The Story Of Nunalleq

Researchers are uncovering an extraordinary trove of artifacts from a pre-contact Yup’ik village in southwestern Alaska. But climate change and coastal erosion pose grave threats to the site.

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This aerial photo of the Nunalleq site was taken by a drone in 2017. Credit: Sven Haakanson
This aerial photo of the Nunalleq site was taken by a drone in 2017. Credit: Sven Haakanson

Spring 2018: By David Malakoff.

When Russian fur traders began exploring southwestern Alaska in the early 1800s, they met native Yup’ik people who told horrific tales of violence and revenge. In one common but unverified story, two boys were playing with bone-tipped darts when one accidentally blinded the other in one eye. Enraged, the father of the blinded boy retaliated by poking out both eyes of the wrongdoer, only to have his own son murdered in return. The tit-for-tat violence soon escalated, with clans and villages taking sides in a brutal, generations-long conflict that became known as the Bow and Arrow Wars. Fear stalked the land as attackers burned homes, murdered families, and forced entire communities to flee.

For more than a century, however, many people discounted such oral histories of the Bow and Arrow Wars, considering them little more than melodramatic yarns. Instead, in scholarly studies and popular media alike, the Yup’ik and other Arctic peoples often were portrayed as “the peaceful Eskimo” with little history of waging war. But now an extraordinary dig on the shore of the Bering Sea is revealing just how ferocious the Bow and Arrow Wars were as well as providing unprecedented insight into the everyday life of a Yup’ik community in the centuries before European outsiders arrived. Since 2009, archaeologists working at the Nunalleq site near the small town of Quinhagak have unearthed human skeletons, animal and plant remains, and tens of thousands of artifacts—including remarkably preserved weapons, tools, artwork, and housewares—that are providing an unusually comprehensive look at life in prehistoric Alaska.

“What they are finding is simply breathtaking,” said archaeologist Chris Wooley of Chumis Cultural Resource Services in Anchorage, who is not directly involved in the project. “It’s really blowing the lid off our broader understanding of the late pre-contact era, and helping us better understand the cultural interactions that were shaping that world.” And although scholars are aware of many other prehistoric sites in western Alaska, “very few have been systematically excavated,” said anthropologist Kenneth Pratt, who has worked in the region for more than thirty years. In particular, he said, Nunalleq is giving scholars hard evidence of “prehistoric warfare in the Yup’ik region.” Previously, they “had to rely almost exclusively on oral history accounts, all of which were recorded generations after warfare is known to have ceased.”

Excerpt.

Read More in our SPRING 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 21 No. 1.             Browse Content of this Issue:  Spring 2018.

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