DNA results from the North Slope published!

When we first started archaeological work at Nuvuk, it took a while to find a physical anthropologist who was willing to work with the human remains here in Barrow.  Dennis O’ Rourke and his team were willing to do that.  Dennis came up to Barrow to speak to the community and the Elders to get their permission.  His lab works with genetic studies as well as skeletal material, and he asked if they would be interested in allowing ancient DNA studies on the remains from Nuvuk.  The Elders were not only interested in those studies, they suggested that the group undertake a program of modern DNA studies across the North Slope as well.   They developed a proposal to do just that, and once it was funded, research got underway, with resident of all seven North Slope communities contributing samples.

The analysis took a while.  The team traveled to all the villages to collect the data and returned to present the results to North Slope residents before they were published.  Finally, the first paper based on the project is published!  It is based on looking at mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from your mother.  It is present in many more copies than the more familiar (to most people) nuclear DNA, and therefore is often studied in archaeological situations, since all the extra copies make it more likely that some of it will survive.

The short version is that the modern DNA results support the North Slope as the source for the populations that migrated to the eastern Arctic, both the Neoeskimo (ancestors of today’s Inuit/Inupiat people) and the earlier Paleoeskimo.  This fits well with the picture from the archaeological data.

Jennifer Raff is senior author, with Margarita RzhetskayaJustin Tackney and Geoff Hayes as co-authors.

This paper has gotten picked up by a number of science news sources.


Edit:  4/30/15  Fixed a link that WP had put an ellipsis in the middle of the link.  It should work now.

BASC talk tonight with Dennis O’Rourke & Geoff Hayes–GeANS project results

Dennis O’Rourke and Geoff Hayes are scheduled to give a talk at the Iñupiat Heritage Center tonight as part of the BASC Saturday Schoolyard series.  They are giving a report to the community on the results of the GeANS (Genetics of the Alaskan North Slope) project, involving both modern and ancient (mostly from Nuvuk) DNA.  It should be really interesting.

Dennis is scheduled to arrive on the evening Alaska Airlines flight, and then head over to the IHC to start the talk at 8PM.  I think Geoff may either be here or is coming in from a village.  I  just hope the AK Airlines flight isn’t as late as the one I was on yesterday; I didn’t get here until almost 9PM.

The child is out

Just a short post, because I’m home celebrating my birthday (mostly by coughing–the cold has moved to my chest).

The child is completely out of the parka and pantaloons (Murdoch’s term), and Shawn was able to examine the remains.  No change in the age estimate.

I was able to get some pictures of the boot part of the pantaloons.  They look like they may have been made from leg skin (something with shorter finer hair than the main part of a caribou hide), with separate soles.

Sole of the left boot

There was a seam up the middle of the vamp on each boot.  The boots seem to have been sewn to the pants, which were of caribou hide.

Seam up the vamp

More tomorrow.

Halfway done

I’m about halfway done getting the child out of the parka.  Fannie Akpik came out to look at the stitches.  She agreed with Qaiyaan and me that the stitching on the parka looked like waterproof seams, even though it is clearly caribou, which isn’t normally waterproof.  I took some samples to test for presence of marine mammal oil, which might have helped make it water-resistant anyway.

Stitches on the parka

I’m trying to video the whole “excavation” process, both to document it and to serve as a backup to notes & bag labels.  I’ve reversed the photostand I have, and put it on a lab bench with the camera mount at the tippy top, overhanging the person on the sheet of plywood.  I can just get the camera high enough to get the whole thing in the shot.  I use a stepladder to get up and down to work on it.  The only problem is that there is no low battery warning, so it just dies, which it did a couple of times yesterday.  Today we started setting alarms on our phones to check the camera, so that more or less solved that problem.  I haven’t been able to download the card yet.  The SD card readers at work are getting touchy, and my Mac at home said it couldn’t read the card.  The camera sees files, so maybe I need to hook it up directly.

Lab setup for documentation. Camera at upper right center. The child is under the plastic on the lab bench.

While looking at the wolf, we noticed that some of the pieces were cut with a rounded edge, and Fannie, who is Nuvukmuit (that’s the preferred spelling in their dialect, not Nuvugmiut) herself, thought it could be related to the rounded tail on the atikłuks they make for their dance group today.  Later I found another seam where wolf had been sewn to caribou.

Fur side of the wolf. Amazingly well-preserved!
Backside of the wolf, showing the stitching. It's a regular whip stitch. The sinew is still preserved.

It’s amazing how nice the stitching is, especially since they were done with a bone needle.

