Biogeographical Archaeology in the Eastern North American Arctic

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • Human Ecology, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1997

    Biogeographical Archaeology in the EasternNorth American ArcticWilliam W. Fitzhugh1

    Environmental conditions of the Eastern North American Arctic make thisregion suitable for biogeographical approaches to culture. Although composedof a vast assemblage of large and small islands, the Eastern Arctic differs fromother "oceanic" environments where modern biogeographical work has beenpioneered. This paper outlines conditions which make the Eastern Arcticsuitable for biogeographical study and considers the nature of "islands" asanalytical constructs rather than as discrete entities. Biogeographical conceptsare considered in relation to the "core-periphery model" that has been theorganizing principle for interpreting patterns of Eastern Arctic culture history.Abstractions, aspects, and conclusions reached from these studies outline someof the opportunities available for application of more directed anthropologicalbiogeographical work in the future.KEY WORDS: arctic; biogeography; culture; ecology.


    This paper outlines the relevance of human biogeographic approachesin the study of peoples and cultures of the Eastern North American Arctic.Although not used under this exact terminology, arctic anthropology actu-ally has a long history of biogeographic thought, and for much of this cen-tury has been concerned with theories involving colonization and extinction,population distribution, climatic models, resource fluctuation, and ecologi-cal structure (Steensby, 1917; Larsen and Meldgaard, 1958; Knuth, 1967;Vibe, 1967; McGhee, 1969/70, 1996; Fitzhugh, 1972; Laughlin, 1975; Max-well, 1985; Meldgaard, 1977; Schledermann, 1990). The same environ-1National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Artie Studies Center,Department of Anthropology, Washington, D.C. 20560.

    3850300-7839/97/0900-0385$12.50/0 1997 Plenum Publishing Corporation

  • mental conditions that fostered advances in biogeography and cultural stud-ies in the Pacificislands, distance, isolation, low population density, andheterogeneous resource distributionalso characterize North Americanarctic regions from the Mackenzie River east to Greenland and Labrador.Because of vast distances, patchy distribution of habitable locales, relativeisolation from external contacts, and limited survival strategies, the EasternArctic can be seen in effect as a vast "sea" with widely dispersed "islands"of humanity whose persistence has been influenced by a variety of factorsincluding population size, degree of isolation, resource diversity, ecosystemstability, and others.

    This paper explores the relevance of human biogeographic studies ina region where environmental conditions have placed strong constraints onhuman survival and have limited the potential for development in hunting,fishing, and foraging societies. This said, I would note that despite harshconditions, Eastern Arctic peoples and cultures not only survived, but inmany cases flourished for 4000 years in one of the world's least hospitablehabitats. Far from being crushed by adversity, its peoples created highlydistinctive regional cultures. Populations grew, new sources of energy wereharnessed, and sophisticated technology and arts developed. Today Inuitcontrol their own destiny through semi-autonomous government structures,like Home Rule in Greenland and Nunavut in Canada, that have strongcommitment to Inuit culture, values, and ideals. As a consequence EasternArctic peoples face a relatively bright future.

    Many of the same biogeographic processes that operated in the pastcontinue today as communities are created, flourish, and decline in re-sponse to environmental, social, and economic factors. Even increasing in-tegration with the larger industrial society has not changed the fundamentalstructure of the arctic ecosystem revealed in prehistoric times.

    Rather than presenting a detailed case study of human biogeographyin a specific region, which would require more documentation than is pos-sible here, I will outline general features of the approach as it can applyto the Eastern Arctic in general. Within the region, data that could supportvarious human biogeographical case studies exist for many subregions, in-cluding Newfoundland (Harp, 1976; Tuck and Pastore, 1985), Labrador(Fitzhugh, 1972, 1977, 1980, 1987; McGhee and Tuck, 1975; Tuck, 1975;Cox 1977; Kaplan, 1983; Nagle, 1984; Loring, 1992), Ungava (Taylor, 1968;Plumet and Gangloff, 1987; Plumet, 1994), Hudson Bay (Fitzhugh, 1976;Harp, 1976), Igloolik (Meldgaard, 1960, 1962), Baffin Island (Maxwell,1985; Odess, 1996), Port Refuge (McGhee, 1976), Devon Island (Helmer,1991), Bache Peninsula (McCullough, 1989; Schledermann, 1990, 1996),and Greenland (Knuth, 1967; Meldgaard, 1977). To date, however, no studyof Eastern Arctic prehistory has been conducted specifically from a bio-

    386 Fitzhugh

  • geographic perspective; nor has any synthesis been attempted from this per-spective. With biogeographic theory now outlined at least in basic formand with models available from a number of regions, its application couldprovide exciting results for arctic prehistory and comparison of the Arcticwith other regions, such as greater Oceania and the sub-Antarctic, andwould advance cultural theory in general.


