Tooth-Walkers: Uncovering the Archaeology of Alaska's Walruses, 2010

so I’m going to be talking about walrus which I’m sure many of you know in in just general terms but one of the most the the title of this talk tooth walkers is actually based on the walrus teeth we call them tusk but they’re actually teeth that walrus have there are some of the most distinctive characteristics of them when we don’t realize it’s hard to tell from pictures but these guys actually weigh about 2,000 pounds and they can grow up to about 10 feet 12 feet long so they’re really big and they prayed a really critical role in the prehistory of Alaska and across the Bering Strait into kotka part of the Russian Federation so I wanted to just give you sort of a brief introduction to what walrus are their marine mammals they’ve got these really distinctive tusks which are actually canine teeth so canine teeth just like your dog has just like you have except they’re sort of hyper extended their these giant canine teeth and they’re very specialized so there we call them tough but walrus ivory they are coming a lot of different sizes depend on the size of your walrus so we have smaller female walrus and larger male walrus with different sized tusks and tusks have been a subject of a lot of research because biologists haven’t been always quite sure what the purpose of these are tusks are sort of expensive to maintain in physiological terms so why would you want to carry around not only these really long and sort of unwieldy tusks but also they’re they’re expensive right they’re expensive to carry and maintain they tend to get sort of chipped and broken so why would you why would you carry around these stuffs well here’s a picture of one possible reason which is they’re great for fighting other walrus mostly for males fighting other males in dominance displays especially when they’re fighting for mates so that’s definitely one of the reasons another reason is literally to use those tusks to grab on to the edge of ice floes and pull yourself up okay so here’s a relatively walrus with relatively small tasks but female especially female walruses as well as males in certain times of year tend to hang out on ice floes and one of the ways that they pull their massive bulky 2000 pound bodies up on these ice floes is by digging these tusks into the ice floe and sort of maneuvering themselves onto it they’re incredibly strong if you have a chance before you go take a look at some of the tusks that are actually laid out over and their side in the corner there so you can see just how how heavy they are and how durable they are here’s a walrus skull and not only are these tusks pretty amazing elements but the skull themselves is the skull is just incredibly thick and heavy it’s at it’s really hard to pick up if you try to pick one up I don’t know that you go around trying to pick them up but I do and they’re really heavy they are just massively dense bone and it’s a really unique adaptation from a biological and evolutionary standpoint so pretty much walruses are pretty cool when you get down to it in terms of just general old creatures hit and hanging out walrus Arnie okay here we have a distribution map of walrus with the red beam where walrus presently live today and you can see that much of the coast of Alaska is walrus habitat there is also a lot of walrus in over here in the Eastern Arctic around this is Baffin Island so that’s a different subspecies there’s only one species of walrus in the entire world and depend on who you talk to could be one or two or three subspecies so they’re pretty much a polar creature and as I said they’ve been incredibly important in the prehistory of Alaska as well as being used in checotah the Russian Federation and across the Arctic from Greenland all across the northern Canada Baffin Island and so I collected some pictures of the kinds of uses that walrus bones and tusks and hides have had for some of the native peoples of Alaska so this is a bunch of walrus skulls right in here they’re actually being used as building material in this slide from about the turn of the century and so this is a sod structure and it’s got some some stones here but you’re basically using the walrus skulls as a building material really innovative but if you know I just

was mentioning how heavy they are they’re really solid and you know if you’re living in a place that doesn’t have a lot of wood available walrus culls make a great building material here’s another example this is a slide from gamble walrus hide as well as the bones in the Tusk was an incredibly useful material not only for people in the last hundred years but we think for about the last 2,000 years prehistoric Lee along the coast of Alaska st Lawrence Island and well how do we know that we have walrus hide that’s 2,000 years old well happily for archaeologists permafrost preserves hides and a lot of other organic materials so that we actually can excavate walrus hide that’s 2,000 years ago and yes it does smell it’s stinky for 2,000 years it doesn’t ever stop stinking but you can see how useful it would be and if we look here we’ve got a relatively modern example and it looks as though people were using walrus in the very similar way at least their hides for at least the last 2,000 years in certain parts of Alaska so what else are walrus