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June 8, 2016 By Kevin Smith,

Two of the key recurring themes that came out of Brown's Arctic Horizons workshop last week were (1) that globalization is as important as climate change for understanding the challenges and opportunities facing the peoples of the North and (2) that the Arctic cannot be approached as a cultural monolith – different trajectories of change, of colonialism, of contacts, and of environmental challenges/opportunities require understanding of both regional differentiation and circumpolar change.

Archaeology was not discussed very much, at Brown, in relation to these issues. Here, though (, is a link to an online post summarizing a number of extremely important, recent, NSF-funded research projects that provide a clear examples of how archaeological research complicates and expands upon the inferences and conclusions about culture change, globalization, and interaction that many social scientists see through the lens of 30-100 years of "long-term" observations. In this case, careful archaeological research in western Alaska, done at scales from regional survey to elemental analyses, has documented that ancestral Iñupiat communities were in contact through direct or indirect trade with communities in Siberia that brought in objects from as far away as China, ca. AD 600.

While small amounts of iron, suspected of being smelted and smithed in China or Siberia rather than having been hammered in the Arctic from meteoric iron, have been recovered previously from western Alaskan sites in the AD 300-900 range, these new analyses and the objects on which the analyses were done, are far less ambiguous. With these new, solid data points in hand other aspects of the archaeological record around the Bering Strait, such as the appearance of bone armor suits comparable in form and structure to Siberian, Mongolian, and northern Chinese plate armor, ca. AD 1100-1300, make more sense – not as evidence of parallel evolution, coincidental innovations, or chance...but as evidence of enduring interactions across vast distances in the western Arctic. 

Canadian archaeologist Robert McGhee proposed, 20 years ago, that we have long under-estimated the role of metal in ancestral Iñupiat and Inuit cultures, and argued that the quest for iron and other metals lay largely behind the expansion of ancestral Inuit populations (Thule culture) from western Alaska across Arctic North America to Greenland, ca. AD 1100-1200. The archaeological record is consistent in showing that these Inuit ancestors began exploiting not only native iron from the Cape York (Greenland) meteors almost as soon as they arrived in Greenland but also acquired and repurposed iron and copper alloy objects from Norse sources nearly as soon, as had their Late Dorset precursors and neighbors.

Together these archaeological finds, though small and scattered, tell a story of population interaction, trade, culture change, and globalization that begins 1,300 years ago and links the indigenous cultures of the North with those of China, sub-arctic Siberia, and Europe. These insights, which should transform not only our understanding of northern "prehistory" but also our understanding of Northern peoples' engagement with globalization itself, are found at temporal distances accessible only through archaeological research and at sites that are being threatened through rising sea levels, development, and permafrost melting – all of which will, have, and are destroying the archaeological record that is not only the heritage of northern indigenous communities but also part of our shared human heritage written in chapters we are just beginning to understand.

While we know too little, still, about the nature of these contacts...and the number of objects recovered to date seem small in any statistical sense...the timing of their appearance in the Bering Strait, in northwestern Alaska, and then across the Canadian Arctic to Greenland, is linked to other changes of great import across this vast area in subsistence practices, settlement patterns, population redistributions, evidence of warfare and trade, and the mobility of populations on a continental scale. These may be comparable, in some ways, to the changes we see happening before us today but they have importance beyond any simple parallels we may make with the present to establish "relevance." Understanding these changes as the "history" of the North, critical for understanding it all, rather than relegating it to an abstract "prehistory" of interest only to "prehistorians" not only adds nuance, complexity, and substance to any understanding of this histories and heritage of today's northern communities, but also brings their past into the shared global past rather than letting Northern peoples' histories be framed externally, by us – social scientists, as something marginal to, and uninvolved in, any global processes until "European contact" or colonialism.

De-colonizing the North begins by, and requires, removing the colonial mentality that only the recent past and the present matter.