Arctic Sea Nomads: Adaptation Models

[Published in: Northern Archaeological Congress. Papers. September 9–14, 2002. Ekaterinburg–Khanty-Mansiisk: Akademkniga, 2002. Pp. 94–111.]

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Prehistoric and traditional cultures in the Arctic are conventionally considered as the variants of adaptation to harsh natural environments or, in historic times, as islands of the past inexorably eroded by the floods of external colonization. Researchers’ ecological intuition suggests that culture could only faintly glimmer in the North, but never flourish, that the Arctic could at best offer its inhabitants a niche for physical survival, but never a field for the glorious achievements. Outstanding artistic phenomena and other examples of high potential of the Northern cultures are usually attributed to the southern influence, while other events of northern prehistory are deduced from climatic changes and migrations of the game animals.

Climatic changes significantly affected, indeed, the Arctic cultures opening new opportunities or terminating previous trends. But was it so that adaptation in the North always balanced on the edge of survival, and predominating reason for migrations and cultural change was inevitably the search for new hunting grounds? Did the North ever give birth to cultures that managed to surpass the subsistence ground and create social systems comparable with the southern civilizations?

Two- and three-dimensional adaptation models

Researcher’s glance only occasionally rests on the striking ability of the northern cultures to fluctuate in time (in a sequence of seasonal occupations and age rhythms of people) and in space (either shrinking to the size of village, or covering the vast territory). This pulse allows the culture to probe the environment all the time and adjust its place therein. By its constitution the northern culture fits the changeable environment and combines various levels of mobility, from the routine seasonal migrations to the military and trade expansions.

Any culture is built in a triangle “man-nature-society”. Within the scale “man-nature” a two-dimensional model of ecological adaptation can be drawn. Updated with “man-society” scale the model includes social adaptation and becomes three-dimensional. Two-dimensional model exists only in the virtual academic environment, since in reality even a Robinsonade would be unthinkable outside the social context. However, the two-dimensional model is a very convenient research tool, as it allows to use a rigorous and substantiated set of criteria. In many cases even when it takes into account the social context the resulting model still tends to be predominantly two-dimensional. An excellent systematization of the Arctic adaptation models of this level is presented by I. Krupnik [Krupnik 1989; 1993], who used the terms “adaptation”, “subsistence” and “economics” as synonyms.

As soon as the social context is viewed, the stringency of a two-dimensional model gives place to the intricacy of a three-dimensional composition approaching in its interpretative freedom an artistic picture. Routines of household and everyday life disappear in often absurd manifestations of prestige and fashion, cult and power. In place of typical fisherman or herder a figure of chieftain or sorcerer is personified. Even trade loses its rational economic meaning and turns into a means of diplomacy and politics.

What is the correlation between the features of ecological and social adaptation, and how well are they captured by archaeology? The main indicator of ecological adaptation is the annual economic cycle, of the social one — the activity pattern including in addition to the economic cycle the religious, ritual, trading, military and other actions difficult to formalize even theoretically owing to their various rhythms and values. From the archaeologist’s perspective this makes the gap between clearly readable ecological evidences and barely noticeable social symbols even deeper; and pushes researchers even more in favor of the tangible material facts avoiding the three-dimensional modeling.

However, some widely known facts of the Northern archaeology clearly do not fit the restrictions of the two-dimensional interpretation. For instance, it is difficult to find a rational-ecological explanation for a wide expansion of cultures: Sumnagin in the Mesolithic and Ymyaykhtakh in the Bronze Age in Eastern Siberia, pit-comb ceramics of the Neolithic and bronze of Northern Europe and Urals, the Arctic Small Tool Tradition in the second and third millennia BC in North America. In terms of social status this type of migrations is often correlated with the formation of large ethno-linguistic communities, but uses to be interpreted in narrow format of the ecological adaptation of a hunters group.

Attempts at the reconstruction of three-dimensional models (activity patterns) of ancient cultures of the North are doomed to be fruitless, unless they are based on the experience of similar modeling with regard to the recent epochs. I have in mind here the northern cultures of the Middle Ages, with their greater wealth of archaeological, historical and ethnographic background. In this paper I shall limit myself with a brief outline of activity patterns of the seafarers of Scandinavia and Bering Sea area in the late 1st and early 2nd millennia AD, as well as a few touches to the portraits of northern reindeer herders in the late Middle Ages.

