arctic organisms, some related to native peoples, others likely directly or indirectly climate-related, have been documented for many groups of animals. With the on-going concerns for the effects of human industrial activity in the Arctic, as well as the looming, potentially crushing burden of rapid Arctic warming, it is essential that scientists understand climate change as it related to past documented population changes, including human populations.

Typical coralline bottom Baffin
Typical coralline bottom in northern Baffin Island

Also, there is little question that industrial pollution in temperate latitudes has affected the Arctic in the past, and is likely to greatly increase with in-situ activity. To fully understand these past patterns and be equipped to deal with newly arising concerns, a climate/pollution time tape is necessary for Arctic waters. Rhodochronology can potentially provide that time tape, in great detail. However, it is necessary that we extend the age and quality of our collections, and the analysis of those collections, back in time. This is required so that we better understand the ecology of coralline communities in the Arctic, and that we have a fuller understanding of the highly complex skeleton and metabolism of the Arctic coralline algae that will provide time tape.  

Mg yearly cycling in skeleton of C. compactum from Baffin Is. x-axis in mm.

Coralline archives have allowed us to produce for the first time a detailed marine climate history for the Labrador-Newfoundland shelf that can be related to the history of its prehistoric cultures and modern residents (Halfar et al. 2013). These archives are especially significant in interpreting the periodic southern expansion of Dorset Paleoeskimo and Labrador Inuit cultures whose economy was based primarily on Arctic and Subarctic marine mammals (esp. harp seal and walrus). Coralline proxies indicating southward expansion and longer seasonal persistence of pack ice coverage correspond closely with the appearance in southern Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence of Labrador Inuit culture ca. AD 1400-1600. Extending the marine archive, currently at 1200 years BP, to ca. 2500 years BP would provide a proxy for inferring range shifts and population crashes of harp seal and the large Dorset populations that that 'mysteriously' disappeared from southern waters.


Preparing for a coralline sampling dive from the R/V Alca i. in Labrador.

The rocky, photic benthos of Arctic and Subarctic Biogeographic Regions has a  characteristic seaweed flora that includes an extensive high-magnesium calcium carbonate basal layer of crustose coralline red algae. Species of the genus Clathromorphum are important elements of this crust, and beginning in 1965 it was demonstrated by Walter Adey and colleagues that the Mg component of the high magnesium carbonate skeleton varied seasonally, and could be used as a reliable proxy for yearly thickness and growth rates, in effect a marine, Arctic rhodochronology. By 2005, specimens collected from the Gulf of Maine to Newfoundland had produced maximum ages up to about 200 years BP. Using the R/V Alca i, a 20m floating laboratory, Adey, Halfar and students have been able to rapidly expand more detailed field work to higher latitudes in the Labrador Sea, and by 2012 had greatly expanded climate analysis using SEM, electron microprobe and laser scanning techniques to develop a high resolution climate archive to 1200 years BP.

Cruise and Collection Summary, Baffin – Labrador, 2014

The 2014 cruise extended our collections and data northwards and contributed to the pool of knowledge that will lead to detailed environmental/ climate archives.

Walter Adey and team holding coralline samples.

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.

Arctic Crashes Project Offers Window to NMNH Mammal Collections from the North

By: Alaina Harmon. Originally published in ASC Newsletter, No. 22, pg. 35-37.

As of May 2014, the Arctic Studies Center began a survey of National Museum of Natural History osteological specimens representing five key Arctic species: bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus; harbor seal, Phoca vitulina; harp seal, Pagophilus groenlandicus; walrus,  Odobenus rosmarus, and caribou, Rangifer tarandus. This survey was conducted under the umbrella of the ASC ‘Arctic Crashes’ project, which seeks to explore relationships between human populations, wildlife species, and environmental change in the Arctic.

Phoca vitulina (harbor seal) cranial storage.

The final NMNH collection database, complete with the five identified key species and two northern right whale species, will contain approximately 1,100 specimens. Roughly 100 of these specimens represent Paleobiology collections, almost entirely walrus and caribou, while the remainder represents Mammal collections. The final product will include locality data, collection data, nomenclature, accession data, weight, length, sex, stage, geological age (Paleobiological specimens only), associated culture, stock designation, georeferencing data, collector biographical data, and associated documents for each specimen.