Starting to take the person out of the parka

If you remember, last summer we excavated a burial which had some well-reserved fur and hide, including a parka.  We put in a freezer (thanks to NSB Wildlife Department and Cyd Hanns in particular), and late last week we brought it to the lab.  It took a bit longer to thaw than I thought, so we were only able to start today.  Some of the folks I’d hoped could look at the skin sewing since the furs aren’t in great shape and some of the sinew thread (ivalu) has dissolved are out-of-town for the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Annual Meeting and related event, but Shawn is here, and it wouldn’t be right to keep the person around just to study.

So I set up a video camera, and am using two other cameras, one with a macro lens to record stitching and so forth, and another for overall shots.  Plus I’m taking a lot of samples, and notes as well.

The bundle of furs before we started.

I got started, with a bit of help from Shawn.  He still had one other person to deal with, so I went on without him for a bit.  Qaiyaan Harcharek, and Lottie Jones, from the Inupiat History, Language and Culture Commission staff came by.  Lottie had to get back to the office, but Qaiyaan, who has a degree in Anthropology, came back and we worked on the person until after 5:30.

The first bit of the caribou hide wrapping unfolded at lower left.

What we were able to figure out so far is that the person was laid on a caribou hide, so of which was wrapped up around the lower legs and over the left side.  It’s possible that it may also have been over the right side and decayed so badly it wasn’t recoverable.  I’ve got to go back and look at the pictures and notes from the excavation.  Once we got part of the hide unwrapped, it was clear there was another kind of hair present.  Caribou have long, fairly straight hollow hairs that don’t taper very much.  There was a lot of much finer, tapering hair, which had matted down.  We were discussing what this might be, and had guessed at maybe wolf when Qaiyaan and Lottie had to head back to town.

Further unfolded, with what turns out to be wolf beside the photo scale.

I kept unfolding layers of furry hide, and all of a sudden, there were long dark guard hairs showing.  One more fold, and there was a very well-preserved patch of what is obviously wolf (if you’ve seen wolf skins, anyway).  It actually feels very much like my wolf ruff, which was probably running around 5 years ago, even though this one must have been dead for hundreds of years.  We don’t have a date yet, but wolf should be good for dating.  So that mystery was solved.

Shawn was able to look at the remains of the cranium, which had not been as well-preserved, and the person seems to be a child of 4-6 years or so.  We all have kids, and it made us sad to think how this child’s parents must have felt.

We still don’t know what the wolf was.  It has stitching, but it seems to just be wrapped around the legs.  The child is wearing what appear to be skin-in caribou boots, which may actually go all the way to the waist, sort of like hip-waders.  The wolf doesn’t seem to be over-pants, especially as the hair side is in.  Maybe we can figure that out tomorrow.

Physical anthroplogy underway

Shawn Miller, the physical anthropology PhD student (and University of Utah anatomy instructor) who examines and records the data on the human remains from Nuvuk prior to their reburial, is here.  He has been working on the multiple burial with an intact box that we excavated in early July.  It is looking like there were two primary individuals, probably both men.  The juvenile elements could all have come from the same individual, Shawn thinks, so there may have only been three people in this burial.

It is looking like one of the adults has signs of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia.  These have generally been considered as signs of iron-deficiency anemia and a diet lacking in animal food-sources, but recently it has been suggested that this may be incorrect (Walker et al. 2009).  Certainly that would seem unlikely for someone living at Nuvuk, as there really was almost nothing available there but animal food.  It will be interesting to get the dates for the individual, who was apparently more recent, since there was reportedly considerable starvation after Yankee whalers decimated the bowhead stocks.

I went to get the coffins that we had in stock.  UIC RE Maintenance folks had made us a bunch, since it is easiest to cut a whole lot of standard size pieces at once.  Unfortunately, things seem to have been moved around in the warehouse where they were stored, and we seem to be short a few boxes and quite a few lids.  The ones I found were scattered in several locations.  I was able to find enough for the individuals in the burial, and will see about getting some new lids made later this week.

Sometimes science produces unexpected results…

Much of today went trying to find freezer space for the person in the parka.  We were able to get X-rays done by the North Slope Borough vet clinic (they needed a bit of practice with a new machine anyway), and there are skeletal elements in the parka.  I talked to a conservator and it seems possible that the garments might be able to be preserved if the community chooses. We need to have a discussion with the Elders about that.

At least we need to document them really well, as they are being removed so the person can be examined and reburied.  To do that we need not only a good videographer, but also a group of experience skin sewers, since the sinew has decayed, and it may only be possible to figure out what stitch was use by skilled sewers looking at the ghosts they left.  We need to get the funds for that work, which probably won’t be available until October or so.  That means that we need a freezer to keep the person in a stable environment until the examination can happen.

