Review Article

Climate change, culture history and the rebirth of circumpolar archaeology

Peter Jordan
Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen
St. Mary's, Elphinstone Road, Aberdeen, AB24 3UF, Scotland, UK

Books Reviewed

LEONID P. KHLOBYSTIN (translated by LEONID VISHNIATSKI & BORIS GRUDINKO, edited by WILLIAM W. FITZHUGH & VLADIMIR V. PITULKO). Taymyr: the Archaeology of Northernmost Eurasia (Contributions to Circumpolar Anthropology 5). Originally published in 1988 in Russian as Drevniaia istoriia Taimyrskogo Zapoliar'ia i voprosy formirovaniia kultur severa Evrazii by Nauka, St Petersburg. xxviii+236 pages, 175 illustrations. 2005. Washington D.C.: Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; 0-9673429-6-1 paperback $29.95.

JENS FOG JENSEN. The Stone Age of Qeqertarsuup Tunua (Disko Bugt): a regional analysis of the Saqqaq and Dorset cultures of Central West Greenland (Meddelelser om Grønland - Man & Society 32). 272 pages, numerous b&w & colour illustrations. 2006. Copenhagen: SILA/Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland, National Museum of Denmark; 87-90369-82-3 hardback.

JETTE ARNEBORG & BJARNE GRØNNOW (ed.). Dynamics of Northern Societies: Proceedings of the SILA/NABO Conference on Arctic and North Atlantic Archaeology, Copenhagen, May 10th-14th, 2004 (Publications from the National Museum, Studies in Archaeology & History 10). 416 pages, numerous illustrations & tables. 2006. Copenhagen: National Museum of Denmark; 87-7602-052-5 hardback.

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Global warming is now big news. Remote Alaskan villages are sinking into the melting permafrost and the sudden disappearance of ice sheets threatens both traditional seal hunting and the extinction of the iconic polar bear. Many scientists now predict a total 'meltdown' of the frozen Arctic environment, with devastating consequences for the many indigenous peoples that have made the northern world their home. In this time of great uncertainty a renewed focus on the 'Archaeology of the North' is useful in reminding us that climate change has been a defining feature of the Arctic's long-term culture history. These three books exemplify the divergent ways in which humanity's engagements with the challenges of high-latitude environments have been researched and understood.

Northernmost Eurasia

On both geographical and intellectual grounds Taymyr is the clear outlier. The monograph focuses the 'mysterious' Central Soviet Arctic (p. xiv), and reprints Leonid P. Khlobystin's seminal doctoral thesis, which he defended in 1982, at the peak of his professional career, and prior to his premature death at the age of 56. The Russian-language text was published posthumously in 1988, and the current English-language translation forms part of a wider initiative by the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center to expand dialogue between circumpolar scholars at a time when major advances are being made in the archaeology of the Russian Arctic (p. xiii).

Khlobystin's monograph makes a crucial contribution to Arctic archaeology on two levels. Internationally, the book plugs one of the largest gaps in the sparse English-language archaeological literature on northern Eurasia. At a more fundamental level, Khlobystin's fieldwork in Taymyr transformed understandings of Eurasian prehistory. Until the 1960s the area had remained a blank spot on archaeological maps of the north, and when the first of his 'Polar Expeditions' set out in 1967 there were only four archaeological sites known in the entire region. By 1981 he had added two hundred, transforming Taymyr into one of the best studied regions of northern Siberia.

Three main themes run through Khlobystin's work. He was particularly interested in overturning the lingering assumption that Taymyr's ancient cultures were remote, backward and lacking capacity for innovation, in contrast to more dynamic populations living in the south. Khlobystin demonstrated that Taymyr was a pivotal contact zone between the Ob' and Yenissei drainages to the west, and the Lena basin to the east. Taymyr played a key role in the dispersal of several technological innovations, including early net-ware pottery (p. 45), which arrived from the Baikal area and Eastern Siberia. Khlobystin also discovered 'the northernmost bronze casting workshop in the world' (p. 96) at the site of Abylaakh I, dated to 1300 BC, which provided compelling evidence that Taymyr's hunter-fisher-gatherers were keeping pace with technological developments in the rest of Eurasia.