useful for walrus ivory was a material that was traded throughout Alaska not just along the coast but also into the interior for again about the last 2,000 years and these are some objects made of walrus ivory they are curated here at the University of Alaska Museum and if you get the chance there’s amazing exhibit with a lot of archaeological artifacts but some of them are our ivory made of walrus ivory so here you have a pair of snow goggles made again out of a walrus tusk and with a small sort of linear decoration here this is part of a harpoon and harpoons were one of the most important technologies used by ancient Eskimo in the area that I’m going to talk about the coastal region st. Lawrence Island and the coast of Takota just across the Bering Strait again you can see it’s got some just really amazing in size decoration here and we see that a lot in harpoon technology and then this is called a counterweight it’s sort of to balance a harpoon and you can see again walrus ivory with lots of decoration this is a small sample of the kinds of things that walrus ivory was used for remember a lot of the coast of Alaska a lot of the area i’m talking about does not have access to two very much wood so while many native people would be using wood and reeds and other kinds of things as the organic source for a lot of their technology people living on st. Lawrence Island and a long money these coastal areas didn’t have access to would unless it was driftwood so instead they would have to turn to other kinds of raw materials walrus bone and walrus ivory very durable very strong was one of the materials people turn to as an alternative source okay so how did I get started in in walrus I mean does walrus to sort of jump out as oh yeah I’m going to study walrus let’s devote my life to that no actually the question that I started with with a relatively large research team from both the United States and from the Russian Federation was wailing now wailing to walruses there’s actually a link and i’ll tell you how we get there but one of the big questions for archaeologists is when did people start hunting whales most of us know whales are a really incredible part of the culture of many coastal Alaska Native people they’re also important in Checotah for native Eskimo and actually native Chukchi along the coast of the Russian Federation so for archaeologists we went to when to that start right because the first one is always the most interest when did that start what was the first time that people started hunting whales because if you think about it I mean who got that idea to actually get in a boat with a bunch of guys and go out and throw a little stick in a big giant sea mammal and then haul it in and then eat it I mean whose idea was that and if you think about it that sounds like a pretty scary kind of thing to undertake so for archaeologists that’s been with the big questions when did that start what made people want to go out and hunt big giant sea mammals with little sticks so I there was a project that I was part of and it involved the excavation of a site for an archaeologist that we would consider it an intact site in other words a site that pretty much hasn’t been disturbed everything is where we think it was when people left it nobody’s been digging around in it no

nothing’s been trampling it or plowing it up or anything and the site is called moon League round and it’s right right there with little squares and we were going to go and discover the origins of whaling where do people start wailing well we think it was there we’re going to go we’re going to go dig up the origins of whaling well great okay whales massive you can see this is a photo from Barrow pulling a bowhead in look and keep a note of how many people are involved right you’re only seeing part of the scene you’re only seeing the pulling the whale ashore seeing clearly whaling is important to people today okay so fast forward to to the Russian Federation this is how you travel if you’re an archaeologist working in to coca and you can these are all archaeologists I know you probably can’t tell but they’re all archaeologists and this is our our friend Tim he’s a student at ua a right now and he went with us the rest of the folks are our Russian colleagues and the guys got to travel by tracked vehicle and it took three days to get to the site from using this lovely mode of transportation I got to travel by this which was much more convenient only 12 hours a cargo ship which is how a lot of the villages on the coast of the Russian Federation are resupplied but compared to the tracked vehicle this was just it was luxury so and notice it’s also sunny looks warm it’s beautiful one day okay this is also of course the later the same day notice you know guy with no shirt on this does not continue let me assure you it gets pretty miserable pretty fast so this is the archaeologists taking pictures of the site here we are this is here’s our site look at the beautiful background here this is on the coast the southern coast of tacoma and i’m going to show you the map in a minute and we’re basically sort of getting familiar with the site well where is the site what you know what are the components of it how big is it so you can see that we’re seeing we’re sort of standing on this promontory above a bay so you’ve got the bay