CPS/UMIAQ couldn’t really offer anything right now, except to note that it hadn’t been requested in the program plan last year (sadly, I’m not clairvoyant–if I were, we could skip all the pesky shovel testing).  Fortunately, North Slope Borough Wildlife Management also has a freezer, and they were kind enough to step up and help out in this urgent situation.  Many thanks to DWM!  One UMIAQ fellow later thought of a freezer that might be a possible fallback, although it’s got stuff in it at the moment.

Next step, grant applications for that work and for the Ipiutak structure that remains at the bluff in the DWF, waiting for the next big storm to take it out.

18th Arctic conference–Part 4 (Day 2-AM)

This penultimate chapter is a bit belated, to say the least, due to holidays, much travel and associated presentations, and proposal preparation.  However, there were some very interesting papers on the final day as well, and I decided I needed to get this written before yet another conference happened.  And I needed a break from final tweaking of the PowerPoint for said conference.

The first paper was by Molly Odell, on economic change at  Mitksqaaq Angayuk between 3400-100BP.  The site, on Kodiak, seems to have had discontinuous occupations from Early Katchemak to the Russian occupation.  Molly focused on the fauna from a midden associated with an Alutiiq house.  The house seemed to have been occupied primarily by men, based on the artifacts.  The midden showed a change from a pre-contact mixed fishery (primarily cod but with significant amounts of salmon and small amounts of other locally available fish) to a fishery focused almost entirely on cod in the historic period.  Molly interprets this as a shift from a winter settlement to a cod-fishing camp, presumably staffed by men.

Jennifer Raff gave a paper on mitochondrial aDNA (ancient DNA) from the Lower Alaska Peninsula & Eastern Aleutians.  This is interesting, as there are disagreements about how/when various cultures in that area appeared, and whether or not they represent in situ (in place) developments or population replacements.  This work may help settle some of those questions.  Not to spoil any surprises, as this paper is being published, but both haplotypes A & D are well represented, and there is B from one site!

Rick Knecht, a fellow Bryn Mawr College PhD, gave a “just out of the field” talk about excavations at Nunalleq, a Yup’ik site in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.  The Yup’ik culture is quite well-known ethnographically, but almost no archaeology has been done in the area.  Nunalleq, for which there is a date of 1300BP (not sure if that’s calibrated or what it’s on or associated with) has extraordinary organic preservation at the moment, but is suffering erosion, which is accelerating due to permafrost melting and sea level rise.  The local community actually contacted the archaeologists in concern.  The 2010 season excavated a house, with lots of organic artifacts (rye grass matting, for example) present on the floor.  They think it might have been a men’s house, which are known for the Yup’ik from the ethnographic record, based on the low numbers of women’s artifacts recovered.  There was a burnt side room, with a large number of arrowheads present, which is possibly a result of conflict.  More work is planned.

Chistyann Darwent followed with a report on the 2010 work at Cape Espenberg, a beach ridge complex which is located near Kotzebue in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.  This project has been doing survey there for a couple of years and has surveyed and mapped extensively, especially the more recent periods.  They have actually been able to excavate several houses (one on each of the 3 Thule-age ridges) to a considerable extent.  One thing they discovered was that the surface mapping did not necessarily give a good picture of what was under the ground in terms of houses, side rooms and so forth.  One of the houses seems to have burned, although why is not yet clear.  They excavated an outdoor ceramic manufacturing area (inadvertently–it looked like part of the house from the surface).  The houses on the oldest and middle Thule ridges had Thule 2 harpoon heads associated with them, suggesting that they were fairly early.  The also found a copper eyed needle, slat armor.  The tunnel floor was lined with baleen.  The youngest house was of a type that was familiar to the project’s elder consultant, who had been in the US Army during the Korean War, since he’d grown up in a similar house.  It had lots of evidence for fishing.  The dates were a bit later than prior testing had led them to expect, the oldest around 1260-1400BP, the middle 1450-1650BP.

Justin Tackney gave a paper on mDNA (mitochondrial DNA) from Nuvuk, as well as presenting the new direct dates that Joan Coltrane has for the human remains. The results show a number of haplogroups hypothesized to be founders to modern Inuit populations all in one area, which is new.  In general, this supports a Thule expansion from North Alaska.

I got the slot before lunch, and gave a paper looking at the material culture of modern Iñupiat whaling.  I am using this as a way to approach what sort of evidence might be expected in archaeological sites of whalers, and where that evidence might be found.  Essentially, the modern case has a number of artifacts that are needed for whaling and nothing else, most of which have pre-contact equivalents.  The interesting thing is that they are generally not stored in the house, which implies that excavations focused on houses may not be able to address presence/absence whaling too well.

