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Department of Anthropology

Arctic Studies Center

Update: 1/03/2016

Upcoming Lecture and Symposium on Arctic Crashes

On January 15th, 2016, 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., The National Museum of Natural History's Arctic Studies Center will host the first lecture of 2016 in the Ernest “Tiger” Burch Memorial Lecture Series, "Caribou, Cod, Climate, and Man: A Story of Life and Death in the Arctic" given by Morten Meldgaard, Natural History Museum of Denmark and University of Greenland. The lecture will be held in the Baird Auditorium, Ground Floor, of the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C.


The Arctic Crashes Symposium on January 15th, 2016 is by invitation. For more information and abstracts, please visit the Arctic Crashes Symposium webpage. Questions? Please email

The Symposium follows the second ‘Annual Ernest “Tiger” Burch Lecture’ presented in the NMNH Baird Auditorium.

Update: 1/2/2016

2015 Arctic Crashes Team Update

Aron Crowell (Arctic Studies Center) continued analysis and publication of research on the archaeology and historical ecology of indigenous harbor seal hunting in Yakutat Bay and southeast Alaska, both before and after Western contact. Collaborating zooarchaeologist Michael Etnier (Portland State University) identified almost 6500 faunal specimens excavated at the Old Town site in 2014, including 850 from harbor seals. The large number of newborn seals in the assemblage confirmed that the site's residents in AD 1500 - 1700 were harvesting seals from the ice floe seal rookery at the head of Yakutat Bay. DNA and stable isotope studies of the seal bones are underway and will be completed in 2016. 

William Fitzhugh (Arctic Studies Center) The Gateways-Crashes archaeological project in 2015 produced important new data on culture and climate history in Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Labrador work, conducted in partnership with the Nunatsiavut Inuit archaeological office, documented a 6,000 year old pit-house camp used for caribou and seal hunting in southern Groswater Bay. Continued excavation at the 17th C. Hart Chalet Inuit winter settlement in Brador, at the west end of the Strait of Belle Isle, produced a large collection of caribou and seal bones that will provide information about subsistence patterns, water temperature, and ice conditions during the most recent Inuit southern migration during the Little Ice Age.

Stephen Loring (Arctic Studies Center) in partnership with the Tshikapisk Foundation (Sheshatshit, Labrador) conducted archaeological and ethnohistorical fieldwork in the interior of northern Quebec-Labrador.  The canoe-based survey traversed a traditional Innu travel route through a series of large barrenground lakes immediately east, and parallel to, the George River in Nunavik.  Research was directed at identifying architectural and archaeological features associated with caribou hunting subsistence strategies during times of caribou abundance.  Late 19th and early 20th century Mushuainnu sites were ubiquitous attesting to a peak abundance of caribou at that time.  As well, a small number of Archaic period sites (ca. 4000 years old) at caribou crossing places were documented.

Igor Krupnik (Arctic Studies Center) supervised the overall logistics of the ‘Arctic Crashes’ studies and disseminated its research and outcomes at various meetings in Anchorage, Nome, Washington, Aarhus (Denmark), and Moscow. He collected historical data on the Pacific walrus historical distribution and catches since the 1800s, for a major paper for the future ‘Arctic Crashes’ volume. Together with Aron Crowell, he organized and chaired a full-day ‘Arctic Crashes’ session at the Alaska Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in Anchorage in March 2015. He also made a brief field trip to Alaska in December 2015 (Nome, Gambell, Wales) to collect first-hand reports on a dramatic decline in subsistence walrus catch in several Native Alaskan communities over the past three years. Though not yet an ‘Arctic crash,’ the situation was grave enough for the affected communities to appeal in 2013 for an ‘economic disaster’ declaration by the State of Alaska. This most recent story may be used as a model of climate-sea ice-induced crises that periodically affect human life in the Arctic.

Walter Adey (Botany, NMNH) specializes in the biology and ecology of coralline algae, long-lived builders of calcium carbonate from tropics to the Arctic. Early in his career, he was able to show that some species form thin yearly layers, like tree rings, with a chemical composition cycling with temperature and other climate-based variables. In cruises since 2010, he has been able to demonstrate the conditions under which Clathromorphum compactum on the coast of Labrador lives up to 1500 years, and perhaps longer, potentially providing a detailed climate record for the Holocene in Arctic waters. He has been working with Jochen Halfar of the University of Toronto and other colleagues, who have developed the instrumentation and methodology to measure these fine chemical changes and convert that information to key climate variables. In 2014, he helped organize a cruise to Baffin Island, partly supported by “Arctic Crashes”, to extend that capability. Merinda Nash, an Australian post-doctoral fellow in physics, has recently arrived in Adey’s lab, and will be working with him on the complex details calcification in these organisms to gain a better understanding of the process and the variables that control its cycles.

Moira McCaffrey (Independent Researcher, Ottawa, ON) is an archaeologist and museologist who conducts research in the eastern Subarctic and on the Îles de la Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Previous fieldwork on the Islands revealed a deep and rich archaeological record, with sites dating back 8000 years and spanning all time periods. In the historic period, the Islands are notable as a key location for walrus hunting by Basques, French, English and ultimately American entrepreneurs. By the late 1700s, Maritimes walrus had been extirpated. Recent research and fieldwork on the Îles de la Madeleine in 2015, initiated within the "Arctic Crashes" project, involves examining sites linked to this walrus exploitation; identifying local walrus specimen collections; carrying out historical research to track the movement of walrus products from the Islands to global markets; and evaluating the use of walrus by Indigenous groups on the Islands and in the wider Gulf of St. Lawrence region.

Alaina Harmon (NMNH): In 2014–2015 conducted a survey of National Museum of Natural History osteological specimens for the ‘Arctic Crashes’ project. The study covered five key Arctic species: bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus; harbor seal, Phoca vitulina; harp seal, Pagophilus groenlandicus; walrus, Odobenus rosmarus, and caribou, Rangifer tarandus. The final NMNH collection database, complete with the five identified key species and two northern right whale species, contains approximately 1,100 specimens. The final product includes locality data, collection data, nomenclature, accession data, weight, length, sex, stage, geological age (for paleo specimens only), associated culture, stock designation, geo-referencing data, collector biographical data, and associated documents for each specimen. The database promises to provide information rich for interdisciplinary research.

Update: 4/18/14

Dr. Fitzhugh just finished a report on the 2013 field study of Basque whalers and cod fisherman and their Inuit partners at the Hare Harbor dig site. This study will shed light on one of the several instances when Eskimos moved south of the central Labrador coast to take advantage of the southern expansion of arctic sea mammals during cold climate periods.

Update: 4/15/14

Dr. Aron Crowell is currently working on research for the Yakutat Seal Project, which will apply to his case study Harbor Seals and Human Agents in the Gulf of Alaska. His current progress is in preparation for his May 19th trip to the Gulf of Alaska, during which he will interview hunters and film seal hunting expeditions.

Update: 4/16/14

Dr. Nicolas Pyenson left today on an expedition to Alaska to collect DNA samples from arctic sea mammals. He will return on April 27,th 2014 with his findings.



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