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Saving An Ancient Yup’ik Village From the Effects of Climate Change

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Archaeologists and a Yup’ik community in western Alaska received a major grant to help them save an ancient settlement that is falling into the sea. Climate Change is causing the coastline to erode.

The Arts and Humanities Council of the United Kingdom provided a £1.1million research grant to the archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen who have been working with local residents on the project for four years.

According to a university press statement the grant will not only keep the dig going for another four years, but also fund local archaeological education and training initiatives and a regional survey to find more sites under threat.

This was the artifact of the day from August 21, 2013. It’s a harpoon toggle shaped like a seal.

“The grant is fantastic and will go a long way, but even with it, none of this would have been possible without the support and hard work of the Yup’ik people,” said Dr. Rick Knecht, project leader and archaeologist from the Scottish University of Aberdeen.

The project began in 2009 after Yup’ik residents from the village of Quinhagak called on the university to help them save their coastline that was being washed away by rising sea levels, as has been noted by many scientific institutions.

Within hours of the first dig this January, the team of archaeologists and local Yup’ik found a remarkably well-preserved 700-year-old settlement.

“The first thing we found was a complete wooden doll with the original paint still on it,” Dr. Knecht said. “It’s quite incredible—leather, fur, plants, even 400-year-old grass that has been completely preserved intact because they’ve been frozen all this time. Instead of looking at stones and bones, like archaeologists usually look at, we’ve got wooden artifacts—pieces of organic material.”

The project has produced thousands of objects in the last four years but the participants are rushing against the encroaching sea. Dr. Knecht noted that since the university team arrived in 2009, the shoreline has retreated by 30 feet which is also happening globally as noted by various scientific institutions.

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An owl found at the dig.

For example, according to the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) report on Climate Change and Impacts of Sea Level Rise, “Global mean sea levels are rising and are predicted to continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Because the projected rates of global mean sea-level rise (SLR) over the next century far exceed those observed in the past several thousand years, the potential exists for historically unprecedented impacts to the natural and built infrastructure occurring along coastlines.”

One of the consequences of that sea level rise, according to the SERDP and other sources, is “more rapid coastal erosion”; which is what has been happening to the coastline of Quinhagak according to Dr. Knecht.

“The site was eroding and artifacts were appearing on local beaches,” Dr. Knecht explained. “I am an Alaskan and have spent my career working with Native Alaskans in recovering artifacts and establishing Native owned and governed museums in Kodiak and the Aleutians. So they knew who I was and gave me a call when I was working for the Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. When I moved to a new job at the University of Aberdeen, the project went with me. Having university labs and specialists available means that we can turn these otherwise inaccessible resources to use protecting Native owned archaeological sites. One thing that is important to note is that state and federally owned lands have designated archaeologists helping interpret and protect sites.”

“Native owned lands in Alaska, which went to regional and village corporations following the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), have no protection at all for their sites except what they provide out of their own resources,” he continued. “Before we got the grant, the first years of the project were largely supported by the village corporation of Quinhagak which is Qanirtuuq, Inc. They retain ownership of all the artifacts which will come back after the project ends in 2017.”

While the archaeologists and volunteers continue with the task of preserving the ancient community in Quinhagak, Yup’ik community members are responding to the dig in a variety of ways. Dr. Knect reported that local residents were recreating some of the ancient objects quickly after their discovery and the story of how the site was being washed away had become a subject for a Yup’ik song.

The Quinhagak Dancers preformed in the village for the first time. It was a powerful experience to see traditional Yup’ik dancing preformed publically for the first time in 100 years.

“A group of youngsters recently asked the village elders for permission to form a traditional dance group—something that was suppressed by the missionaries more than a century ago,” he said. “They did their first dance last year and the first song was about the storms washing the site away, and this year they did their first dance in Quinhagak itself—the first in 100 years—and they did it when we showed our summer’s finds to the community.”

Mike Smith

Elders watch the Quinhagak Dancers.