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Man finds prehistoric skull in Toksook Bay, Southwest Alaska

Laurel Andrews
The village of Umkumiut, near where the skull was discovered. Unoccupied in the winter, Umkumiut serves as a fishing camp in spring and summer months. Courtesy Steven Street

A human skull found in Toksook Bay in Southwest Alaska in September has been identified as prehistoric remains, Alaska State Troopers reported this week.

The skull was discovered by a man riding his ATV near the village of Umkumiut, on a part of the beach only accessible during low tide, Alaska State Troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen said. It was taken to the Bethel police station, where officers called on Steven Street, director of cultural and environmental scientists at the Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP), to identify the remains.

Street, who was originally hired as an archaeologist by AVCP, said that finding human remains and other artifacts from prehistoric times "happens pretty frequently" in the region, due to the eroding shoreline and the nature of old burial sites.

Shore erosion reveals sites

“Historic cemetery sites in this region were above ground initially,” he explained. Square wooden structures were built above ground in which a person’s body and other items were placed. In as little as 100 years, the boxes would sink into the tundra vegetation and begin to decay. Elders knew to avoid these sites, Street said. But as the shore washes away, many of the sites resting below the tundra are being re-exposed and washing up on shore, as did this skull.

Street explained that the first clue in determining how long ago the skull was buried was the condition of the teeth. People practicing the subsistence lifestyle of long ago wore their teeth down much faster than folks do today. You just don’t see “that kind of wear in modern-day adults,” he said.

He also cited the texture of the skull and its worn surface as giveaways that it “came out of buried contact.”

Prehistoric sites are scattered throughout the region, and nobody knows just how many there are. Some prehistoric sites are 3,000 years old and one has been documented at more than 9,000 years old. But prehistoric sites also date as recently as the early 19th century. The definition of a prehistoric site is one before written history, and for Alaska archaeology, that generally means before European contact. The first documented contact of Alaska Natives with Europeans was with Russian explorers in 1741.

Street said minimal prehistoric archaeology has been conducted in the region, due mostly to the high cost of researching in remote sites. It’s “very, very expensive to do anything” in rural locations, making the effort a “huge challenge.” However, oral history passed down from elders is very helpful.

“We have a really good handle on historic places within the memory of living elders,” he said. More than 3,000 place names have been identified through both oral history and archaeological finds, but “everybody assumes there are many more sites than that.”

Quinhagak remains swallowed by sea?

But as climate change continues to erode shorelines across the U.S., these sites, and coastal Alaska villages, are being washed into the sea. “Some of these places will be gone before anybody even documents them,” Street said.

In the village of Quinhagak, for example, British researchers are racing to collect archaeological finds before they are swallowed by the ocean. "This year, we were shocked by the amount of destruction. There were artifacts as big as tables thrown up on the bank by a single storm on a high tide,” researcher Rick Knecht told the BBC in September.

How much can be done to remedy this is unclear. The village of Kivalina unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit against more than 20 defendants claiming that climate change is causing them to be “displaced by the rising sea,” one example of the difficulty in assigning responsibility to the complex issue of global warming.  Meanwhile, the problem is getting “more and more severe,” Steven said.

As for the skull, it was returned to the Toksook Bay church priest for interment, according to troopers.

“People in the community are happy to resolve it in (that) way,” Street said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com