Now we’re waiting for equipment…

Shawn made it in on Friday, but some of his digitizing equipment, which had been shipped in advance with a promise from UPS that it would be here last Tuesday or Wednesday, didn’t.  He had to start with analyses that didn’t need the equipment, and we’re hoping it gets here in time for him to use it before he travels back to Utah on Wednesday.

Here’s hoping the plane makes it in tonight…

…because Shawn Miller, the physical anthropologist who will be documenting the human remains excavated at Nuvuk this summer, is supposed to be on it. The weather has been rather unfortunate of late, and a number of flights have tried to land, only to be turned back by visibility below minimums, thanks to the fact that the folks who sited the Will Rogers-Wiley Post Memorial Airport seem to have picked the foggiest spot they could find. A lot of folks have gone back and forth between Anchorage or Fairbanks and Barrow a couple of times by now (and you don’t get frequent flier miles for that).

We’ve got the lab all ready, and Laura is getting Shawn’s equipment (various digital measuring devices) out in case he wants to get an early start.  Once he’s done, we can arrange the reburial.

The deceased see a dentist

This week, the individuals we excavated this summer saw a dentist.  This is not as silly as it may sound.

The various individuals whose burials we excavate at Nuvuk are not kept in a museum somewhere for future study.  That is the way things were done in the past, but nowadays that is not acceptable to most descendant communities (people who consider themselves descended from the individuals whose remains are in question).  There are laws specifically to protect Native American graves, as well as laws which protect all graves regardless of the ethnic origin of the occupant.  This is a good thing, but it does mean that either research has to be completed very quickly, or new ways to save data for future research need to be found.

The current residents of Barrow, some of whom are the children of people who grew up at Nuvuk, generally think people should be left where they were buried, absent a pressing reason to move them.  In general, I agree.  My primary research interests don’t involve digging up burials, which makes it odd that I’ve been involved in excavating over 70 of them at Nuvuk over the years.  The thing is, the point is eroding, and if the graves aren’t excavated and moved, their occupants will wind up in the ocean.  So there is an urgent reason to be doing these excavations.

Since they are happening, most folks in Barrow agree that it makes sense to learn as much as we can about the individuals, prior to reburying them in the Barrow cemetery.   I’ve mentioned that a rib is saved for aDNA extraction, which takes place in Dennis O’Rourke’s lab at the University of Utah.  Everything else happens in Barrow.  For a number of years, the Dental Clinic at Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital has sent one or more dental externs (dental students who have come to Barrow to get practical experience in the clinic) to work with the Nuvuk Archaeology Project for a day or two at a time.  Sometimes they have come to the field with us, but their primary role has been in the lab, where they examined the teeth of the various individuals whose remains we have recovered.  In addition to recording the teeth on standard dental charts, including information on disease and anomalies, they have made casts of the teeth, just like the ones dentists make of live patients in their offices.  The idea came Amanda Gaynor-Ashley, DDS, until recently head of the dental clinic, who was visiting the lab a few years ago and noticed that some of the skulls had unusual dental patterns that looked just like those she was seeing on patients in the chairs at the clinic.  Dentition (shape and arrangement of the teeth) is highly heritable (it runs in families).  Since the individuals we were looking at were going to be reburied, Mandy suggested trying to cast their teeth.  It worked well, and each since the externs have done it for the individuals excavated that year.  Even after they are buried, we will have an accurate representation of their teeth for future researchers.

Casts of upper and lower jaws of 10A927
Cast of all that remained of 10A928's tooth rows

Since we started doing this, I stumbled across a mention of a collection of dental casts of living Barrow residents which was made by a researcher in the 1950s.  It apparently still exists, so the casts we are making as part of the NAP may well have an important place in a future research project.

Some of the casts from previous years.
More of the casts.

Later this week, Shawn Miller, the physical anthropologist from the University of Utah will arrive.  We will have to get the casts put away before that to give him maximum space to work.

The burial of a very large man

I mentioned that we started excavating a burial on the 15th of July and didn’t finish until the evening of the 19th, due to some really nasty weather.  It was simply too windy to excavate from Thursday afternoon until Monday the 19th after lunch.  Rain, sleet, and snow are all bothersome, but can be worked around.  Once the wind speeds get over about 30 mph, the chances of small artifacts (or even worse, small skeletal elements) being moved before their position is recorded or even blowing away altogether is real.  Wind speeds at Nuvuk are usually 5-10 mph higher than the official NWS measurements in Barrow.  Last year we had a Kestrel 4000 portable anemometer on site, but Laura’s dog Sir John Franklin ate it, so we have to estimate a bit.