here that’s sort of enclosed and you can’t quite tell but it’s an enclosed and relatively secure bay this big outcropping right here is full of seabird colonies so colonial nesting seabirds like puffins murs so lots of birds in a really small area and as a result probably a good place for people to live in the past because not only do we know that belugas and walrus came and spent some time in this protected Bay because we saw them but also you’ve got all these colonial nesting seabirds which if you’re a person who’s looking for a good place to live about 2,000 years ago you want to be near as many different resources as possible so setting up your village close to colonial nesting seabirds right not only eggs but also you’ve got lots of birds in a small area plus a place where you have a really good vantage point of any kind of sea critter that’s passing really good spot for a for a site okay so a little bit later in our excavation this is what it starts to look like and even though permafrost is really really difficult to work with as an archaeologist because you can only pull a little bit of permafrost off at a time it’s a really painstaking way to excavate because you can only do a couple centimeters just like a half an inch at a time scraping scraping scraping then let the Sun sort of warm it up and then you can scrape a little bit more really slow so I know that this might not look very impressive but this is the result of six weeks of work yeah so you think well you’re not very deep but actually what you’re looking at is a this is about two to three thousand years old as far as we can tell on the basis of the dates we’ve gotten so what you’re seeing is some rocks and you’re thinking okay so some rocks somebody lived there and there’s some rocks but another great picture this is the not here’s a smiling Alaska an archaeologist and as someone from the local school who came out to take a look at and learn a little bit about archaeology so this is actually what we work with most the time I know you guys often people think that we’re out there sort of shoveling stuff but it’s more little trou little paintbrush that kind of thing it’s really a lot slower than people usually think but for me one of the exciting things was wow these are two walrus tusks now remember we’re looking for

whales right looking for whales but we found walrus tusks and not just walrus tusk but lots of walrus skeleton materials okay faunal remains or skeletal remains lots of them and so I mean I was interested in this whaling thing but when all this walrus started showing up that was sort of interesting well why why is it all this wall risks at a whaling site what what’s going on here if people are eating whale why are there all these walrus here so when we started finding walrus like these tusk and these are what we call institue there in the place we think they were when people left that site two to three thousand years ago and for an archaeologist that’s a really happy thing when that happens when people actually leave it because then we can take samples of what’s around it we can take a look at at the pollen for example that’s attached to those tusks and reconstruct some of the plants that might have been there two to three thousand years ago we can take a look and see if there’s any carbon or ash from a hearth or from a fireplace that people might have had two to three thousand years ago we can date some of those things and get really good control over what was happening in this small structure two thousand years ago then we started to have these show up these are if you remember that slide I showed earlier these are walrus skulls and for an archaeologist we would call this a non-random configuration which is a nice way of saying there’s something going on here it’s a pattern right that people didn’t just drop these walrus skulls and just happen to fall into this nice sort of this nice line a lot of other walrus remains here too so here’s a walrus scapula these are pieces of wood we haven’t still figured out quite what’s going on with the wood we’re not sure if this is covering up a cache or if it’s part of a floor not certain yet but there’s clearly something going on with the use of these walrus in this non-random configuration so again a lot more walrus no whales so you know I think Roberts are sort of cool you know let’s start looking at walrus here’s this another Waller shot just to give you an idea of how big these things are this is a walrus skull again amidst some very exciting rocks here and seems to be associated with a structure okay so when I got back to the United States I was pretty interested in these wall um we didn’t find any sort of big giant whale with a big spear in it or something that indicated that any people were whaling which was you know what would have been really great but rarely happens in archaeology so as well honey walrus are cool too you know if you can’t have a whale how about a walrus so I came back and I thought well let’s start looking at where in Alaska in checotah have people been using walrus in the past okay so I started looking through all these reports and trying to find archaeological sites from the last two to three thousand years where people had recovered archaeologists had recovered walrus remains and what if that was pretty interesting up here