Archaeologists rush to save Yup’ik treasures threatened by vanishing shoreline


By Lisa Demer, Alaska Dispatch News

QUINHAGAK — On the eroding Bering Sea coast of far Western Alaska, archaeologists from around the world are unearthing remnants of an ancient Yup’ik village frozen in place for hundreds of years.

Archaeologists involved say it’s the biggest excavation of Yup’ik artifacts from before the arrival of Russians and other Europeans in the early 1800s. The research is taking place in this remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta village as well as labs in Europe, Canada and the United States. A leading anthropologist last week sat down with elders to see what they can tell about the finds from stories passed down over generations.

Until the permafrost began melting and the edge of the tundra eroded into the sea, the old village site, down to wooden cooking spoons, was well-preserved in the hard-frozen earth.

“There are all sorts of ghastly consequences to global warming but the one we’re worried about is the loss of cultural heritage,” Knecht said. “Because people live on these coastlines and the archaeological record is here.”

Just in the past five years, 30 feet at the edge of the dig site has been lost.

“It’s really going fast, right in front of our eyes,” Knecht said. Had the work not started when it did in 2009, thousands of artifacts at this one site would have washed away.

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