We started work on the burial, called 10A927 on Wednesday, clearing vegetation and the organic soils covering the actual burial.  On the 15th, we began exposing the individual.  The skeleton was quite well-preserved.  It quickly became apparent from the size of the femur (thighbone) that this had been a very large person.  Dennis O’Rourke, the physical anthropologist who has the grant to work on the aDNA from Nuvuk, helps with the excavations each season.  He’s pretty tall (I’m guessing maybe 6’4″) and his opinion was that the burial was of someone who was very close to his height.  That would pretty much have been a giant at the time of European contact, since the tallest man the Ray expedition’s surgeon George Oldmixon measured in 1882-3 was 5’8 3/4″ tall.  There have been several other fairly tall individuals in the ancient graves at Nuvuk, so maybe the average height was depressed at contact because of poor nutrition because Yankee whaling had depleted the whale stocks pretty badly.  We were able to get an aDNA sample, which we take as soon as the ribs begin to show.  Jenny suits up and excavates and collects a previously unexposed rib.  Weather forced us to tarp the burial to protect it until conditions improved.

Wave breaking on the Beaufort beach at Nuvuk as the weather improves.

On Monday the 19th, the weather was pretty bad in the morning, but by lunch time it was improving, so we went out.  The passing of the storm had brought the winds around from SW to ENE, so the first order of business was to move the windbreaks on burials 10A927 and 10D75 (which we were excavating simultaneously).   We then began excavating.  10A927 turned out to be a very interesting burial.  The skeleton was nearly complete and well-preserved, and the positioning and grave structure were pretty typical for Nuvuk.  It was very nice to be able to show the students a real-life example.

I can’t show any pictures, as the Barrow Elders do not want them made public, based on past unfortunate experience.  I’ll do my best to describe the burial.  A shallow pit had been dug in the gravel (it’s pretty hard to dig anything else, even with metal shovels, which they didn’t have back then), and surrounded it with a “frame” of wood and/or whalebone.  10A927 had a nice whale rib at the foot, and wood at the sides and head.  The man had been placed on a hide, probably caribou, on his back with his knees bent.  His legs were bent a bit more than usual for Nuvuk, with his feet right by nis pelvis, almost as if the grave had been a bit small.  Perhaps the grave diggers had made the standard grave and he was a little too tall to fit easily.  His face was turned left.  His arms were folded over his chest and stomach.

A number of things had been put in the grave with him.  We found a number of whalebone bola weights (bolas were used for hunting birds), which may actually have been put in as a complete bola.  We also found a lot of the beach cobbles (bigger than the regular gravel and not that common at Nuvuk) that we have come to call “burial rocks” that were placed in some burials.  Most interestingly, he had the top of a human skull , which had apparently been placed on his stomach under his hand, since we found finger bones and a bola weight in it.  The skull appeared to have been on the surface at one point, as it was lighted in color than the skeleton, but it seems to have been placed in the burial deliberately, not found its way in later.  We have had a couple of burials with more than one person in them, and some where a later burial had disturbed an earlier one and ended up with parts of the earlier burial in and around the later one, but nothing like this.

All this was quite complicated to excavate and record.  Since the high school students are all minors, and some are only 15, the easiest way to avoid violating any child labor laws is to make sure they don’t work late.  So they went back to town with one of the bear guards just before 5pm, and the rest of us (Jenny, Laura, Ron & I) stayed out to finish.  It’s kind of unfortunate, since we only work late when something delicate and usually interesting is being excavated, and it seems tough on the students to make them leave just as things get really cool, but since this is a real job for them, we have to be on the safe side and follow all the rules.

We didn’t get done until about 9:15pm.  It wasn’t the greatest weather for all this (never got above 36ºF) but at least the wind dropped for the last couple of hours.

10A927 by the blue tarp, as we pack up at 9:20pm for the ride back to NARL after finishing the excavation.

The Gathering Crew

I’ve been working on a major update to the Nuvuk catalog database structure, and the subsequent import and merging of data from 2 Access databases with about 18,000 records or so. Much keyboard & screen time involved, leaving my hands too sore to type more.

Anyway, that’s done, without disaster, and I’m typing again…

The first of the non-Barrow residents arrives on the evening plane. He’s coming up a bit early to help get ready for actual fieldwork. It looks like he may wind up in the hut next door, which will be handy, since we won’t get a truck assigned to the project for a week or so. The physical anthropologists won’t get here for a couple of weeks, since they can’t do a lot (except help dig) until we’re in the field & finding things. They’ve using the time in the lab instead.