in Barrow here in Seward Peninsula lots of places on st. Lawrence Island and look at here’s Jack oka okay so it’s just across so here’s no I’m around here here’s whales just across really close Bering Strait is right here you’ve got all these sites with walrus remains here’s the archaeological site i started with so this was a really interesting pattern because we know that people were living at other locations in Alaska we know people were living in here people were living in here but there weren’t any walrus remains there ok I will either right on the coast so why wouldn’t there be wall was there but yet on these locations walrus walrus for which I was lots of walrus lots of always here well all of these sites have something in common if you spend any time with maps you can probably figure it out which is they’re all located on capes or headlands they’re located on landscapes that sort of jut out into the ocean jut out into Bering Sea Bering Strait their prominent prominent locations on the landscape okay so that started looking pretty interesting to me again we had these non-random patterns right so this is clearly not just chance this is not archeological sort of sampling bias which is something that always concerns archaeologists are we just looking at certain at a limited number of samples and so therefore getting sort of a biased view of what was going on in the past so what I started to think about was okay well walrus are sea creatures are

fundamentally sea mammals and people must have somehow located themselves in places where they could get it walrus easily right that makes sense seems sort of obvious once you start thinking about it and so I went to some of the recent work on oceanography and biochemistry in the Bering Sea there’s been a lot of work that’s been done there recently and I turned up this map among others and what it shows is some water masses it’s a map of water masses and you can see there’s several here that are that are actually depicted here bearing shelf water kai and then these several it was ok so what the water mass it’s basically a river of water that is going through the ocean in a specific direction ok well that sounds sort of interesting but why do we care well we care because the composition of these water masses is drastically different from the composition of the other water surrounding it ok so if you can imagine a river within the ocean ok these water masses carry massive amounts of nutrients so the kinds of things that phytoplankton and little critters in the ocean like to eat and of course the little critters in the ocean support the bigger critters in the ocean and those guys supports the larger careers in the ocean so you’ve got this trophic or relationship going on so somebody’s somebody else so what this shows us is that the basic building blocks of these trophic love these are the upper trophic levels the basic building blocks the basic nutrients that everybody needs fundamentally in an ocean ecosystem are really very patterned okay they’re not out here they’re not in here they’re not in here they’re hitting headlands and capes and they’re especially bottlenecking right here and Bering Strait okay now if you remember that map on our non-random associations isn’t by chance so this is really interesting to me but something else is going on here these are modern this is a map of modern water masses and their distribution okay the walrus is that I’m looking at or about two to three thousand years old ok here is walrus distribution map hi and walrus you’ve probably heard about them on the radio we’re in the news walrus are in trouble right now because they are ice edge man they really require ice ice floes ice mass to reproduce to rest on to sleep on to reap to rear their young so as the ice retreats walrus like polar bears are in a lot of trouble and I know polar bears are the big poster animal but walrus to me walrus are just in just as much danger and you can see that in the past they lived much farther south than they did today this is their current distribution Kai in here and up here right so current distribution ok back to our original site map what when you put all these maps together what you’ve got is these sites are mapping walrus migration patterns okay in other words people are living at the points where walrus are most likely to pass by in the spring and in the fall so they’re hanging out at this Cape that sticks right out into Bering Sea they’re living here on gamble and Gamble’s been occupied for at least 2,000 years they’re living at whales they’re living on Cape des nerve right here point hope they’re living in places where walrus are going to pass now from a biological standpoint the really interesting thing is that these locations of archaeological sites match the locations where modern walrus pass so what that tells me what that suggests is that we have a long time depth for walrus behavior in my Tori migratory patterns not only are the walrus pretty stable in their migratory patterns perhaps as much as 3,000 years but these water masses also appear to be pretty stable in terms of how they flow where they go when they go and they’re hitting now you would say okay well this is a bottleneck right of course it has to go to through Bering Strait well yeah but it doesn’t have to go up under here and that’s how it goes today these water masses and the walrus that’s what the sites look like to so for me this was pretty exciting because it suggests that walrus migration has time Deb and it

