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Sunday, November 18, 2012

New Life to Old Thoughts

Recently I was doing a little ethnographic research and decided to re read the first part of Ales Hrdlicka's book, The Anthropology of Kodiak Island, published in 1944.  At the beginning of his book he has a section where he summarizes everything in the early Russian accounts about various aspects of Alutiiq life.  At the time Hrdlicka wrote his book most of these accounts had not been translated. And I have always been impressed with both the completeness of the section and that he translated all of them himself.

Anyway, Hrdlicka has a TERRIBLE (and well deserved) reputation among contemporary archaeologists.  He is the guy who during the 1920s and 30s went around Alaska digging into old sites looking for human skulls which he took back to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.  He was principally a physical anthropologist, and as such he measured the skulls and came up with various theories about the peopling of the New World.  In Alaska due in a large part to Hrdlicka's activities people still often associate archaeologists with 'grave robbing' and 'collecting skulls'.  As you can see from the photo above (he is the guy on the right) his archaeological excavation techniques were a little crude to say the least.

Because of his reputation I think contemporary anthropologists tend to discount everything he ever wrote or said.  So it was with a bit of shock that while reading his introduction to the book I found myself agreeing with his ideas.  I mean he is basically the 'Adolph Hitler' of Alaskan Archaeology so how could he be right about anything?  But, perhaps, sometimes it is best to give credit where credit is due.  Or, put another way, maybe it is better not to throw out the baby with the diaper.

The paragraph below where he summarizes his main discoveries particularly struck me.  Basically, his 3 main points about the peopling of the New World; 1) that there were numerous migrations by different races over a long time period, 2) that the migrations were not confined to foot traffic across solid land, and 3) that an  interior route down to the lower 48 would have been pretty inhospitable compared to a far easier coastal migration - are all valid today. When I was in graduate school 20 years ago we were taught that basically there was one migration of peoples following big game animals across the Bering Land Bridge and down through the 'Ice Free Corridor' to the 'Lower 48', and this happened shortly before 12,000 or so years ago.  DNA and linguistic work and the discovery of far older sites, and even underwater sites along the coastline have demonstrated this theory is not valid.

Basically, what Hrdlicka wrote 60 years ago, and long discounted afterwards, appears to be spot on afterall!

Below is what Hrdlicka wrote:

As the survey itself progressed from year to year, a number of realizations became more and more established.  The main conclusions were, in brief, that there could not have taken place any one large migration from Asia to America, but only repeated dribblings of different units, extending over several thousands of years and bringing inevitably with them even then a variety of languages and physical types; that these small contingents did not need a land or even an ice bridge but could easily reach Alaska over water, even in their smallest skin boats; that as long as the road to the south, “towards the sun,” was free they were under no necessity of establishing any permanent settlements in the north; and that the direction of least resistance and better prospects, two of the main laws that control all human migratory movements, was not through the difficult and largely in-hospitable Alaskan mainland, but along the much easier coasts southward. (Hrdlicka 1944:pp.1-2)

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