In addition, attached copies of select papers and reports provide immediate access to literature utilized in making stock assignations. Cultural assignment includes images of ledger pages, artifacts, data cards, field book pages, and more pulled from the SI Collections Search Center which represent a match between the assigned culture and any of the database species. Examples include a carved whale, a fiddle with bowhead whale baleen utilized in the bow, a page of Aleut names for whales taken from one of William Dall’s field books, and more. These images are meant to suggest the rich potential for institution-wide cultural, scientific, historical, and art historical Arctic species studies. The database promises to provide information rich for interdisciplinary research.

Phoca vitulina (harbor seal). This is a good example of the different types of data stored with the specimen itself--labeling on the bone itself and multiple types of paper labels. This one was collected by H. W. Elliott at St. Paul Island, the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.

Beginning in May 2014, I also collaborated with Dr. Aron Crowell concerning harbor seal skulls in NMNH collections from Yakutat Bay, Alaska..  It was instigated by a conversation concerning the potential for sampling genetic material from Alaskan harbor seals during Aron’s ongoing fieldwork in the Yakutat Bay area (see ASC Newsletter No. 22). 

This conversation, as well as initial P. vitulina survey findings, inspired Aron to seek out the opportunity to work within an existing marine mammal collection permit in partnership with the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington, to collect fresh P. vitulina heads from the Yakutat Bay area for genetic sampling. Initial osteological surveys also revealed the presence of three Yakutat Bay P. vitulina specimens from the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899, a time which had previously been unrepresented by P. vitulina remains at Crowell’s field site. When asked by Crowell to examine these skulls for presence of bullet damage, I sought the expertise of NMNH forensic anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide for her knowledge of key projectile osteological damage indicators, including radiating fractures and beveling surrounding entry and exit wounds. No bullet wounds were found on the 1899 Yakutat Bay specimens, although X-radiography can conclusively confirm or deny bullet damage.

Since that time, I also provided Crowell with photographs of the Harriman Alaska Expedition specimens, and conversed with zooarchaeologist Dr. Mike Etnier, working in partnership with Crowell, and NMNH collections manager Charley Potter. They provided information on previous examples and results of harbor seal genetic sampling in the NMNH collections and direction on destructive sampling application protocol.

Another area of potential interest is noted Smithsonian archaeologist, Henry Bascom Collins (1899–1987), who contributed significantly to USNM Mammal collections. A simple search of specimen data, reveals 473 specimens collected by Collins. Of these, 12 bowhead specimens, 12 walrus, and one harbor seal were collected at St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, variously listed as being from Miyowagh, and Kialegak sites at the northwestern and southeastern tips of the island, respectively.

Accessing Collins’ field books and papers in the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives may provide insight into the context of these specimens. How many of these specimens were found in archaeological context? If it is possible to correlate a specimen to an archaeological record, what can be learned from its context? By virtue of their site location and stratigraphy, can these specimens be related to the ‘layered’ ethnographic landscapes that Igor Krupnik describes in his chapter on Gambell in the Northern Ethnographic Landscapes volume (2004)? If so, these specimens become indicators not only of morphology and species distribution, but of cultural practices ranging from hunting and prey disposal to architectural design.

Case studies such as this, if successful, make an argument for exploring early biological specimen collections for archaeological materials. These particular specimens would occupy their own liminal institutional status, being both embodiments of potential biological knowledge and records of human cultural activity, granting them a unique status as data and object of narrative. Theoretically, all museum specimens hold this status, as a record of their institutional histories and structures, of preparation and material histories, and as a record of their use and meaning to researchers, the public, collection managers, and others who interact with them and with the information surrounding them. Data collection itself is in a sense a narrative act. However, archaeological context makes this narrative component more explicit, and provides an optimal intellectual gateway to the reminder that biological specimens are indeed cultural artifacts. Similarly, many cultural artifacts are, in part, biological specimens.

