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From caribou to seal: The implications of changes in subsistence focus from Birnirk to Thule at Cape Espenberg

Author(s): Lauren Norman ; Claire Alix ; Owen Mason

Year: 2017

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The widespread Birnirk culture is considered the source of the Thule and modern Inuit peoples across the arctic, based largely on legacy data from the 1930s to 1960s. Nonetheless, the archaeology of the Birnirk culture is understudied, with a 1970s archaeofaunal study near Barrow framing the culture as ringed seal specialists who depleted local seal populations and were forced to migrate northward. This proposition is called into question by our excavation of two houses in 2016 at Cape Espenberg that provides detailed evidence of Birnirk subsistence pursuits and allows comparisons with subsequent Thule occupations in the area. The focal resources for both time periods are drastically different. Dating ca. AD 1000-1250, the Birnirk faunal assemblages represent broad-based economies dominated by caribou and fox, along with seal. Just a century later, AD 1350-1450, a Thule occupation had an extreme focus on seals—over 80% of the identified fauna. The cause of this shift in resource focus is still under investigation, but may represent the immigration of Siberian peoples into Alaska. This change may also reflect the forcing of climate or ecosystem dynamics, coupled with the responses of social systems, as mediated by technology and ideology.

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From caribou to seal: The implications of changes in subsistence focus from Birnirk to Thule at Cape Espenberg. Lauren Norman, Claire Alix, Owen Mason. Presented at The 81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Vancouver, British Columbia. 2017 ( tDAR id: 429134)


Geographic Keywords

Spatial Coverage

min long: -178.41; min lat: 62.104 ; max long: 178.77; max lat: 83.52 ;

Record Identifiers

Abstract Id(s): 16299

Arizona State University The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Science Foundation National Endowment for the Humanities Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Institute of America