Vikings in the Arctic

The Vikings’ predecessors in the Arctic sea route development were the ancient Scandinavians and the Finns who built the mysterious stone labyrinths and put pictures of ships and whales on the rocks of Scandinavia and White Sea coast in the Neolithic and Early Metal Age. In the 9th–10th centuries the Vikings expanded the Arctic navigable space to the west to North America (Leif Eriksson, 1000, raid from Greenland to Helluland, Markland and Vinland) and to the east to North Ural area (Ulf Roegnvaldson, 1032, raid from Ladoga to the Iron Gates — apparently the Kara Gates Strait dividing Barents and Kara seas). There were established Arctic routes from Scandinavia to Greenland and to Bjarmia (White Sea coast).

To recognize the activity pattern of the Arctic Vikings the familiar perception of the “way” as a distance should be substituted for its old Scandinavian meaning as the life space of seafarers. This type of way (vergr) sometimes turned into a state (ríki) as it happened with Norway (Nórvegr) and Russ (Garđaríki — a route from Varangians to the Greeks), sometimes it served as a migration channel (as with the colonization of Iceland) or a trade main road (as the Baltic-Caspian route). These functions (migratory, military, and trading), represented archaeologically in varying degrees with a famous triad ship-weapon-scale, form a universal framework of the Vikings activity pattern. Established routes of the Norsemen developed as the replicas of their culture consisting of the combination of maritime and agrarian economy, trade and a set of colonies, rituals and mythology, warfare and diplomacy. The grimly-romantic image of the Norse pirate is hiding a net of Scandinavian seafarers activities, as complex as a ring-chain motif of the Borre art style.

Even the King Alfred’s abbreviated example of Ottar’s from Halogaland activity pattern (end of the 9th century) is impressive in its multiplicity: Ottar used horses to plough land and hunted walruses in the sea; he owned over six hundred reindeer, two dozen each of pigs, sheep and cows; he collected tributes from the Finns (Finnmark Saami) with draught reindeer, skins of otters, martens, bears, reindeer, birds feathers, walrus tusks, seal and walrus hide ropes. The tribute payment relations were interlaced with hierarchical ethics — the noble Finn had to pay more. Ottar traded in the southern Scandinavian markets, and after the Arctic voyage he established the trade contacts with the White Sea Bjarmians. Judging by the reception given to Ottar by the Anglo-Saxon king his visit to the British Isles was also with an important mission (Alfred 1855).

Geographically Ottar’s sphere of activity spread from England to Bjarmia, and functionally it included navigation, sea-mammal hunting, agriculture, cattle breeding, horse breeding, reindeer herding, trade, tribute collection, regulation of interethnic relations on various levels from the Finnish hunter to the King of England. At the same time Ottar (or Alfred) said nothing of the tense relations of the Halogaland Norsemen with the king Harald Fairhair, who tried to establish control over the Northern Sea Route sending his Vikings to Bjarmia (e.g. Hauk the Long Stockings). During Ottar’s lifetime and in later years the Norsemen set up colonies in the Orkney and Faroe islands, in Iceland, Normandy, Russ and other remote lands avoiding the control from Scandinavian kings, but maintaining their own social ties. Activity portrait of Ottar multiplied by the number of his compatriots will represent a social model of the Viking culture. In the aggregate, but with the high degree of individualization, these particular social clusters made up a tremendous network with which Norsemen covered the whole of Northern Europe.

Scale of the Vikings’ migrations to Iceland and far off Greenland — the ruins of about 330 households and 20 churches were found on the Western and the Eastern Norse settlements in Greenland (Kleivan 1984:549) — indicates that Arctic routes were also used actively. The northern raids of Vikings are usually left in the shade of their glorious victories in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and the purpose of those raids is reduced to the purchase of skins, furs and walrus tusks, which main value supposes to be in exchange them for the European clothes and wines. However, the Scandinavian Sagas reveal an entirely different picture of the North, full of treasures and magic, where the Vikings gained the fame of the great seafarers and drew strength from the northern magic (e.g. “Mother of Kings” Gunnhild or Torir Hound, the victor of Olaf the Saint). High social status of the northern sea raids is emphasized with a series of the Arctic expeditions made by the Scandinavian kings (Erik Blood Axe, Harald Gray Cloak, Hakon Magnusson, etc.). On the other hand, the North was a familiar natural-cultural environment for the Vikings, where they set up permanent colonies and developed the relationships with the locals, as K. Odner [1981:28] demonstrated on the example of the connections between Norsemen and Saami, rather as the partnership than subordination.

