Nowhere are the effects of recent climate change more pronounced and destructive than in the Arctic. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (Y-K Delta) of Western Alaska, the large native Yup’ik community are facing life-altering decisions in an uncertain future, as rising temperatures, melting permafrost and coastal erosion threaten traditional subsistence livelihoods and settlements.
Coastal erosion is now also rapidly exposing ancestral settlements, rendering the archaeological record both a casualty of modern climate change and a potential tool for the mediation of some of its effects. In 2009, concerned at the loss of their cultural heritage, the village corporation Qanirtuuq Inc., and the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Quinhagak began a program of archaeological survey, in partnership with University of Aberdeen, which resulted in the discovery of the Nunalleq site (Yup’ik for ‘The Old Village’). Nunalleq is now the focus of the first and only large-scale community archaeology project ever undertaken in a region nearly the size of the UK, funded by a major AHRC Care for the Future grant.
Spanning the ‘Little Ice Age’ – a pre-modern global temperature excursion event – this pre-contact Eskimo village (AD 1350-1700) has revealed house-floors yielding tens of thousands of in situ archaeological artefacts including spectacular artwork and exceptionally well-preserved organic remains. In partnership with the people of Quinhagak, our images feature both the products and processes of archaeological research being employed to understand past climate change, and to empower descendant Yup’ik communities. With preservation of cultural heritage a priority, the artefacts from Nunalleq provide avenues for imparting traditional knowledge to younger people raised in an increasingly westernised cultural environment.
Our gallery highlights the collaborative effort between the lead academic investigators of the grant – specialists in Arctic archaeology (PI Rick Knecht), bioarchaeology (Co-I Kate Britton) and community archaeology (Co-I Charlotta Hillerdal) – and the people of Quinhagak, along with a large number of other academic and community partners, and volunteers. These images are the story of our project, and invite viewers to confront the cultural impacts of climate change for indigenous peoples living in the Arctic and the emerging interface of cultural survival, heritage and global warming. Such cross-disciplinarity underscores the continuing priorities of AHRC-funded research on the occasion of its 10th anniversary.
Archaeology provides a unique link to past knowledge and traditions at an uncertain time when these are badly needed. This is especially important amongst the Yup’ik, where respect for tradition and trust in ancestral wisdom runs deep. In Quinhagak, archaeological research and interaction with archaeology and material culture is a catalyst, forging new directions in academic research while reconnecting villagers with the past. Since the archaeological excavation began, there has been an increased interest amongst the younger generations in Quinhagak to engage with traditional arts and crafts, and Yup’ik culture. The artefacts themselves are as potent as they are beautiful, feeding into Yup’ik heritage and cultural identity, and providing new contexts for encountering, discussing and documenting the past across the generations – new narratives from Nunalleq, ‘the Old Village’.
The Yup'ik Homeland from the Air
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