Global warming portends problems for Alaska going forward, but a British archaeologist is suggesting that the opposite might have made life hell in a part of the state in the distant past.
Rick Knecht from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has suggested the Little Ice Age from 1400 to 1750 might have sparked the prehistoric wars that raged for 200 or 300 years in Western Alaska.
Anthropologist Caroline Funk in a 2010 paper chronicled “The Bow and Arrow War Days on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of Alaska” based on the oral history passed on by those living in the still remote region.
She and fellow anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan, a recognized authority on prehistoric Western Alaska, theorized that the long and often brutal battles between the region’s Yup’ik might have begun with an act of revenge that escalated into a vicious cycle of revenge wars that dragged on for hundreds of years.
The wars ended about the time Russian traders and explorers arrived in the bays and rivers of Alaska in the 1840s, according to Funk, who writes that “no Bow and Arrow War–related raids, attacks, or battles were observed by the Russians or the later Americans, and no observations of the war appear in historical sources.”
Still, she added, the wars remained deeply embedded in the oral history of the region and likely the culture as well.
A deadly legacy
“The Bow and Arrow War Days had a significant impact on Yup’ik culture, so much so that all regional cultural analyses should include this socially cataclysmic process,” she wrote.
Knecht has for a decade been involved in an archaeological excavation near the present-day village of Quinhagak, about 420 miles west of Anchorage. It has provided evidence to back up the oral history of the Bow and Arrow Wars.
Somewhere around 1650, Knecht told Archaeology magazine, a horrific massacre at the site now called Nunalleq ended with a community house being put to the torch with people and dogs inside.
“We found this burned floor with all this burned stuff on it, riddled with arrow points—absolutely riddled,” Knecht told reporter Daniel Weiss. “We also found the bodies of people who were dragged out of the house, along with the long grass ropes that were used to do so. Their skeletons are burned and kind of dismembered.
“We found this charred beam right across the middle of a dog, and it cooked him so fast, so intensely, that he was pretty well preserved.”
What archaeologists have found sounds strikingly similar to one of the stories Funk recorded:
“Very few Qavinarmiut escaped and the Yukon warriors wanted to kill them all thinking about the many warriors they lost in the previous war. When some of the Qavinarmiut warriors escaped and went to Qangllumiut, the Yukon warriors went after them.
“When they got to Qangllumiut, a nearby village, they found two young boys. They removed all their clothing and checked their bodies by squeezing them. One of the Yukon warriors asked one of their warriors which boy he wanted to have. The man wanted the younger brother.
“Then the Yukon warriors took the older boy and had the younger one sit and watch them. Four warriors took his wrists and ankles and stretched his body outward on all sides until he died.
“The Yukon warriors returned to Qavinaq and gathered the dead and some of the warriors burned the houses after they gathered wood and put it at the entrances. Even though the warriors weren’t supposed to harm the women, the Yukon warriors burned their homes….The warriors burned down all the sodhouses to nothing.”
Knecht believes all of the strife might have been set in motion by widespread resource shortages linked to climate change.
“We think that the Bow and Arrow Wars might be related to stresses on their subsistence menu due to the Little Ice Age, which hit pretty hard in Alaska,” Knecht told the magazine. “Some foods may have been harder to get, and the normal hunting areas may not have yielded enough meat, creating pressure to attack other areas and move into them.”
The Little Ice Age is believed to have led to the Viking exodus from Greenland while causing hardships all across Europe. Historians now credit it with fundamentally changing Western society.
“For the inhabitants of temperate zones such as Europe, this creeping but unstoppable transformation heralded not only freezing temperatures, but also hunger and hardship, epidemics and social unrest,” Phillip Blom, observed at BBC earlier this year.
“From the 1570s onwards,” he wrote, “bitter winters saw harbors in the Mediterranean freeze over until late spring….In France, soldiers had their wine rations sawn from solid blocks of ice, while in Russia cavalrymen were said to fall off their horses, frozen solid.
“Harsh winters, however, were only part of the problem confronting European societies. Cool and rain-sodden summers did not allow harvests to ripen and frequently the distraught countryfolk had to watch the corn rotting in the fields before it could be brought in. Famines tripled in frequency, as did epidemics.”
Historians now credit the struggle against a chilling climate with forcing adaptations that transformed Europe from a subsistence agricultural society into a commercial one from which flowed many other changes.
“When temperatures and harvests recovered to pre-1570 levels during the eighteenth century,” Blom writes,”Europe’s social, political and economic landscape had changed radically. Feudal, late medieval societies were well on their way into a modernity dominated by more dynamic (and more destructive) economies, the triumph of the scientific method, early industrialisation, the rise of the urban middle classes, and, ultimately, the Enlightenment, which argued forcefully that the old order must make way to a new, egalitarian way of living based not on faith, but reason.”
A colder Alaska
There are no historical records of what was happening to the environment on the Y-K Delta at the time, but big swings in Alaska fish and wildlife populations tied to weather are well documented.
A dramatic decline in salmon numbers across the state in the early 1970s was linked to a shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation that cools waters in the Gulf of Alaska. In Western Alaska specifically, Nathan Mautua reported in a paper published by the American Fisheries Society in 2009, a long-term examination of salmon production in Norton Sound found high productivity “associated with warmer than average winter-spring air temperatures and summertime sea surface temperatures (SST) while the low productivity years were more strongly associated with cold periods in winter-spring air temperatures and summer SSTs.”
Ocean warming in recent years has, on the other hand, led to record salmon returns. The state is now harvesting salmon in numbers never imagined in the past.
Some wildlife populations have shown similar climate-related declines due to shifts to colder climates, and the studies of the Vikings in Greenland could shed some light on the situation in Western Alaska. Greenland Vikings were at first thought to have starved out after cooling made their traditional farming lifestyle difficult to impossible.
But newer research has shown they adapted to the change by shifting to hunting the seas for food.
“There’s no doubt that climate stressed the colony, but the emerging narrative is not of an agricultural society short on food, but a hunting society short on labor and susceptible to catastrophes at sea and social unrest,” Eli Kintisch wrote in Science Magazine.
The current thinking is that over time the Greenland Norse, who had always maintained trading ties with Scandinavia to the east where walrus ivory was highly valued, eventually just gave up on Greenland and returned to their homeland.
Having no homeland to which to retreat, the Yu’pik tribes of Western Alaska might have found themselves forced to resort to other means to survive. Archaeologists are increasingly coming to view this was a norm.
Scientists working in Kenya in 2016 reported finding a 10,000-year-old battle site which appeared to be linked to a fight over food.
The site called “Nataruk would have been a prime foraging site, and the attackers probably came to take resources from the people who occupied it,” Discover magazine reported. “They could have been after food, such as gathered nuts or fried fish, or they may have come to take women and children for their own band, an occasional practice among modern hunter-gatherers such as the Tiwi in Australia. They may even have sought to take control of the territory itself.”
“This shows that two of the conditions associated with warfare among settled societies – control of territory and resources – were probably the same for these hunter-gatherers, and that we have underestimated their role in the prehistoric life of hunter-gatherers,” archaeologists Marta Mirazón Lahr told the magazine.
War among humans, it is beginning to appear, might have been going on almost forever. In terms of human history, the Western societies which today live free from the threat of regular warfare are beginning to appear a wholly modern phenomenon.
Syria, where war still rages, is more the human norm than Sweden, where peace has reigned for more than 200 years.