When Experts Dug Beneath Alaska’s Melting Ice, They Unearthed Evidence Of A Chilling Tragedy

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A team of archeologists from Scotland’s University of Aberdeen is working at a remote site in Alaska. They’re just steps from the Bering Sea and the site they’re excavating is a Yup’ik village which was abandoned in around 1660. The site is accessible because rising regional temperatures have thawed the long-frozen ground. But what emerges from the cold earth is at once intriguing and truly horrifying.

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The Aberdeen team is led by Dr. Rick Knecht, who has been excavating at this Alaskan site since 2009. The village that the team has focused on recently is called Agaligmiut – or in modern times Nunalleq. For our purposes, we’ll stick to the old name: Agaligmiut. It’s near the township of Quinhagak, which is set on the Kanektok River in southwest Alaska. And over the years that he’s worked in the area, Knecht has seen some radical changes.

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In the early days of the Agaligmiut project, the researchers would reach soil frozen solid at a depth of just 18 inches. When they have been digging in more recent years, however, the earth is pliable three feet below the surface. This is a worry for the archeologists, because artifacts and material that have been preserved by freezing temperatures for centuries are now at risk of rapid deterioration.

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The threat to historic sites due to rising temperatures here and elsewhere in Alaska is worsened by a seeming increase in the ferocity of winter storms. Since the Agaligmiut site is adjacent to the Bering Sea, it is especially vulnerable. Speaking to National Geographic in April 2017, Knecht said, “One good winter storm and we could lose this whole site.”

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Already, just in the time that Knecht has known the Agaligmiut site, some 35 feet of shoreline has disappeared – swept away by powerful storms swooping in from the Bering Sea. And in 2011 the Aberdeen team returned to find that the site they’d excavated in the six-week digging season the year before had completely vanished.

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We’ll get back to that find which so shocked the archeologists shortly, but first let’s learn a little about the Yup’ik. They’re the people who lived in the village of Agaligmiut until it was abandoned in around 1660. The Yup’ik – also known as Western Eskimos – arrived in Alaska some 3,000 years ago.

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Those earliest Yup’ik settled along the western shores of Alaska, where the people of Agaligmiut lived. They began to move inland, following the banks of rivers as their population increased from around the start of the 15th century. And as the community migrated, they came into contact with other peoples such as the Ingalik Athapaskan – either expelling them or absorbing them through marriage.

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Culturally, the Yup’ik are close to other native peoples of the Arctic such as the Inuit and Chukchi – two groups who are known as Eastern Eskimos. The Yup’ik lived in Siberia, Alaska and islands in the Bering Sea such as Saint Laurence and the Diomedes. The Eastern Eskimos, meanwhile, call lands in Greenland and Canada home.

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The Yup’ik lived a semi-nomadic life hunting sea mammals and fishing. They used harpoons and spears – either from the shore or from boats – to catch their prey. The animals they killed provided not only meat but also fur for the warm clothing which is so essential in the Arctic. The Yup’ik went to sea aboard kayaks or flat-bottomed baidarka boats, and they traveled across their lands on sleds pulled by dog teams.

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The Yup’ik moved with the seasons as they pursued their subsistence existence. They supplemented their diet by foraging for wild plants and fruits in the short Arctic summer. During those warmer months, Yup’ik families lived in camps by the fishing grounds, and they retired to their villages when winter set in.

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During the long, harsh winters when there was little daylight, the Yup’ik men would hunker down in the qasgiq – a communal timber-built house. And there, they would entertain themselves with dancing, songs and traditional folk tales. The qasgiq also provided an opportunity for the older men to tutor the youngsters in skills such as boat-building and hunting.

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Just as the Yup’ik men had their qasgiq in the winter villages, the women had their own community houses called enas. These were sometimes connected by tunnels with the male buildings. Women taught girls traditional female skills such as weaving, cooking and sewing inside these structures. Boys, for their part, stayed in the women’s domain until they were around five years old when they joined the men.

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The gender-specific skills were not entirely compartmentalized. There was a tradition that for a period of three to six weeks during the winter, girls and boys would swap places. The latter would join the women in the enas to learn their skills. Meanwhile, the girls would spend time in the qasgiq learning the crafts and skills traditionally practised by the men.

