huge, unusually shaped polar bear skull, left, emerged in
2014 from an eroding archaeological site southwest of Utqiagvik.
It is quite different from most modern polar bear skulls,
right. (UIC Science)
Aboriginal hunters from Arctic Canada have a couple of names
for what they say is an extremely rare polar bear that is huge,
narrow-bodied, fast-moving and lithe: "tiriarnaq" or "tigiaqpak,"
meaning "weasel bear."
Now the thawing and rapidly eroding Chukchi Sea coastal permafrost
has produced evidence that one of these legendary weasel bears
or some other strange kind of bear roamed Arctic Alaska centuries
A huge, fully intact and unusually shaped polar bear skull emerged
in 2014 from an eroding archaeological site about 13 miles southwest
of Utqiagvik (Barrow).
It is one of the biggest polar bear skulls ever found
and quite different from most modern polar bear skulls. It is slender,
elongated in the back and has unusual structural features around
the nasal area and other areas.
"It looks different from your average polar bear,"
said Anne Jensen, an Utqiagvik-based archaeologist who has been
leading excavation and research programs in the region.
Through radiocarbon dating and subsequent analysis, Jensen and
her colleagues estimate that the big bear skull which appears
to be the fourth largest ever found is from a period between
the years 670 and 800. It is possibly the oldest complete polar
bear skull found in Alaska, inspiring a name for the departed creature
that owned it: The Old One.
Exactly what accounts for its differences is yet to be determined;
genetic testing is needed for that, Jensen said. It could have been
a member of a subspecies or a member of a different "race"
in genetic terms similar to the varying breeds that are found
among dogs or possibly something else entirely, said Jensen,
who works for the science department of the Native village corporation,
Ukpeagvik Iñupiat Corp., or UIC.
The Old One's skull was only one of several treasures newly found
at the now-eroding site, which is called Walakpa and has been known
to archaeologists for at least half a century.
mummified seal dubbed Patou emerges during excavations
at an eroding bluff at the Walakpa site southwest of Utqiagvik
last summer. The seal dates back to only the mid-1940s. (UIC
The newly split-open bluff revealed another first-in-Alaska
discovery four mummified seals, naturally preserved in an
old ice cellar. Jensen's group was able to retrieve one of them
last summer, an adult female that has been given the French name
The excavated seal was much more modern than the polar-bear
skull, dating back to only the mid-1940s. Still, it and the other
seals amounted to a startling find: They are the only mummified
seals ever discovered outside of Antarctica's Dry Valley, Jensen
necropsy is performed on Patou, a mummified seal
found southwest of Utqiagvik last summer. The retrieved seal
is fully recognizable, with its fur and claws still intact.
Its essentially freeze-dried, said Anne
Jensen, an Utqiagvik-based archaeologist. (UIC Science)
The retrieved seal is fully recognizable, with its fur and claws
still intact. "It's essentially freeze-dried," she said.
"Basically, it looks like something that's got really bad freezer
The Walakpa site dates back to the Birnirk culture that arose
in about the year 600 and spread from Chukotka, on the northeast
of Siberia, to Alaska in subsequent centuries. The Birnirk people,
though they hunted whales, were not whaling-dependent, Jensen said.
It was only later, in the successive Thule culture, that people
became organized and skillful enough at hunting whales to make whaling
the center of their lifestyle, she said.
panoramic image shows the eroding Walakpa site this past July.
The Walakpa site was excavated initially in 1968 and 1969 by
Smithsonian anthropologist Dennis Stanford. For many years, his
work, conducted when the climate was colder and the ground was more
hard-frozen, was considered to have been utterly thorough. "Everyone
had the opinion I was one of them that he had pretty
well excavated the site and there was nothing left to be done,"
The closed-up site was also considered to be intact and relatively
safe from erosion and thaw, unlike the crumbling Nuvuk site at Point
Barrow, where Jensen has focused her efforts for years. At the Nuvuk
site, bodies buried in grave sites dating back to the Thule era
have been at risk of falling into the ocean. Jensen has led several
field seasons to save the bodies, which are buried in the local
Utqiagvik cemetery, and also save other ancient items.
Things changed at Walakpa at the end of summer in 2013.
of a house are exposed at the Walakpa site southwest of Utqiagvik
following a storm in late summer of 2013. The discovery prompted
renewed excavation following a hiatus since work was last
conducted there in the late 1960s. (UIC Science)
"The face fell off the bluff and a house popped out,"
Jensen said. She and a small team were able to excavate only a little
bit of the area before conditions became too hostile for further
Then In 2014, "there was a huge collapse," slicing
about 90 feet of soil away, Jensen said. That was the year that
a local resident found the bear skull, though it is not clear when
it was exposed.
The following year, Jensen was able to lead a small group to
do more work at the site, thanks to some cobbled-together funding.
The longest stretch of work came last summer, when Jensen had enough
funding and enough time and site help from students to put together
a three-week field season. By then the house exposed in 2013 was
gone, but much more was revealed.
"The stuff is in beautiful shape," she said. It is
"in effect, a frozen tissue archive" with information
that can fill in details about Arctic life thousands of years ago,
unfinished ivory piece, perhaps a thimble holder, is catalogued
at the Walakpa site in the fall of 2013. As the people did
not wear dresses, it is not an effigy of a woman. (UIC Science)
The good condition of the artifacts is only temporary. As thaw
and erosion occurs, items fall into the sea or, if exposed to the
air, are at risk of decay.
Even if they are not exposed to air, artifacts can be vulnerable
to below-ground degradation, Jensen said. As soils warm, bacteria
are better able to decompose bones and other items. Even worse,
warming soils can bring the items to a point where they generate
their own heat, speeding the decomposition process.
With open water present up to eight months of the year instead
of two and with temperatures rising and shorelines crumbling, the
threats to the archaeological sites are increasing exponentially,
Jensen said. Sites are eroding at a rate that far outpaces the normal
grant process used to secure funding for work, and some new emergency
approach is probably warranted, she said.
"It's like the library is essentially on fire now,"
About this Author
Yereth Rosen has been a journalist in Alaska since 1987. For most
of that time, she was the sole Alaska-based reporter for Reuters.
She has been reporting on energy issues, the environment, politics
and all things Alaska ? from oil spills to sled-dog races. She enjoys
running, skiing and other outdoors pursuits. She lives in Anchorage
with her family.