According to Sagas (for the lack of archaeological evidence), the Arctic route to the East, to Bjarmia, was also well established. It did not anchor at the estuary of the Northern Dvina but led further inland along the rivers and portages to the Old Ladoga (Aldeigjuborg) forming the “northern ring” of Viking migrations. There it connected with the Volga and the Dnieper routes complementing the giant network of waterways woven by the Vikings across Eastern Europe from the Baltic and White seas to the Black and Caspian seas. Old Ladoga was a colony and the terminal station of the Vikings at the crossroads of the ways not only “to Greeks” (southward) and “to Arabs” (eastward), but also “to Bjarmians” (northward). There must have been a good reason for the Ladoga jarl Ulf (Uleb) to make in 1032 the already mentioned Arctic voyage to the Iron Gates.

What were the conditions for such an active development of the northern route during the Viking times? The archaeological evidences of drift in Scandinavia from the southern regions (Sweden) to the northern coast (north-western Norway) were registered already in the Vendel period, but actual vitalization of the northern coasts of Norway occurred during the Viking times (Hofstra, Samplonius 1995:243; Wilson 1996:63–64). Undoubtedly, the possibilities for the Arctic navigation expanded with the warming and retreat of the ice during the Middle Age climatic optimum, however, only the developed maritime culture could have used this chance to advantage. The Scandinavian example is a convincing evidence that the conquering of the Arctic by Vikings occurred at the peak of a longtime development of the northern seafaring culture under the conditions of the brief warming. The nature opened up the ice locks through which the sea-nomadic culture riding the Gulf Stream rushed from Atlantic to the high latitudes and, like a blast wave, spread across both sides of the Arctic from the Labrador Sea in the west to the Kara Sea in the east.

Multilevel organization of Scandinavians’ life shows them as both settled farmers and sea nomads. A Viking had two houses, a farmstead and a ship, and his life between sea and land ended in a ritual of burial in a ship. The Scandinavian maritime adaptation surpassed the level of the ecological survival to an extent, when it was raised to the rank of high arts expressed in a wide range of genres from refined shipbuilding to “marine” poetry. The contemporaries, e.g. the Arabs, treated as somewhat absurd this naval enthusiasm of the “coastal people” (Scandinavians), who sailed “without aim or purpose solely for their own glorification;” and who fought in the open sea using their ships tied together as a battle field; and the victor’s prize was the ship of his enemy [Zakhoder 1967:68]. These strange customs, however, were the very essence of the seafarers’ system of values, where life and death were unthinkable without the ship and the sea, and the best land was an island (it was the chain of islands and fjords of Scandinavia that became the cradle of the maritime culture).

The idea of domination of the sea over the land, the roots of which go back to the ecological adaptation, was transformed into similar norm of the social adaptation. The guarantee of ambitions, decisive action and successes of the sea nomads was their sincere belief in the primordial superiority of the sea people over the land people (typical Mediaeval cliché is a picture of Vikings ship-dragon advancing on the shore and striking the shore dwellers with scare). The sea became the main Scandinavians’ tool and the weapon as the ally in military campaigns and the barrier against outside attacks, as the environment for trade and migrations.

The main feature of the social adaptation of the Vikings was the accumulation of cultural resources of the neighboring and the remote countries. Norsemen’s military and trading voyages resembled, by association with ecological adaptation, either hunting for the settled villagers, or their pasturing. The established colonies played a role of transit bases, trading crossroads and military outposts, and the methods of “social economics” were, depending on case, the trade, tribute collection or piracy. Settled villagers in their turn adapted to the migrations of the sea/river nomads using them as an efficient means of trade and warfare (it was not by chance that the Scandinavian Gods-warriors easily entered the pantheons of the neighboring peoples). In the dynamics and range of the Vikings migrations the polyethnic North European civilization was formed on the base of old Scandinavian eco-social adaptation model.