Human-environment relations form a second strand in his research, and, at a time when very few Russian archaeologists were advocating an ecological approach to culture change, Khlobystin linked developments in culture history with shifts in climate and environment (p. xviii). Ironically, in noting the long-term continuities in the underlying caribou hunting economy of Taymyr he was forced to acknowledge 'a certain conservatism of arctic cultures' (p. 199) but argued that this reflected the optimal choices made by the earliest colonising populations, rather than the stereotypes of cultural backwardness that he was keen to overturn.

As an archaeologist of the Soviet era Khlobystin also focused on 'ethnogenesis', the reconstruction of long-term cultural sequences, starting with earliest human settlement, and ending with the historical formation of present-day ethnic groups. Working closely with ethnographers, he felt confident enough to assert that the 'Nganasans are truly the direct descendants of the ancient Mesolithic population of the Taymyr Peninsular' (p. 198). Khlobystin also made widespread use of ethnographic parallels in his archaeological interpretations, and his appreciation of deep historical continuity was an important factor in his argument that descendent communities, living in similar ecological settings, can serve as ideal sources of direct historical analogy (p. 171-2).

As with many studies in Soviet archaeology the book's emphasis on deep continuity is offset by meticulous description of a swarming array of archaeological cultures that compete, interact, and overlay one another in a baffling sequence. It is this latter approach, in particular, that gives the main body of text a rather dated feel, despite inclusion of some excellent maps, illustrations and photographs in the current edition. The book's enduring value lies in revealing details of Taymyr's rich and unexpected archaeology to the eager eyes of a new Western audience, an achievement that would have made Khlobystin justifiably proud.

Western Greenland

Jens Fog Jensen's Stone Age of Qeqertarsuup Tunua provides a timely synthesis of his recent survey and excavation work on the western coast of Central West Greenland. While earlier studies had tended to concentrate on stratified midden sites to reconstruct the 'broad sweep' of culture history; Jensen outlines the more ambitious aim of reconstructing the 'horizontal' patterns of behaviour that extend out over the landscape (pp. 11-12). In pursuing these goals he develops a detailed analysis of raw material procurement strategies, and compares and contrasts settlement patterns and dwelling types of the Saqqaq (2500-900 cal BC) and following Dorset (800-0 cal BC) cultures.

The book makes several valuable contributions to our understanding of the culture history of prehistoric Greenland, and generates important insights into the behaviour of high-latitude hunter-gatherers. For example, Jensen's detailed analysis of Saqqaq stone-working and raw material procurement strategies illustrates the scale, dynamism and potential fragility of extended exchange networks, in which large permanent base camps are argued to have played a central role (p. 96).

One of the main topics addressed by the book is the puzzling lack of evidence for a localised transition from the Saqqaq to the Dorset culture (p. 181). Prior to 1900 cal BC there are indications that Saqqaq communities were being subjected to 'ecological stress', followed by an abrupt decline in activities. These may have been even more sudden and dramatic than indicated by the archaeological evidence, and Jensen argues that the eventual outcome is the complete depopulation of the Qeqertarsuup Tunua - or Disko Bay - area (p. 180). Saqqaq abandonment is followed by a later re-colonisation by Dorset groups around 800 cal BC. Interestingly, Jensen examines how the new populations followed almost identical strategies when resettling the landscape. He presents a detailed comparative analysis of subsistence, settlement and mobility patterns, and concludes that the 'many similarities and few differences between Saqqaq and Dorset settlement patterns imply...little economic difference between the two periods' (p. 179).

What factors might have triggered this sequence of events? In reviewing earlier models of culture change Jensen is keen to avoid simplistic arguments for climatic causality (p. 31). However, the 'horizontal' perspective developed through the book enables us to grasp the crucial importance of regional exchange networks, as well as the inherent fragility of northern hunter-gatherer economies. Equipped with a more sophisticated behavioural understanding of the archaeological record, we are better able to comprehend how slight changes in the local ecofauna could have triggered catastrophic collapse in social networks and the abandonment of entire regions.

In the final chapter Jensen integrates his evidence for local cycles of colonisation and abandonment with larger models of human dispersal into, and out of, prehistoric Greenland. These return us to the hypothesis that only severe environmental change, coupled with the break up of social networks, could generate culture change on such a massive scale (p. 185). Jensen's impressive study signals how fine-grained archaeological analysis can enable us to investigate the mediation of these macro-scale processes at more intimate social scales.