Departmental divisions provide ease of access and care, as individuals such as curators and collection managers develop specialties within these named fields of expertise. However, data integration provides the opportunity to view specimens which may be physically and curatorially divided across an institutional whole. Tools such as NMNH’s eMU database provide an optimal search environment to permit the interested public, researchers, and museum specialists the ability to develop new comparative studies. However, they frequently act instead as “gated communities,” with each division having its own data organizational structure.

Collins’ specimens invite us to ask questions not only of their context in Alaskan ecological and cultural histories, but also in our own cultural histories and present and the stories and studies we favor and obstruct through disciplinary divisions and data management.

The cranium of a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) from "Point Barrow, 5 miles off Iglurak Island." Collected by J. A. Ford in 1931, assistant to Henry B. Collins in Alaska, 1931-1932. (Note: Iglurak is apparently Cooper Island, according to a 1919 USGS publication The Canning River Region Northern Alaska by Ernest de K. Leffingwell.)

One way to begin to approach the nexus of cultural and biological data in a faunal object is through individual object history. Collection and preparation leave their traces on osteological specimens. Tantalizing hints of these actions appear in the departmental ledgers, written at the time that specimens are assigned catalog numbers. For example, one skull is listed as having been “destroyed by action of pickle” while other skeletal components are listed as “pick up,” which appears to indicate found remains. What chemical process was applied to and destroyed the skull in question? What taphonomic indicators are visible on the “pick up” specimens? Is there indication of scavenging or decomposition of bone which may suggest the specimen’s environment following time of death?

In the past, collectors have employed a variety of methods of removing flesh from a specimen’s skeleton in the field. These include burial of the specimen and trailing behind a ship to permit waterlife to clean the remains. Each of these activities will leave a record in bone. This offers great potential for comparing collection and preparation histories to skulls in the NMNH collections. Taphonomic indicators may provide a view into which specimens were likely to have been collected or prepared by individuals of particular professions or groups, as well as into factors such as soil or water chemistry in the area of death, potentially leading to further confirmation of or doubt regarding specimen locality. The NMNH Arctic mammalian skulls provide a wide range of natural (taphonomic) and additive (preparation) factors which may be considered in a non-destructive survey relating taphonomic studies to museum collection, preparation, and environmental history, highlighting the human history and construction of natural history objects.

A multitude of opportunities exist to intellectually expand upon this project. Examples include increased digitization of collections data such as a bone by bone inventory and specimen tag photography, as well as correlation with Arctic mammal artifacts, depictions in fine and decorative arts, and related craft and industry artifacts, such as whaling implements, found throughout Smithsonian Institution collections and archives.

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.

Steller’s Sea Cow: The Sole Arctic/Subarctic Extinction

By: Joshua Fiacco

Skeleton of now extinct Steller's Sea Cow on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

There is a plethora of research documenting the rapid fluctuations of large mammal populations in the Arctic and Subarctic region. While certain local populations of animals have become extirpated, there is only one species that has become extinct entirely: Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas).

Steller’s sea cow was an aquatic herbivorous mammal that grew to a size of around 30 feet and a weight of eight to ten tons! It was an enormous but docile relative of modern day manatees and dugongs and is considered one of the largest mammals in modern history outside of the great whales (Marsh, et al, 2012). Due to its tremendous size,  slow and docile nature, and inability to completely submerge, Steller’s sea cow was an easily hunted and exploited target  for both Aleut and 18th century promyshlenniki –Russian maritime hunters and fur-traders (Ellis 2004). With the possible exception of a few very small remnant groups on the Near Islands (including Attu, Shemya and Nizka) the sea-cow had been hunted to extinction throughout the Aleut chain prior to the arrival of the Russian fur-traders.

Russian explorers first encountered this species in 1741 when Captain Vitus Bering and his ship’s crew were wrecked on an uninhabited island off the Kamchatka Peninsula in the North Pacific that would later come to be known as Bering Island. Over the course of several months, during which Bering perished, the crew survived off the meat of fur seals and sea cows until they were able to rebuild their ship and return to Kamchatka.

