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32nd Annual Arctic Workshop Abstracts
March 14-16, 2002
INSTAAR, University of Colorado at Boulder

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THE HUMAN ROLE IN EARLY HOLOCENE ARCTIC FOOD WEBS: SOME THOUGHTS FROM NORTHERN SIBERIA

AUTHORS

ODESS, DANIEL . University of Alaska Museum.
Pitulko, Vladimir V. Institute for the History of Material Culture, RAS.
Anisimov, Mikhail A. Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, RAS.
Basilyan, Alexander E. Institute for Geology, RAS.
Giria, Evgeny Yu. Institute for the History of Material Culture, RAS.
Nikolsky, Pavel A. Institute for Geology, RAS.
Pavlova, Elena Yu. . Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, RAS.
Tumskoy, Vladimier E. Moscow State University.

Much of the archaeological research conducted in the Arctic over the past 30+ years has focussed on how humans have adapted to the natural environment, and, more recently, how they have responded to environmental change. Their role as high-order carnivores in Arctic food webs has gone largely unexplored and unappreciated. Elsewhere in the archaeological world, explicitly ecological research programs have increasingly emphasized the role of humans as active and even intentional agents of environmental change. Where before it had been assumed that the human role in environmental change was negligible prior to the rise of agriculture, agro-pastoralism, or even the industrial revolution, we now recognize that humans fundamentally altered local and even regional ecosystems long before these developments in many parts of the world.

On Pacific Islands, human arrival is marked by the extinction of some species and the introduction of others. Demographic profiles in catastrophically killed bison populations from Early and Middle-Holocene sites in the lower 48 states suggest specific age sets had been selectively removed by human predators. Fire histories in some areas suggest humans practiced intentional burning to increase the yield of economically important plant foods and / or to increase the populations of economically important animals. The debate over whether humans caused the extinction of Pleistocene megafauna in the New World continues to simmer. Stellar’s Sea Cow now only floats in specimen jars at museums, but its bones are common in prehistoric archaeological sites from the Aleutian Islands.

The assumption that there was an “Ecological Indian” (Krech 1999) living in harmony with but not having any impact on the environment is itself falling prey to a variety of contrary archaeological and paleoecological data. In the Arctic, where human population densities have remained low until quite recently, and where people have articulated with food webs primarily as foragers, we have taken for granted that humans were subject to the vagaries of the environment and environmental change, but I suggest we have also assumed that relatively small numbers of people hunting with what to our modern eyes appear to be primitive tools did not and could not have a significant impact on the animal populations on which they preyed. Extinction is but the most dramatic of many possible impacts human predators may have on community ecology.

Humans have lived in the North American Arctic at least since the end of the Pleistocene, but occupation sites that preserve faunal remains, the most direct evidence for how they interacted with food webs, are very scarce until the Middle Holocene. Humans have occupied the Russian Arctic for a much longer time, and sites with well-preserved faunal remains go back to the previous interglacial (Pitulko et al., 2002 and this conference). Ongoing investigations under the auspices of the research program “Zhokhov 2000” are building on previous efforts (e.g., Pitulko and Kasparov 1996) and exploring the role of human predators in Arctic ecosystems. While work is still underway, preliminary results confirm that people living on what is now Zhokhov Island in the Early Holocene were taking large numbers of polar bears relative to other species whose bones are found in the site. It is not yet clear whether humans targeted a specific segment of the polar bear population through selective hunting practices, but smaller, perhaps female, individuals appear most common. The removal of large numbers of polar bears from the food web, particularly if a specific segment of the population was targeted, would have a significant impact on community ecology.

We suggest that in nearly all cases, even those going back to the last interglacial, where the archaeological datasets provide fine enough resolution to address the issue, humans have had a potentially significant impact on arctic food webs and, by extension, on community paleoecology. It follows from this conclusion that future efforts to reconstruct arctic food webs and past communities of plants and animals should explicitly consider the role of human predators in the ecosystem.

Krech, Shepard III 1999. The Ecological Indian. New York: Norton

Pitulko, V.V., and A.K.Kasparov. 1996. Ancient Arctic Hunters: Material Culture and Survival Strategy. Arctic Anthropology 1996, 33(1):1-36.

Pitulko, V.V., M.A.Anisimov, A.E.Basilyan, E.Yu.Giria, P.A.Nikolsky, D.P.Odess, E.Yu. Pavlova, and V.E.Tumskoy 2002. Making a New Step: Zhokhov 2000 project, Expedition of 2001. Abstracts of the ARCSS Workshop held in Seattle, February 2002.

REFERENCES
Krech, Shepard III 1999. The Ecological Indian. New York: Norton



Pitulko, V.V., and A.K.Kasparov. 1996. Ancient Arctic Hunters: Material Culture and Survival Strategy. Arctic Anthropology 1996, 33(1):1-36.



Pitulko, V.V., M.A.Anisimov, A.E.Basilyan, E.Yu.Giria, P.A.Nikolsky, D.P.Odess, E.Yu. Pavlova, and V.E.Tumskoy 2002. Making a New Step: Zhokhov 2000 project, Expedition of 2001. Abstracts of the ARCSS Workshop held in Seattle, February 2002.

 

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