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These semi-permanent winter villages varied in size but generally had populations of around 300. Family ties – strengthened by marriage – were central within each village community. People might marry outside of their villages but would tend to restrict their relations to regional groups. There were sometimes conflicts between these groups and, as we’ll see, these clashes could on occasion erupt into violence with tragic consequences.

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The Yup’ik had a framework of beliefs that emphasized a sequence of birth, death and rebirth. When a child was born, it would be given the name of someone not long dead. Yup’ik life was centered on rituals that mirrored their beliefs in the cycle of life. An example of this comes in their practise of returning parts of slaughtered animals to the sea so that the creatures could be born again.

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The Yup’ik religion can loosely be described as shamanism, and the community believed in the existence of spirits both evil and good. The shaman was the member of the tribe who could deal with and pacify those spirits. The Yup’ik also imbued some birds and other animals with sacred properties – meaning those creatures could not be harmed. Furthermore, both genders took part in ceremonies to guarantee hunting success, which often incorporated dance and drama.

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Arts and crafts also played an important part in Yup’ik life. They carved small figurative works from whale bone and baleen as well as the ivory tusks of walruses. They even made small tableaux of figures which could be moved like puppets with arrangements of strings. And as we’ll see, Dr. Knecht and his team have uncovered some excellent examples of Yup’ik carving from their excavations.

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Dance also played a central role in Yup’ik culture. Complicated moves – executed with upper body movements only while standing still – would express a whole gamut of emotions. Performers would wear elaborate masks often only used once. In addition, they were avidly collected by traders and many of them have ended up on display in museums.

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Life and their lively culture continued through the centuries for the Yup’ik in their remote, frozen lands. Indeed, the group had very little contact with outsiders – if any. But that changed in the 19th century. Although the different communities of the Yup’iks had long traded with one another, in the first half of the 19th century they also began to have commercial dealings with Russian fur merchants.

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In the wake of those fur traders came Russian Orthodox and Catholic missionaries keen to secure Christian converts. It seems that the Yup’ik took some elements of the new creed and incorporated them into their existing shamanism. Apparently, the Yup’ik were keen to hold on to their traditional ways, as many still are today.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, gold was discovered in the Yukon River – sparking a frenzied influx of outsiders. Although the Yukon lies to the east of the Yup’ik lands and there was no gold in their territory, this had a stark impact on them. New diseases – to which they lacked immunity – entered their territory and caused a drastic drop in population.

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Today, the Yup’ik still retain much of their traditional culture and their U.S. population number stands at around 24,000, according to the 2000 United States Census. The vast majority of them liven Alaska’s southwest, though many contemporary Yup’ik also live along the states coast, where they continue to fish and hunt seals. However, the nomadic aspect of their lives has been replaced by permanent settlement in modern homes.

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Despite engaging with modern life, many Yup’ik cultural traditions such as the importance of the extended family persist today. But contemporary villages include churches and schools, while many Yup’ik now have jobs in the modern economy. Nevertheless, others still live by hunting and fishing. One thing that unites them is a fascination with the old traditions of their people – an interest that is nurtured by tribal elders.

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And that brings us back to the experts from the University of Aberdeen Department of Archaeology, who were working at the Agaligmiut site in southwestern Alaska. The scientists didn’t just descend on the area in splendid isolation. On the contrary, they work very closely with the local Yup’ik people. Indeed, since its inception in 2009 the whole project has been based on a partnership with the Qanirtuuq, Inc. This is an organization run by the people of Quinhagak – the modern village near Agaligmiut.

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And what a fascinating project it’s turned out to be. As described on the University of Aberdeen’s website, what the researchers have been excavating is “a multi-period pre-contact village.” What’s more, “Due to permafrost, the level of preservation is extraordinary, and the archeological collection after five seasons of excavation is now one of the largest ever recovered from Alaska.”

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As well as exploring the intriguing archeology at Agaligmiut, the project has aimed to investigate the impact of rising sea levels on the area. And by studying how climate change impacted the Yup’ik communities centuries ago, the researchers hope to uncover information that can help contemporary people to deal with the impacts of environmental change.