Georg Willem Steller, the expedition’s naturalist, reported that the animals lived in small herds, or family groupings, and were numerous around the island. In 1881, Smithsonian naturalist Leonhard Stejneger visited Bering Island where he exhumed the skeletons of several sea cows from the site of Bering’s shipwrecked camp. In 1887 he published an article titled ‘How the great northern sea-cow (Rytina) became exterminated’, in which he estimated that the population of sea cows surrounding Bering Island must have numbered around 1500 and were the last survivors of a more widely-distributed species before they were hunted to extinction. 

Leonhard Stejneger in Field Clothes ca. 1920s. Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA2009-4252.

When word of these docile, easily-hunted animals spread among navigators, Russian hunters made expeditions to the region on a yearly basis on their way to the Aleutian Islands. Bering Island  became a spot for resource stocking for further voyages down south and back (Steller’s Sea Cow, 2005). 

In 1768, only twenty-seven years after their “discovery” by western scientists  the Steller’s sea cow was extinct. There is little doubt that excessive over-hunting was the primary cause of extinction of the last remaining local group of sea cows, as evidenced by the timing of the discovery and the previous trends of similar species when faced with sudden, continued human intervention. However, archaeologists argue that the species had been once common all along the Aleutian Islands, where it was actively pursued by aboriginal hunters. Some researchers also point to the over-hunting of sea otters as an indirect factor in rapid extinction of the sea cow. When the Aleutian sea otter population in the area was decimated by Russian fur hunters and their Aleut Islander clients, the increase in purple sea urchins—a primary food of the otters—may have decimated the kelp beds that sea cows depended on  (Anderson, 1995).

While manatees and dugongs continue to survive in the wild today, the Steller’s sea cow never saw a population rebound. This instance of extirpation preceding extinction is an excellent example of why Arctic Crashes philosophy is effective in studying population fluctuations. The destruction of the last population of sea cows can be seen from a botanic, biological, or anthropological perspective. In addition, the observation of one last local stock of an animal shows that extirpation on a local scale is observable and necessarily precedes the extinction of an entire species. Finally, it serves  as an example for future case studies involving local populations of arctic mammals and the effects of fluctuations on an entire ecosystem.

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.


Anderson, Paul K. (July 1995). "Competition, Predation, and the Evolution and Extinction of Steller's Sea Cow, Hydrodamalis gigas". Marine Mammal Science (Society for Marine Mammalogy) 11 (3): 391–394.

Domning, Darryl P., Thomason, James, and Debra Corbett (2007). Steller’s Sea Cow in the Aleutian Islands. Marine Mammal Science 23(4): 976–983.

Ellis, Richard (2004). No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species. New York City: Harper Perennial. p. 113.

Marsh, Helene; O'Shea, Thomas J.; Reynolds, John E., III (2012). Ecology and Conservation of the Sirenia: Dugongs and Manatees. Conservation Biology 18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 19.

Sirenia International. "Steller's Sea Cow." http://www.sirenian.org/stellers.html (accessed May 8, 2014).

Stejneger, Leonhard. 1887. How the great northern sea-cow (Rytina) became exterminated. The American Naturalist 21(12):1047-1054.

Formatted for Magnetic North by Meghan Mulkerin.

Still Searching for the Trail to Caribou House: Smithsonian-Tshikapisk Research in Ntessinan

By: Stephen Loring. Originally published in the ASC Newlsetter, No. 22, pg. 26-28.

The Caribou House project is a community initiative between Smithsonian anthropologist Stephen Loring, colleagues Anthony Jenkinson (Tshikapisk Foundation), and Chelsee Arbour (Memorial University [MUN]), Innu colleagues, informants and experiential educators from the community of Natuashish, Labrador, and the Innu Nation. The project combines archaeological practice with indigenous knowledge pertaining to the interaction between caribou herd dynamics and human beings over time.