    Two decades ago the theoretical foundations for island biogeographywere laid down by observational and theoretical ecologists and biologistsRobert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson (MacArthur and Wilson, 1963,1967; MacArthur, 1972), Jared Diamond (1977), G. Evelyn Hutchinson(1978), and others. Building on principles of evolutionary biology, they cre-ated an island abstraction described as having a relatively isolated andbounded ecosystem, limited external contacts, low species diversity, low ge-netic diversity within species, high frequency of individuals/species ratios,diminished interspecies competition, reproduction rates based on "r" ratherthan "k" selection, simple food webs, high extinction rates (due to the ran-dom effects on small populations), rapid adaptive radiation, and heightenedexploratory and migratory behavior. The operative word, to be understoodin each condition is "relative"relative to some equally abstracted "main-land."

    Biogeographic models based on these criteria have been applied withvarying degrees of success to birds, insects, plants, and their fossil relativesin Oceania, Melanesia, and larger Pacific islands like New Zealand, theChatham Islands, and the Galapagos (Fosberg, 1963). In the 1970s and1980s these models began to be used for studying the history of humanpopulations in the Pacific region (e.g., Kaplan, 1976; Terrell, 1977a,b, 1986;Kirch, 1980, 1986; Irwin, 1992; Steadman, 1995) and in the Caribbean(Keegan, 1995). Colonization, isolation, adaptation, and extinction modelshave also been used in studies of southern islands and continents in thePacific from the perspectives of convergent biological and cultural evolution(e.g., McCartney, 1975; Yesner, 1980; Sutton, 1982); in the Eastern Arctic(McGhee, 1976; Maxwell, 1976); in Greenland (Meldgaard, 1977; McGov-ern, 1981, 1990; McGovern et al., 1988; Buckland et al., 1996); and in sub-Arctic and Arctic Labrador (Fitzhugh, 1972,1974). In most of these studies,adaptation and evolutionary or developmental issues play an important roletogether with biogeographical features such as distribution and ecosystemstructure, and mechanisms of maintenance, dispersal, and extinction.

    Biogeographical Archaeology in the American Arctic 387

  • The foundations for a human biogeographic approach in arctic studieshave been prepared by a long history of scholarly attention to biologicaland cultural responses to climatic and environmental change. Some of theearliest biogeographic models were developed by Danish ethnologists, ar-chaeologists, and physical anthropologists to explain culture change andregional distributions along the margins of the Greenland coast (Steensby,1917; Larsen, 1934; Mathiassen, 1935; Larsen and Meldgaard, 1958; Laugh-lin and Jorgenson, 1956; Meldgaard, 1977; M. Meldgaard, 1983). Supportedby extensive ethnographic data, native oral history, and historical literaturedocumenting climatic and environmental fluctuation and cultural responsesincluding starvation, migration and extinction, arctic anthropologists, ar-chaeologists, and geographers have seen the cultural history of the Northin biogeographic terms even though, after Steensby's pioneering work, theydid not use this terminology. Much of this early work was couched in cul-tural extinction and migration theory (McGhee, 1969/70, 1972; Dekin, 1978;Jordan, 1979; Fitzhugh, 1984, p. 528). Although not explicitly following bio-geographical models and too reliant on migration theory for interpretingculture change (Taylor 1968, p. 7; Schindler, 1985; Anthony, 1990), Danishwork on linkages between climate and culture, mechanisms of colonizationand extinction, and environmental reconstruction had lasting impact on re-search throughout the Eastern Arctic. In the 1970s, these views emergedwith new vitality expressed in terms of the "core area" hypothesis stimu-lated by a School of American Research seminar in 1974 (Maxwell, 1976).Concurrently, the 1974 Smithsonian Conference on Human Biogeographyorganized by the author with John Terrell, who edited some of these papersfor World Archaeology (Vol. 9, 1977), brought attention to biogeographytheory and its relevance to prehistory.


