National Geographic : 2017 Apr
racing the thaw 145 is thawed three feet down. That means masterful- ly carved artifacts of caribou antler, driftwood, bone, and walrus ivory are emerging from the deep freeze that has preserved them in perfect condition. If they’re not rescued, they immedi- ately begin to rot and crumble. The knockout blow: rising seas. The global level of oceans has risen about eight inches since 1900. That’s a direct threat to coastal sites such as Nuna- lleq, which is doubly vulnerable to wave damage now that the thawing permafrost is making the land sink. “One good winter storm and we could lose this whole site,” Knecht says. He speaks from experience. Since the start of the excavation, the relentless action of the sea has torn about 35 feet from the edge of the site. The winter after the 2010 dig was particularly brutal. Residents of Quinhagak, the modern village just four miles up the beach, remember huge chunks of ice slamming into the coast. By the time Knecht and his crew returned, the entire area they had excavated was gone. Since then Knecht has pressed on with a re- newed sense of urgency. Rain or shine, during the six-week dig season, about two dozen archaeolo- gists and student volunteers spend long summer days on their hands and knees gently stripping away soil with their trowels. on an aUgUSt DaY that begins warm and buggy but soon turns overcast and cold, Tricia Gillam finds a common artifact that was created with exceptional artistry. It’s a women’s cutting tool popularly called an ulu—uluaq in Yupik—with a curved blade of slate and a carved wooden handle. The archaeologists often uncover a blade, a handle, or an occasion- al complete ulu, yet this one brings gasps from everyone. The handle has the graceful shape of a seal. But that’s only half the design, it turns out. When local carver John Smith takes a look later from another angle, he sees the outline of a whale. The artifact speaks to the fundamental Yupik worldview that nothing is a single, inflexible en- tity because everything is in a state of transfor- mation. The ulu handle is a seal, but it’s not a seal. It’s a whale, but it’s not a whale. Other finds embody that same idea: A mask that’s a walrus, or a person. A small wooden box that’s a kayak, or a seal. “ That dynamism is a constant part of their lives,” Knecht says. “And climate change is part of that.” If anyone’s going to survive the changes occur- ring in the natural world, he believes, it’s these people who have always seen their environment as something fluid, requiring adjustments and adaptations. They know firsthand the seasonal patterns of plants and animals, and if there’s a shift, they’ll shift with it.