Perhaps some of the most evocative descriptions of the interior of northern Labrador –it’s caribou country—are contained in William Brooks Cabot’s Labrador (1920) in the accounts of his intrepid wanderings—sometimes alone, sometimes with a companion or two—between 1903 and 1910.  Entranced by the opportunity to experience something of the traditional Innu caribou-hunting culture, he followed the old Innu travel routes from the coast of Labrador near Davis Inlet to the traditional Innu fall caribou hunting camps on Mistinipi Lake and George River.

Mistinipi 1906 tent
Cabot’s 1906 photograph of a tent (tastueikantshuap) at Mistinipi. This tent-ring was partially excavated during the 2014 field-season.

Doubtless Cabot was aware of the old Innu stories about the Master of the Caribou and his mountain home in the northern Labrador barrens. The Innu believe that Caribou House was a hollow mountain where the caribou dwelled when not in the environs of men. Coincidentally its presumed location in the heart of the Torngat Mountains is both the location of the George River caribou herd caving-grounds as well as the source of a lithic raw material that had been used by Indian and Inuit hunters for more than 7000 years. The trail to Caribou House is the metaphor for a collaborative research project that utilizes the converging research trajectories of archaeology, ethnohistory, oral history, and ecology in an exploration of the characteristics and consequences attending a specialized caribou-subsistence economy in Labrador, from its earliest appearance in conjunction with pioneering Paleoindian-Early Archaic hunters down to the present day.  

Some of the earliest evidence for the emergence of social complexity among native peoples in post-Pleistocene North America comes from northern Labrador, where elaborate mortuary traditions and large social aggregations appear around 7000 years ago.  It has been suggested that the dependable characteristics of the marine ecosystem formed the subsistence base for these pioneering populations. However recent work in the interior of Quebec-Labrador at caribou-crossing places suggests that the significance of caribou for early hunters has been over-looked.  Archaeological survey and excavation coupled with the observations and knowledge of traditional Innu hunters offers an unprecedented opportunity to interpret the role of caribou predation in the evolution of hunting and gathering cultures in North America and theoretically to contribute to an understanding of the relationship between subsistence practices and the maintenance of social boundaries and identities that figured so prominently in the success of early human societies in both the New World and Ice-Age Europe.

Field Work

The “summer”/fall 2014 Caribou House Project had two principle objectives: (1) Archaeological documentation of a prominent 19th century Innu caribou crossing camp on Mistinipi Lake that was visited by William Brooks Cabot in 1906, coupled with (2) an intensive site survey of a portion of the Mistinipi Lake basin to document the antiquity of caribou hunting strategies in the Quebec-Labrador barrens.

Marcel Ashini (left) and Richard Nuna (right) in the “dug-out”/hunting blind at the 1906 Innu camp on Mistinipi Lake. They hold a photograph taken by William Brooks Cabot of Richard’s ancestor sitting in the exact same place. In 1906, having already speared hundreds of caribou at this crossing place, the men were enjoying watching the stragglers cross over.

Early in September, Stephen Loring, Chelsee Arbour (MUN) and Richard Nuna (Chief Environmental Negotiator with Innu Nation) flew in a chartered Twin Otter (thank-you Air Labrador and Air Labrador’s senior pilot, Lester Powell!) landing on an esker that is a prominent landmark adjacent the river-like northeastern-most extension of Mistinipi Lake. We were soon reunited with our colleagues, Anthony Jenkinson and Marcel Ashini who had arrived earlier by float-plane and who had established a camp adjacent to the 1906 camp that Cabot had utilized.

For a month, weather permitting, we conducted site surveys of the north-eastern arm of Mistinipi Lake, locating eight historic late-19th/early-20th century Innu camps that were contemporaneous –or nearly so—with Cabot’s 1906 camp, and six pre-contact ancestral Innu sites. The latter were all quite small, comprising only one or two hearths and a scatter of Ramah chert and quartz debitage. Situated adjacent to a prominent system of caribou trails, these sites are all interpreted as briefly occupied hunting and butchering sites used by small groups of hunters.

Mistanipi-04 hearth -c
Ancestral Innu (ca. 800 AD) hearth at Mistinipi with Chelsee Arbour.