Northern societies

Of the three books Dynamics of Northern Societies, an edited collection of papers presented at the 2004 SILA (Greenland Research Centre at the National Museum of Denmark) / NABO (North Atlantic Biocultural Organisation) conference, is broadest in geographic and thematic scope. The 37 short chapters are grouped into broad Inuit and Norse categories, preceded by two keynote papers and a short introduction. A number of early chapters draw on the concept of the chaîne opératoire to study local stone-working practices. However, the stimulating contribution by Bjarne Grønnow and Mikkel Sørensen develops the full potential of the approach, and examines how identification of distinct lithic traditions can generate fresh insights into the complex sequence of Palaeo-Eskimo migrations into Greenland. Working at a similar spatial and temporal scale, Charlotte Damm tracks the movements of different categories of materials culture in her innovative reconstruction of the poorly-understood dynamics and historical trajectories of regional and inter-regional contacts that characterise the earlier prehistory of Fennoscandia (6000-4000 BC). Remaining papers consist of several short site reports, as well as studies of rock art, cordage and wood, the social dynamics of architecture and the role of focal places. Chapters in the Norse section are equally diverse, with some strong contributions from environmental archaeologists studying the landscape impacts of early Viking settlement of the North Atlantic.

In attempting to present an 'overview of the remarkable development' in Arctic and North Atlantic archaeological research, the volume sets itself a challenging goal. The quality of scholarship is high throughout, but one is left wondering how such a range of themes and materials might have been brought together more effectively, transforming the eclectic 'overview' generated by individual papers into a more detailed vision of how an 'Archaeology of the North' might develop its future potential. Instead, the short introduction encourages us to continue examining the 'delicate interplay between different past societies and between societies and their dynamic natural environments in these so-called marginal areas of the world' (p. 7). On balance, the two keynote chapters do go some way in stringing the diversity together, and provide some stimulating reflections on key aspects of humanity's historical experience of the northern world.

Igor Krupnik argues that we need to understand better the human experience of environmental change (p. 11) as recorded in 'old broken bones, discarded stone tools, or in house ruins' (p. 19). Through analysis of contemporary indigenous testimony he develops an evocative study of the confusion and pain inherent in their current responses to global warming. The core of his powerful account is an examination of how ancestral skills, knowledge and tradition are passed between generations, and the ways in which people try to cope with risk and profound uncertainty when faced with sudden and often baffling patterns of climate change. He concludes that 'each successful adaptation story' told by archaeologists should be balanced by attention to the 'loss of former knowledge, and the breaking of established social ties' (p. 19).

Klavs Randsborg, though his contribution is more a personal reflection than a systematic review of the volume's chapters, reaches for a more encompassing statement of how a distinct 'Archaeology of the North' might develop. He argues for the need to regain a sense of historical trajectories and cultural tradition, rather than focus only on the changing patterns of adaptation. Understanding 'chains of historical happenings' (p. 25) are also important at several inter-locking scales, from analysis of interactions between local cultures, to a broader focus on the changing relations between North and South in the increasingly inter-connected medieval world. More generally, he concludes that as Inuit and Norse archaeology in the North Atlantic appear to be reaching 'a new mature phase' it might eventually come to serve as a 'model... for other northern regions of the Globe' (p. 27).

Where do we go from here? Judging from these three publications there are strong indications that we stand on the brink of an exciting new era of truly circumpolar scholarship. The message coming loud and clear from many contributors is the urgent need for systematic fieldwork in key areas that have the potential to transform current interpretations of the Arctic's culture history. Filling in the gaps between the intensively surveyed regions of West and Northeast Greenland is one example provided by Jensen, but there are many more. The second challenge is to understand better the changing relationships between culture history and long-term climate change in ways that acknowledge the shifting balance between social traditions and the material requirements of survival. A renewed focus on the dynamics of cultural transmission represents one potential framework for taking this agenda forwards. And finally, with over half the northern world located firmly inside the Russian Federation, the task of integrating Russian archaeology into international discussion, publication and debate is as strategically important now as it has ever been.

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