    The "island" theme may be a simple concept for a physical geographer,but what it means to an archaeologist or an evolutionary biologist is notso clear (e.g., MacArthur and Wilson, 1967; Terrell, 1986, pp. 122-144). Ifisolation is the essential "island" condition, then portions of the Arctic andsub-Arctic, and other environments, like desert oases, mountain refugia,and perhaps even tropical forest enclaves that are geographically or bio-logically isolated, may also be understood as "islands."

    There is also the question of "island" relevance to comparative theory.Do islands really create a special set of conditions for biological commu-nities that are absent in "non-island" settings? Geographical ecologists andevolutionary biologists believe they do for most creatures. But perhaps the

    388 Fitzhugh

  • outcome of specific cases may have less to do with islands per se than withisland "contexts," such as where they are and whether they are dry or wet,hot or cold, high or low, isolated or connected. If we study similar typesand contexts, for instance, trying to compare the cultures and histories ofcold, wet northern or southern coasts, or archipelagos (McCartney, 1975;Yesner, 1980; Nash, 1983); Arctic and sub-Antarctic deserts like NorthGreenland, Patagonia, and Tasmania; sub-Antarctic islands and mainlands(Sutton, 1982), or others, do we find similar or different histories and proc-esses prevailing, with predictable outcomes?

    What happens when we compare the past 10,000 years of human his-tory in Japan and in the Queen Charlotte Islands, both being island com-plexes in productive cold ocean environments that became isolated fromtheir parent continents by Holocene sea level rise? Are there notable simi-larities of cultural history or cultural, biological, or linguistic processes be-tween Formosa and Madagascar, or between the Aleutian and Kuril chains,each set having similar ecological conditions? Can we usefully compare pat-terns in the prehistory of Greenland and Australia and learn anything in-terestingeven with their different time scales? Such studies have neverbeen attempted, but pose intriguing targets for an anthropological bio-geography.

    These issues and related methodological problems have plagued com-parative studies since their inception. Questions of convergence, homology,comparability of units, developmental stage, and historical and environ-mental context have been difficult to resolve (Fitzhugh, 1975, p. 340). Simi-lar definitional problems have restricted the spread of humanbiogeographical approaches beyond the islands of the Pacific where culture,language, and human biology are being teased into increasingly unified hu-man biogeographic perspectives (Terrell, 1986).

    Scale has been another problem. Heretofore, most attention has beengiven to islands and island clustersthe smallest, most isolated geographicunits. To date, one of the least-studied questions in human biogeographylies at the largest units of the geographic scale. We need more bio-geographic study of questions like the Norse expansion across the NorthAtlantic, including Iceland and Greenland, stimulated by emerging Euro-pean market economies and intercultural contacts (McGovern, 1981;McGovern et al., 1988; Keller, 1991), and its different histories and out-comes in different settings in the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. I believewe idealize human biogeography by limiting application predominantly tothe Pacific islands or island chains like the Aleutians and Caribbean islands.What patterns emerge when we look at larger domains like the entire NewWorld through an anthropological biogeographic lens? What patterns dowe see here over a 15,000-year span that may be usefully compared to ones

    Biogeographical Archaeology in the American Arctic 389

  • in Australia or New Guinea? Can we undertake such studies without un-derstanding all the parameters of idealized island settings in Oceania? Arebiogeographic and evolutionary processes cumulative with increasing geo-graphic scale; or are they transformative under these conditions, introduc-ing complexities that obscure cause and effect, making the utility of the"island" model moot at best?

    This paper describes some of the ecological and geographical condi-tions that underlie biogeographical approaches in the Eastern Arctic andtheir impact on historical patterns of culture. Here we have both islandsand "island-like" behavior, and strong environmental constraints. The re-gion is relatively well understood in terms of geography, climate, and hu-man history. Not only do Arctic cultures offer a test case for humanadaptation in remote Arctic conditions; they also provide data to modelcultural development and distributions in other settings, such as deserts,mountainous regions, or islanded oceans.


    To be undertaken, human biogeographic approaches require the ful-fillment of certain data conditions. Human populations need to be relativelyisolated, either by spatial or social barriers, or by some combination of thetwo; hence, distance, and ecological and social barriers (Wobst, 1977) havebeen important factors influencing the history of Arctic populations(Loring, 1988). Environmental data need to be available to understandstructure, diversity, and historical patterns of the ecosystem, including ef-fects of climate change on animal and human populations. Finally, a de-tailed knowledge of regional history is needed so that the origins, history,and relationshi...


View more >