Much of the 2014 fieldwork was directed at documenting the footprint left behind by Innu families in the late 19th century at and adjacent to Cabot’s 1906 camp. His observations and photographs form the only extant eye-witness account of the Innu at their traditional fall gathering caribou hunting camps in the interior of the Quebec-Labrador peninsula. When Cabot arrived at the camp in September, 1906, a small Innu band of 20-25 people, including four men and as many boys in the preceding weeks had speared over a thousand caribou as they swam across the lake narrows!

The 1906 camp, with its detailed historical description and photographs, provides a unique opportunity to compare and ground-truth historical observations with archaeological documentation. In addition to locating, mapping and photographing the historic Innu sites, including stone caches and hunting blinds, we were able to excavate several structures including a possible shaking-tent locality and a pair of circular tent-rings–the remains of tastueikantshuap—and a portion of their associated “middens”. I put middens in quotation marks since an underlying tenet of traditional Innu culture was the ceremonial and ritual attention to all aspects of the disposal of animal (especially caribou) remains, which were certainly not deposited haphazardly. The assemblage from these sites attest to the relative self-sufficiently of Innu families who, while they had limited access to sources of European goods (rifle cartridges, seed beads, and tobacco paraphernalia), still maintained their independent life in the interior of Nitassinan.

Mistanipi-7 St.1 (b)
Excavated tastueikantshuap, a late-19th century raised earthen-wall tent-ring at Mistinipi.

Previous field-seasons at near-by Kamestastin and Border-Beacon had lingered on through mid-October. Not only is this a very beautiful time to be in the country, with its relative absence of mosquitos and black-flies, and the astonishing beauty of the tundra’s fall colors; it is also the time when the caribou pass through on their autumnal migration. However this year it began snowing on September 22nd and barely let-up for the next ten days, bringing a precipitous conclusion to archaeological fieldwork and posing a great challenge to Lester Powell in retrieving us from Torngat’s frozen embrace.

September 22: “Hard to do archaeology when there is a 60cm sterile white layer over everything.”

Final thoughts 

Arguably the most significant development in northern anthropology in the last decade has been the commitment to conduct research within a community paradigm, one that recognizes the potential of “traditional indigenous knowledge” and oral history to provide an important balance to the perspectives and research strategies of scientific investigators. The Arctic Studies Center has been at the forefront of this movement and is widely recognized for its leadership role in initiating community-based research throughout the circumpolar world. Since 1999 the ASC has been conducting research in close collaboration with the Innu Nation and Tshikapisk Foundation. In addition to conducting important archaeological research on the nature of  Innu and ancestral-Innu land-tenure and caribou predation in northern Labrador, the community goals of the program include working with Tshikapisk educators and Innu elders to systematically document and record the ecological knowledge of elderly Innu hunters and their wives pertaining to the behavior and ecology of the barren ground species, including caribou, bear, and wolverine that are derived from a life-time of observation and from oral tradition.

Subsistence practices trump fieldwork. A pause in site survey results in lake trout for dinner.

This research has the potential to significantly influence our understanding of the social and ecological landscape of the earliest hunting peoples in northern North America.  It is a unique opportunity to reveal the nature, significance, and consequences of caribou predation not only in Labrador but, by analogy, to early Pleistocene hunters in North America and Europe.

The 2014 fieldwork at Mistinipi was made possible by financial support provided by a Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Studies Award in the Arts and Humanities and by the Innu Nation. We are further appreciative of the Innu Nation for allowing Richard Nuna to accompany the team to Mistinipi. His and Marcel Ashini’s contribution to the success of every aspect of the project was gratefully appreciated. Fieldwork was conducted with a permit from the Québec Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, thanks especially to Valérie Janssen.  And thanks once again to Lester Powell for his intrepid craftsmanship in all aspects pertaining to Twin Otters; I’ll never forget his remark upon his second landing at the Mistinipi esker, with the clouds down on the ground, “Gee, kinda hard to land when you can’t see anything,” and for getting us airborne, which necessitated driving through a snow bank and climbing out of a kettle hole… and that’s another story for another time!

 For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.

