Tracking ancient commerce in Alaska

Brown University archeologist is studying trade dynamics of native Alaskans in the Kobuk River region of northwest Alaska. All photos courtesy Doug Anderson How do you trade with the enemy?

For millennia, civilizations have been at the mercy of their trading counterparts, thriving or dwindling based on the availability of resources. This is especially true in the Arctic, where Brown University professor Doug Anderson has been studying trade relations in Northwest Alaska.

Anderson's research focuses on how warring tribes in extreme and harsh environments survived via a critical trade network over the past 10,000 years.

For the past 50 years, Anderson, an archaeologist and anthropologist at Brown University, has studied Eskimo and other Native Americans in the region. Most recently, he has been studying Eskimo and Indian interactions at settlements along the lower half of the Kobuk River. Since 2010, his research, which is partially funded by the National Science Foundation, has focused on how warring tribes in extreme and harsh environments survived via a critical trade network over the past 10,000 years.

“The overall question is whether looking at the history of peoples over 10,000 years, when there were periods of dramatic climatic change, will reveal how they were able to adjust,” says Anderson. “When measured against dire effects, how did communities not die off?”

Uncovering patterns

The research team, which launched this study in 2010, began by mapping distributions of raw materials from their sources to an archaeological site along the river. In addition, Wanni Anderson, Doug’s wife and renowned oral historian, collected oral histories with the help of locals.

A challenging climate

Life in the Arctic—then and now—can be especially dangerous and cold. When resources in their home region fail, lack of trade could prove to be a tribe’s death sentence. Yet the tribes did survive and co-exist, though often not peacefully. According to some ethnological data, communities often fought each other.

Survival among enemies

Given the social dynamics, the naturally harsh climate, and the added complication of environmental change, it is remarkable that the majority of the tribes in the area flourished.  Anderson’s research aims to identify the characteristics that led to their survival.

“It is pretty clear that in any specific region, people couldn’t always be supported only on the resources found locally, so they had to interact over time,” says Anderson. “The folklore has all sorts of stories of battles where the neighboring group is the enemy and they set out to kill each other. Yet that whole, isolating scenario doesn’t fit with the ecology.”

Tribal cooperation

The team's archaeology site delivered surprising artifacts, including human remains.

Anderson and his team have been focusing on a region where,  according to the prevailing view of anthropologists, relationships were so antagonistic between tribes that they wouldn’t intermarry. Somehow, the tribes overcame their antipathy to form successful trade networks.

In one instance, researchers believed they had a “silent trade,” where goods were left in neutral territory and the tribes did not have to interact. In other instances, they called truces and had trading fairs.

“It is absolutely amazing,” says Anderson. “How do people trade with the enemy?”

Anderson’s research suggests that the prevailing view might be incorrect and that tribes shared much more with each other than we have thought. 

Limited resources

The tribes needed natural resources and material for tools and shelter. In addition they needed food that required trading.

Because the period covered by this specific research is so broad, Anderson says he expected to see trade for specific items ebb and flow, based on availability and need. So far, this has proven to be the case.

An unexpected discovery

Early on, the team discovered an archaeological site about 10 miles upriver from Kiana, a small village in Northwest Alaska that added a surprising dimension: western artifacts in the heart of an old abandoned Eskimo village.

This is remarkable, Anderson said, because the site predates known arrival of western explorers. In other words: the goods unearthed in the village worked their way to that location via a complex trade network between tribes that were likely at war.

“It took some time for the significance of this to sink into my mind,” says Anderson. “When we first found the trade items, I thought we were dealing with a site after it had been explored by Europeans. When we recognized that the artifacts got there before the Europeans, we realized this was really important.”

Shamanic intervention

It so happened that the site of the discovery was known to have been the home of a very powerful shaman. Initially, some Kiana villagers did not want the excavation to continue. Anderson worked with the villagers to gain their trust and, ultimately, permission to continue with the research—despite the early objections of some of the residents.

“There were no caribou bones at the site, but there were a lot of caribou antler,” he says. “People had to go a long ways away to find caribou and could only bring back parts of the animals, like antler, that were most valuable to them.”

Some of the artifacts from the time, such as one sub-species of marmots, are no longer present in the region today, which underscores how a changing climate can affect a region’s ecology.

Micro versus macro

Anderson’s research attempts to make sense of a complex web of relationships. To that end, it reveals minute details that, when pieced together, give a big picture understanding of a vast region over time.

To hone the work, Anderson’s team used radiocarbon dating and tree rings to specify the regional chronological framework. They also undertook the archaeological excavation of an old village, Igliqtiqsiugvigruaq, obtained the oral histories, and undertook geological analyses of stones from the site to identify the sources of some major raw materials that were often traded like slate, chert, and obsidian.

An enduring people

So far, the evidence shows that despite the turmoil and obstacles facing them, the majority of peoples endured climate change and social tumult, says Anderson.

“As far as we can see there hasn’t been a time when conditions were so bad that areas were depopulated,” he says. “People were able to adjust, regardless of what the conditions were.”

Climate and culture

As for the impact on the culture from climate change, well, that’s a complex link to prove.

“Although we have been looking for ‘smoking guns’ linking culture change and climate change, the only one we have found so far dates to about 1400 AD, when, likely because of climate change, baleen whales no longer swam close enough to Kotzebue Sound to be hunted there,” says Anderson. “The lack of such a tremendous resource like whale meat, blubber, and baleen impacted settlement patterns and who knows what else in the region.”

For example, after 1400, people moved from their whale hunting villages at Cape Krusenstern to areas like Kotzebue in order to be closer to the fishing grounds of Hotham Inlet.  And, although major resources like caribou and fish fluctuated over time – and impacted where people settled and with whom they traded – Anderson still has not been able to correlate these cultural changes with climate/environmental changes.

Continued exploration

At the end of June, Anderson and his team will return to the excavation site, where they found human bones. They have permission to continue their dig and to analyze the remains, which is rare.

The findings will shed light on the health of the people of the village. Were they starving? Plagued by disease? Or were they healthy?

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” says Anderson. He should know. He’s been studying these cultures for decades.  —Rachel Walker