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Increasing temperatures and the resulting permafrost melt has made the archeological work at Agaligmiut all the more urgent. For as various artifacts are exposed from their icy fastness, they begin to deteriorate at an alarming speed. And what a trove of artifacts Knecht and his colleagues have uncovered during their annual seasons at Agaligmiut.

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An astonishing 60,000 items have been collected over the years of the project, according to Live Science. These include ceremonial masks, tattoo needles fashioned from ivory and miniature sculptures of human busts again carved from walrus ivory. There’s also an extraordinary collection of labrets – jewelry worn in the lip. Some of these were made from wood, antlers and the mineral serpentine.

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As well as figurines – some of which may have had ritual significance while others might simply have been children’s toys – there were incredibly well-preserved woven grass baskets. University of Aberdeen archeology lecturer Charlotta Hillerdal told the publication that this preservation was thanks to the icy conditions. And as we’ve seen, those conditions are rapidly changing.

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Speaking about this almost uncanny level of preservation, Knecht told Live Science in April 2019, “It’s amazing, a lot of these things could just be used today. Sometimes, we find the wood still bright and not even darkened by age.” And speaking about the intriguing ceremonial wooden masks, Knecht said, “Oftentimes they depict a person turning into an animal or an animal turning into a person.”

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As we’ve already pointed out, Agaligmiut village was abandoned in around 1660. Knecht and his team have now discovered the previously unknown circumstances behind the puzzlingly sudden demise of this Yup’ik community. And the story they’ve uncovered is certainly not for the fainthearted: it involves a local war and a devastating massacre.

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Among all those intricate ivory carvings and extraordinary masks, the Aberdeen team has also discovered 28 sets of human remains with all the signs of violent deaths. The obvious question is: how did they get there? Knecht and his colleague Hillderdal believe that Agaligmiut was built specifically to have strong defensive qualities. The stronghold had an extensive range of interconnected buildings.

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But one day some 360 years ago, that defensive strength did not preserve the safety of the village’s women, children and elderly. Knecht told Live Science, “We found that [the village] had been burned down and the top was riddled with arrow points.” Plus, of course, they found those 28 bodies.

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There is no doubt that those who lost their lives were killed in a horrifyingly brutal attack. As best as the scientists can tell, this episode took place sometime between 1652 and 1677. The village itself was built between the years 1590 and 1630. But whatever the exact year of the massacre, the evidence for the ferocity of the attack is all too clear.

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In April 2019 MailOnline reported Knecht’s description of the massacre scene. He said that the victims “had been tied up with grass rope and executed.” And the expert continued, “They were face down and some of them had holes in the back of their skulls from what looks like a spear or an arrow.”

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Turning to the exact circumstances of the Agaligmiut massacre, Knecht told Live Science, “There’s a number of different tales. What we do know is that the Bow and Arrow Wars were during a period of time [called] the Little Ice Age, where it went from quite a bit warmer than it is now to quite a bit colder in a very short period of time.” Knecht believes that falling temperatures may have caused food scarcities leading to the 17th-century conflicts that have become known as the Bow and Arrow Wars.

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Meanwhile, tales about the massacre crop up in Yup’ik folklore. One account has it that a feud started when a game of darts went wrong and a young boy lost an eye. The victim’s father then blinded the individual who’d thrown the dart. Tit-for-tat retaliation followed and the whole thing blew up into internecine warfare across the region.

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The Yup’ik story goes on to describe how the headman of Agaligmiut – one Pillugtuq – assembled a war party during the conflict with the aim of launching an attack on a rival village. It may have been called Qinarmiut or Pengurmiut. However, the Agaligmiut warriors were caught in an ambush and were either killed or put to flight.

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One story has it that the ambushers who rained arrows down on their would-be attackers were actually women dressed as men. In any case, after their victorious ambush, the fighters made their way to Agaligmiut. There, they put the village to the torch and seemingly killed all of the inhabitants that they could lay their hands on.

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Archeological investigation has confirmed that nearly all of the bodies are those of women, children and older men. Knecht confirmed this, telling Live Science, “There was only one male of fighting age.” One Yup’ik legend has it that a shaman told Pillugtuq before he left the village with his warriors on their final sortie that Agaligmiut would be burned to the ground. Tragically, his ominous prophecy proved to be only too accurate.

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