Harbor Seal Population Dynamics at Yakutat Bay, Alaska: Investigations in 2014

By: Aron Crowell, Co-PI, Arctic People and Animal “Crashes”: Human, Climate, and Habitat Agency in the Anthropocene. Originally Published in ASC Newsletter, No. 22: June 2015.

Fieldwork on Alaska Native subsistence hunting for harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) and on the historical population dynamics of this species was conducted at Yakutat Bay, southeast Alaska, during May – July, 2014. The work included interviews with Tlingit seal hunters; video documentation of two seal hunts in the ice floe pack near Hubbard Glacier; bio-sampling of seals taken during the hunts; historical and archival research; and archaeological excavations at the Old Town site (A.D. 1500 – 1750) where a large sample of well-preserved seal bones dating to the Little Ice Age (LIA) was recovered.  Archaeological and ethnohistoric data recorded during three years of National Science Foundation-funded research (2011-2013) are also being incorporated.

52514 Jeremiah James with Seal 3, Disenchantment Bay
Yakutat Tlingit seal hunters in the ice floes near Hubbard Glacier, May 2014

An initial assessment suggests that seals have always been the most important wild food resource for the residents of Yakutat. Today the subsistence harvest is higher there than in any other Alaska Native community (255 killed in 2012). However, both the resident seal population and the numbers hunted have varied greatly over time. Prehistoric harvest levels have not yet been estimated from archaeological data but it is unlikely that the pre-contact Eyak/Tlingit population of 300 – 400 people, using bone-tipped harpoons, put significant hunting pressure on a seal population that must have been many times larger than at present.

Students excavating seal bones at the Old Town archaeological site, Knight Island, Yakutat Bay (2014)

Seal hunting intensified greatly in the late 19th century, spurred beyond subsistence needs by a growing commercial market for seal skins and the availability of breech-loading rifles. It appears that 3000 or more animals were being killed each year by Yakutat hunters during the 1880s – 1890s, based on scant data culled from historical accounts. Even greater numbers were taken during the bounty hunting era (1927-1972) when commercial salmon fishing interests promoted large scale slaughter of the animals. Government bounty data indicate that on average over 10,000 harbor seals were shot per year in southeast Alaska from the late 1920s through the 1960s, a large but as yet unknown proportion of them at Yakutat Bay. A boost in the market value of seal hides during the 1960s may have pushed the number even higher. The fact that annual takes of this magnitude could be sustained for decades suggests that the original seal population at Yakutat must have been very large, perhaps in the range of 35,000 – 50,000 animals, with substantial numbers also found at nearby Icy Bay and Dry Bay. Yakutat elder George Ramos, Sr. remembers that in the 1960s the ice floes were “black with seals.”

West side Egg Island 6-14-11 002
Yakutat Tlingit elder George Ramos Sr. near Egg (Haenke) Island, a traditional sealing camp location (2011)

It is therefore significant that the well-documented population crash of harbor seals that has taken place across southern Alaska in recent decades (60-70% since the 1970s) occurred after the commercial and bounty hunting eras ended. Today the harbor seal population in Yakutat Bay is only about 1700. The modern crash cannot be attributed to Alaska Native subsistence hunting that since 1972 has accounted for only a small fraction of the numbers of seals that were being taken annually throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  An alternative explanation, based on the impact of warming sea temperatures and changes in the marine food web is under consideration by marine biologists. The Yakutat research will contribute to this hypothesis by providing baseline data on LIA sea temperatures derived from O18/16 ratios in marine bivalves excavated at Old Town and other archaeological sites. In addition, the DNA of modern Yakutat harbor seals (sampled in 2014) will be compared to DNA extracted from historical and archaeological specimens (bones and teeth) to monitor the in-migration of animals from other Gulf of Alaska subpopulations, which may have had a substantial effect on maintaining high numbers in Yakutat Bay.

Concentration of seal bones in midden at the Old Town archaeological site, Knight Island, Yakutat Bay (2014)

 Read more about the Yakutat Seal Camps Project here.

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.

