Anthropology, Department of


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FROM: Processual Archaeology: Exploring Analytical Strategies, Frames of Reference, and Cultural Process. Edited by Amber L. Johnson. (Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood, 2004).


Copyright 2004 Amber L. Johnson.


INUPIAT ESKIMO WHALERS are allowed to kill up to 50 bowhead whales every year in the arctic waters off Barrow, Alaska. Some of the older bowheads are more than 20 m in length and weigh more than 50 tons. Since 1981 the Inupiat have found at least six lance and harpoon end blades embedded within the thick blubber that insulates these magnificent mammals (Raloff 2(00). These archaeological weapon points included projectiles fashioned from chipped stone, ground slate, ivory, and iron. Wildlife biologists have suspected that whales may live to be quite old. One can only imagine their surprise, however, once they determined the ages of the whales based upon aspartic acid levels and amino acid racemization dating of the whales' eyes. Two of the adult bowheads were between 135 and 172 years old and the third whale was 211 years old. These bowheads had escaped the lethal hunting weapons of Eskimo whalers sometime during the past two centuries. Technology has frequently been the focus of archaeological and ethnological studies of hunter-gatherer societies throughout the arctic and subarctic regions. This technological emphasis is readily understandable given the unusual archaeological preservation conditions, the numerous ethnohistorical descriptions and collections of material items, and the diversity and complexity of implements and facilities in this region. Technology has long been regarded as an essential "facilitator" of hunter-gatherer adaptations to harsh biophysical environments. Balikci (1964:1) states, for example, "This highly specialized technology was considered as the central factor explaining the secret of Eskimo adaptation to the Arctic environment. "

The primary purpose of this chapter is to examine the systemic interrelationships between hunting weapon technology and the exploitation of aquatic food resources throughout the high latitude settings of the Northern Hemisphere or the circumpolar region (see Gjessing 1944). Artifact assemblages from numerous locations throughout the circumpolar region contain a diverse array of hunting weapons, implements, facilities, and "tools to make tools." This chapter focuses primarily upon slate projectile points (flaked, ground, and/or polished) as well as animal processing implements, such as "ulus" from high-latitude coastal areas. An explanatory argument will be proposed that will address the following questions: (1) What functional role did ground slate implements serve in prehistoric and historic adaptations? (2) Why did ground slate implements appear, persist, and disappear during a 6,000-year period? (3) How might archaeologists account for their variable geographical distribution? (4) How were ground slate implements integrated into a larger technological component of human adaptations involving marine resource exploitation?

Given the systemic nature of technology and its central role in human adaptation, this model must briefly allude to a number of seemingly diverse topics, such as circumpolar archaeology, hunter-gatherer technology, botany, phytotoxicology, marine ecology, paleoenvironments, and ethnohistory. As Levins (1966:430) states, however, "All models leave out a lot and are in that sense false, incomplete, inadequate. [Its] validation ... is not that it is 'true' but that it generates good testable hypotheses relevant to important problems." This chapter offers a general explanation of the archaeological record in the circumpolar region that reflects aboriginal poison hunting strategies. It also challenges other investigators to evaluate this argument and to replace it with more robust, empirically testable interpretations of circumpolar technology and past human adaptations in maritime environments in this region.