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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

Historical Fluctuations of the George River Caribou Herd in Quebec-Labrador

                The dynamic nature of caribou demography is a fundamental characteristic of terrestrial arctic and subarctic ecosystems. Caribou have figured significantly in Labrador Inuit and Innu settlement and subsistence strategies for thousands of years and have been essential to multiple cultures across the Circumpolar North from the Pleistocene Era to the present day. The dramatic fluctuations in herd size that can occur over relatively short time intervals has dramatic social consequences  for groups with a specialized hunting focus on caribou.

                The degradation of caribou grazing range and predator-prey ecology appear to be the driving factors in population crashes. Climate and temperature changes that affect plant life cycles, fire regimes, and migration routes also are involved, but to an unknown extent. ARCTIC CRASHES will explore the interplay between these natural perturbations and human factors.

                This case study will employ archeological research and ethno historical records, coupled with the knowledge and experiences of older Innu, to explore these issues in order to gain a better understanding of boreal forest tundra/taiga ecology and its human dimensions. Fieldwork will be conducted during the autumn caribou migration in September-October of 2014 and the following northward spring migration in May 2015 in cooperation with the Tshikapisk Foundation and Innu Nation.

Extirpated Pacific Walrus of St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea

                The Pacific Walrus is the most common large mammal species in the Bering Sea, and a key subsistence resource for the Yupik people who range from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, to the Chukchi Peninsula in Russia. For thousands of years these indigenous people hunted the Walrus without putting the species in jeopardy, until American commercial hunters nearly destroyed the entire walrus population around 1870.

                Several subpopulations were destroyed, and human starvation occurred. Harvest restrictions followed in the late 1800’s, but not in time to prevent human and animal crashes in the region.

                This research project will employ indigenous elders and hunters to understand the specific nature of walrus population fluctuations and attempt to answer the question of why sub-populations never returned to pre-crash levels. Beyond even that, this project will investigate the absence of walrus in areas where bones are known to be found in shore deposits and archeological sites.

                Literature reviews for this case study will occur in winter-spring of 2014 before a field survey trip in August 2014. A presentation of the findings will be given in March 2015, with a joint paper to be written in 2016.

 

Extirpation of the Atlantic Walrus in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Eastern Canada

                While never pursued as aggressively as the Pacific walrus by Yupik groups in Alaska and Chukotka, the Atlantic walrus was once hunted by Indian, Paleoeskimo, and Inuit peoples from Maine to northern Labrador. Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene walrus fossils dredged from vanished shorelines off the Atlantic Coast have been recovered as far south as the Carolinas. And again similar to the Pacific Walrus, commercial overhunting by Dutch, French, and America interests from the 16th  to the 18th century essentially exterminated walrus populations from the southern range and drastically reduced their numbers overall.

Very little is understood about the demography and ecology of the Gulf of St. Lawrence walrus stock compared to other walrus populations. ARCTIC CRASHES seeks to uncover information about the prior range and demography of the Atlantic Walrus stocks to gain better understanding about their role in the marine ecology of the region and the degree to which they figured in Inuit and Indian subsistence practices.

Documentation, dating and genetic sampling of the Smithsonian collections of Pleistocene and Holocene walrus remains will begin in the winter of 2014. Simultaneously we will review faunal remains from archaeological sites in Maine and the Maritimes to select samples for DNA and radiometric sampling. In spring 2015, a group of archaeologists, archaeozoologists and environmental specialists will visit the Magdalen Islands in Nova Scotia–the site of a prominent 18th century walrus haul-out beach—to assess its research potential exploring the sudden demise of walrus in the Gulf ecosystem.

 

Harp Seals and Eskimos in the Eastern Subarctic

                Biological data and archeological evidence suggest that the disappearance of the Dorset Paleoeskimo people from Newfoundland around 600 AD occurred as a result of a regional crash of the ice-associated harp seal. In order to further validate these claims, environmental data must also be taken into consideration.

                This case study will specifically examine biological, environmental, and cultural evidence that links seal populations with the migrations of Groswater, Dorset, and Inuit hunters. Theories predict that during warm periods, Inuit hunters would retreat north due to a lack of stable winter sea ice for harp seal pupping. In modern times, it has been observed that a decrease in stable sea ice results in the decline of baby seal survival rates.

                For this case study, the research team will assemble zooarcheological data, documentary records, archeological evidence, and data on climate biology and paleoecology to define harp seal-Eskimo relationships. This will occur throughout 2014, along with field research on corraline algae that can provide paleo-marine temperatures and salinity records on the Labrador Current. Data integration will occur in the year 2015.

 

Harbor Seals and Humans in the Gulf of Alaska

                The contemporary indigenous people of the Unnagax, Sugpiaq, and Tlingit communities rely on harbor seals in the Gulf of Alaska as their primary subsistence resource. However, despite the efforts if conservationists and governmental organizations, harbor seal populations have crashed by up to 70% since the 1970’s.

                This case study will attempt to determine the dynamic between human interference and natural climate change that has affected these seal populations. There is evidence that warming sea temperatures, marine regime shifts, cruise ship traffic, oil spills, and overhunting all have an impact on these fluctuations. Furthermore, this study will attempt to determine if similar patterns have occurred in the past.

                Seal bone assemblages will indicate the importance of human impact as opposed to the direct impact of natural forces. Other archeological data and DNA analysis will show the relationship between harvesting done by humans and the health of the seal populations. Research on seal and human bones will determine the correlation between climatic and biological factors. Field research will be done in the Yakutat hunting village community during the summer of 2014 while bone samples are being collected from archeological sites.

Historical Changes in Large Baleen Whale Distributions in the Northwest Atlantic

                Similar to other large arctic mammals, large whales are a primary subsistence resource for arctic people. The practice of whaling in the Atlantic began to drastically affect whale populations around 1200 AD, when the Thule Inuit people arrived in the Eastern Arctic and expanded into southern Labrador. After reaching their new hunting grounds, the Thule encountered the Basques, the first people to hunt whales for commercial purposes.

                After extirpating whales in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Basques and later the Dutch expanded their territory north, into the waters of Iceland and Greenland. They destroyed stocks of whales throughout the area, and almost caused the extinction of the Greenland Right Whale. Because the populations never fully rebounded after whaling restrictions were implemented, the true reasons for these population crashes are unknown.

                This case study will examine and whale remains in several Smithsonian collections and elsewhere in order to determine the species and locations of the whales being hunted before 1800 AD. The ultimate goal is to determine the factors that influenced the depletion of whale stocks off the Northeastern U.S. and Canadian seaboard. 

                Samples of bones and baleen will be collected during the winter and spring of 2014 and will be analyzed in Canada and at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

 

NMNH Collection Research

                A major goal of the ARCTIC CRASHES project is to create a structured catalog of the Smithsonian’s arctic animals collection, specifically of mammals. These collections will be organized into subspecies, as well as sub-populations, also referred to as herds. The study of organisms based on regional groups is an important aspect of ARCTIC CRASHES that makes the project unique. Each specimen will require a location associated with it, recorded in terms of latitude and longitude. Future DNA sequencing will be inventoried according to the new sub-population archetype. ARCTIC CRASHES plans to use the Smithsonian’s mammal, paleontological, and archeological collections extensively throughout the course of the project.

Content Prepared by Joshua Fiacco

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