Arctic ‘Crashes’: ASC Advances on its Human-Animal-Climate Relations Project

By: Igor Krupnik.

Originally published in ASC Newsletter 22, June 2015, pg 25.

In September 2014, a massive herd of estimated 35,000 Pacific walrus came ashore in Point Lay, Alaska. Its unusual large size points to a serious disequilibrium in walrus-sea ice-habitat system. Source: NOAA

In February 2014, the ASC team received the Smithsonian Grand Challenges Consortia award to implement its multi-disciplinary project Arctic Crashes: Human, Climate, and Habitat Agency in the Anthropocene (see ASC Newsletter 21:19–22, and 22:25-37). The project officially started in March 2014; the $100,000 grant was originally given for 15 months, till June 2015 but was eventually extended till fall 2015, to include the second Arctic field season for the project team. In late May 2014, the first field crew under Aron Crowell headed to the fieldwork in Yakutat Bay, Alaska (see Crowell, this issue).

The ‘Arctic Crashes’ project is aimed at the theme of human-animal relations in the rapidly changing Arctic that is of utmost relevance to scientists, Arctic people, resource managers and agencies, and policy-makers. The field is huge and a relatively small program, such as ours, would never achieve the needed circumpolar coverage and required focus on several animal species that are of critical importance to Arctic people. Therefore, our project from the beginning was organized around several local and species-focused ‘case studies’ in Arctic North America – some in the Western Arctic (Alaska and Bering Sea) and some in the Eastern Arctic and North Atlantic. In summer-fall 2014, four teams went to the field: those led by Aron Crowell in Yakutat Bay (Tlingit historical subsistence hunting of harbor seals), Bill Fitzhugh (historical Inuit and harp seals in Northern Québec), Stephen Loring (Innu and James River caribou herd in interior Labrador), and Walter Adey (Baffin Island to Labrador sea cruise to collect data on bottom coralline communities as proxies to historical sea ice and ocean temperature change). The stories of each of these 2014 field operations are presented in the sections below (Originally published in ASC Newsletter, No 22, see our Arctic Crashes blog posts, where they will appear here). In addition, Alaina Harmon conducted surveys of the NMNH arctic mammal collections at the Vertebrate Zoology and Paleobiology Departments (with the support of our colleagues,  Kris Helgen, James Mead, Charles Potter, Don Wilson, and Nicholas Pyenson – see below). Igor Krupnik summarized historical data on the distribution of the Pacific walrus sub-populations (stocks) in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, from 1825 to the present, assisted by biologists G. Carleton Ray and the late Lyudmila Bogoslovskaya. In all, our studies covered four Arctic species—caribou, Pacific walrus, harbor and harp seal (plus many more in the NMNH osteological collections)—and various groups of polar indigenous peoples, Inuit, Innu, Siberian Yupik, Chukchi, Tlingit, and others, who interacted with them over generations.

In 2015, the ‘Arctic Crashes’ crew is planning to expand its focus, both in terms of field geography, the number of species covered, and the spectrum of indigenous communities to be engaged in our research. We are also seeking to bring more partners—archaeologists,   paleobiologists, historians, indigenous experts, wildlife and environmental managers—to the ‘Crashes’ study. A major step in that direction was undertaken in winter 2015 by Aron Crowell and Igor Krupnik, who jointly planned an ‘Arctic Crashes’ session for the 42nd annual meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association in Anchorage. The full report on that day-long session on March 5, 2015, with 14 presented papers, covering ten species (polar bear, Pacific walrus, caribou, bowhead whale, white whale, fur seal, sea lion, harbor seal, ringed seal, and salmon), primarily from the North Pacific–Western Arctic area will be published in the next issue of the ASC Newsletter. Following the next field season in summer 2015, we plan to organize another ‘Arctic Crashes’ symposium in early 2016, this time at the Natural History Museum. The second session will be also focused primarily on the Eastern Arctic, i.e. Canada and Greenland, also Northeast Russia. Papers from the two sessions will then be published together in the project’s final collection volume that will be the main product of our two-year study on the changing relations among of Arctic Peoples, Animals, and Climate.  

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.