means that walrus migration patterns are very stable and this has conservation implications because it says walrus are really particular what they like is what they like and they’re not going to they’re they’re very conservative in their behavior choices they’re not going to just move someplace else they like to be where they like to be so any kind of conservation plan that we put in place has to consider how conservative walrus are in their habitat preferences hi all right st. Lawrence Island is one of the locations where walrus historically and it looks like as much as 2,000 years ago walrus are there are the fundamental building block of society on st Lawrence Island people live up here today this is gamble it’s the largest village on st. Lawrence Island and this can you see a little point is a happy Wohlers point right the walrus go right by there so people are living right on that cave where they know the walrus are going to be at specific times of year not incidentally I think there’s also a lot of colony nesting seabirds in this area so people are picking where they live in the past very very carefully to exploit the largest number of different species birds marine mammals and possibly fish we’re starting to see some interesting fish evidence too but we haven’t gotten there yet ok this is what st. Lawrence Islanders in the past are using to hunt walrus okay this is an ivory harpoon head it’s from the University of Alaska Museum you can see some of them on exhibit and it’s made out of a walrus tusk so I don’t know how walrus would feel about getting killed by a walrus tusk and those sort of seems odd but you’ve also got these were walrus tusk harpoon heads that we found at the site we worked on in checotah and this is how it works this is a toggling harpoon head so when you get somebody with a really strong arm who hurls your harpoon this actually goes way far in and embeds itself in in some cases the actual bone that’s where you really want it to stick because it’s not going to come out of the bone and then you have you can see this lashing which is a attached to it so once you’re not expecting to actually kill the walrus with one fell swoop okay with your harpoon what you’re hoping is that harpoon embeds itself in the really thick blubber or the bone of the walrus then you attach a float and floats were often inflated sealskinz to the walrus and then you can pretty much let the walrus run until it’s exhausted because it can’t go it can’t go under way underwater because it’s got attached to the float so that seems to be one of the ways that people were exploiting walrus in the past and st. Lawrence Island I collected some examples of how people used walrus ethnographically in other words in the recent past the last 200 years as a way to see how those ways compared to what people were doing pre historically okay so the idea was okay let’s see find examples of what people do now and then look at the archaeological materials to see if we can match those up and this was a really interesting one which is this fellow holding walrus tusks to to take a bear this is actually a print made by a native Chukchi person from you Ln which is a site in Shikoku here are some other examples walrus scapula shovels these are really really common remember no wood right no wood so you’ve got to make do with what you have walrus scapula shovels seem to be pretty darn common and here this is an example from st. Lawrence Island remember we talked about how good the preservation is because of that permafrost so you actually have a piece of the wood the limited would you would have kept the wood and tried to use it in as many ways as possible actually attached to that scapula shovel this is probably about a thousand years old this particular illustration these are walrus teeth and walrus teeth are these really dense pieces of ivory people were using them as bolas so you basically attach some kind of twined material to a walrus tooth you drill hole and then you swing it and if you’re if you’re good at it you hurl it and it actually wraps around some prey animal we think this is

probably birds but we’re not sure so bolas made out of walrus teeth this to me is pretty pretty interesting these are both walrus bones a phalanx which is like a finger toe bone and an astragalus which is a another bone of the hinder foot these were both found with sinew attached to them and those are pretty interesting these are happen to be about two thousand years old but we know that bone was a really important material to be used as an amulet certainly in the last 200 years that people would carve a stone or perhaps carve a piece of ivory into an animal or take a part of an animal and wrap it with sinew or baleen or something and wear it as an amulet so that was pretty interesting because we don’t know much about the beliefs of people in the last thousand years right what did they think about walrus were they just something to eat or was it was it more complicated than that this is another interesting ethnographic example a recent example of how people are thinking about walrus and as you can see it’s a walrus but it’s got the face of a person here and this example is explained as a walrus in agua so the walrus has like a little person like a little little spirit we would probably say spirit we don’t have any perfect translation for the word inoue which is a new block term but it’s sort of like the walrus spirit and here the artist is saying okay here’s our walrus but the walrus has a person it’s a person inside it’s a spirit or soul inside it so that was pretty interesting to me and I wanted to look at is it possible that this kind of belief was also operative in the past I mean did people two thousand years ago think about walrus that way when you kill a walrus does the walrus sort of have a personhood is there a spirit in the walrus and if so how does that affect how you treat it and so I started looking for examples of this kind of thing I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for it first right we didn’t find any of these at our archaeological site what I did find was this this is a site called gekitou and it’s in on the coast of takaka and all of these read these little objects that I’ve highlighted in red are walrus skulls okay so I want you to think about like here’s your house it’s a big house too so this is a structure you’re looking down on its called a plan view for archaeology here’s your entrance way and you’ve got all these walrus heads all over the place okay to me this is pretty interesting because this looked like my raw non-random association of walrus heads at my site so I started collecting examples of uses of walrus heads and what I started to see is that people seem to be taking walrus heads and intentionally placing them in low patients that they then return to and it seems like there’s some kind of ritual activity going on I found a couple of other sites that have these special walrus the Russians have called them sort of walrus altars I don’t know if it calm an altar but clearly people are feeling like walrus have some kind of ritual religious meaning to them so back to walrus and our modern-day pokes trying to reconstruct what people were thinking about walrus in the past is pretty hard but it’s pretty clear that people at certain points along the coast of Alaska and the coast of chukotka and on st. Lawrence Island were completely dependent upon walrus in the past well how does this relate to Wales because that’s how I started walrus take a lot of energy and people to hunt okay there are two thousand pounds this is actually a small one and you can see you’ve got four guys standing here with a lot of rope here’s an Umi ack right here here’s another walrus head you can see sitting right here will always take a lot of people to hunt them it’s really hard to hunt female walruses and baby walruses out by yourself because you have to remember go out to those ice floes so I started thinking well if you need that many people to hunt walrus today or in the recent past you probably needed that many people to hunt them in the past this is a modern example of trying to hear this is snowmobile and obviously people that pass didn’t have snowmobiles but they would have to get up and down these ice ridges in order to get to where the walruses were so what this suggested to me was that you need a lot

of people okay sometime in the last two to three thousand years people started getting together to hunt walrus and this is really interesting to an archaeologist I hope to you guys because something has to happen socially for people to decide well I would rather work together with all these other people rather than just standing over my ice fishing hole right here and just working on my own ok this is what in archaeology we call the development of social complexity why do people decide to start working together and what I’m working on right now is the idea that hunting walrus was a stepping stone to Wales so in other words people didn’t go just from hunting halibut or just from hunting seals at breathing holes to hunting whales they used walrus as sort of a midpoint as a way to get there okay because if you think about it hunting a hunting a seal at a breathing hall versus going out and hunting whale with 12 people in a new yawk that seems like quite a leap I think small groups of people started getting together because walrus were a better way to live and this requires people to come together in villages and create these complex social structures that allows lots of people to work together because the only way that you can hunt these marine mammals these large marine mammals like walrus or later whale is by carefully working together having a leader who today we call Anu Malik and up in Barrow and having a closely knit social group so that is what I’m working on now how did we get to here I think walrus are the key I think walrus or how we got to Wales and without understanding how we you can’t understand the origins of whaling without understanding what came before and what led us into wailing so I think walrus are the key to wailing and I know that doesn’t really sound like it doesn’t make obvious sense but I think that’s where we’re going so for me that’s what I’m interested in right now is looking at walrus and reconstructing their role in the past as a way to figure out how we got to where we are today so thank you very much for your attention it’s been a pleasure to talk to you you