Whale hunters of the Bering Sea

Tradition of maritime adaptation in the North Pacific, similarly to the Atlantic-Arctic region, stemmed from the early Holocene cultures, however, the rise of the seafaring activity here also fell on the period of the Middle Age climatic optimum, when the maritime culture following the receding ice rushed swiftly through the neck of the Bering Strait into the Arctic and spread to the east to Greenland and to the west to the Kolyma. Both history and the folklore happened to evidence the meeting of the seafarers of the two Arctic schools that occurred in Greenland around 1000 AD. The exchange of experience between Vikings and Thule Eskimos, though, was hardly idyllic, on the contrary, it was full of mutual raids, fires, abductions and contests [Kleivan 1984:551–554].

Expansion of the maritime culture called “Neo-Eskimo” [Larsen and Rainey 1948:182; Birket-Smith 1959:194] or “Northern Maritime tradition” [Collins 1964:91] had an explosive character and within relatively short period, 900–1100s, covered vast spaces of the Asian and American Arctic [Ford 1959:243; Taylor 1963:456; Dumond 1984:77]. This expansion is often represented not as a single flow, but rather as a parallel development of the Punuk and the Thule cultures on both sides of the Bering Strait.

Both cultures, Punuk and Thule, rooted in the set of traditions of the early 1st millennium AD — Old Bering Sea, Okvik, Norton, Ipiutak. Cultures Birnirk and Punuk appeared in the Bering Sea area around, accordingly, AD 500s and 700s. The main territory of the Birnirk culture was the Arctic basin with supposed center at Barrow Point (Northwest Alaska), the Punuk was spread in the North Pacific with supposed center on St. Lawrence Island. Their maritime adaptation strategies differ so that the Birnirk was based on the small pinnipedia hunting, while the Punuk — on whaling [Arutiunov, Sergeev 1975:193; Ackerman 1984:110].

By various estimates the Punuk culture continued to develop in the Asian Arctic up to the 12th or 17th centuries. In America in place and on the basis of the Birnirk culture the coastal whaling culture Thule emerged in the 9th–10th centuries [Larsen and Rainey 1948:170–175]; yet the Thule owed its whaling specialization to the Punuk influence — the whaling harpoon found on Barrow Point was not of the Birnirk, but of the Punuk type [Ford 1959:41]. The presence of common sources and characteristics of this Mediaeval Arctic culture allows to consider its Asian (Punuk) and American (Thule) branches as the local versions of single whaling tradition. The base of this tradition was located in the North Pacific and the stages of its development can be seen as the Punuk phase (7th–9th centuries — the original North Pacific form) and the Thule phase (from the 10th century onward — the subsequent Arctic form).

The Punuk culture derived its name from the group of islands not far from St Lawrence Island, where a settlement with dwellings made of whale bone was excavated. The very location of the base site on a tiny island of Punuk (less than half a mile long) is a vivid example of the island maritime culture. The nearby large St. Lawrence Island is so rich in the sites of all stages of the history of the ancient Eskimo cultures (Old Bering Sea, Okvik, Birnirk, Punuk, Thule), that there can be no doubts of its particular importance for the seafarers of the North Pacific [Collins 1937]. This Bering Sea “Gothland” was, apparently, the central seat of the whaling culture. Similarly to Scandinavia, the North Pacific maritime tradition developed in the environment of islands and fjords.

The island of St. Lawrence lies within direct visibility distance (70–80 km) from the fjord indented eastern coast of the Chukotka. North of the Chukotsky Cape lie the Seniavin Strait islands, including the Yttygran Island with its magnificent and mysterious “Whale Alley”. Further north, in the area of Mechigmen Bay, there were the ancient settlements Nykhsirak and Masik with abundant archaeological evidence of the whaling culture, including the similar to the Whale Alley structures of bowhead whale mandibles and skulls [Arutiunov et al. 1982:163].

The authors of the finds — S. A. Arutiunov, I. I. Krupnik and M. A. Chlenov — referred the Whale Alley to the Punuk culture. Though they dated the monument as the late Punuk period (14th–16th centuries AD), their argumentation does not exclude the earlier dating [Arutiunov et al. 1982:25, 138–142; Krupnik 1993:191, 197]. The open dialogue that authors keep in their book (Arutyunov et al. 1982) with Eskimos on the meaning of the site offers a rich set of ideas for sketching the Bering Sea model of maritime adaptation. The Whale Alley was erected from 50–60 skulls and 30 mandibles of bowhead whales, hundreds of specially placed stones; at the same time about 150 meat storage pits were dug in the rocky slope, some of them still had the remains of the provisions.

According to the researchers’ scenario the Whale Alley was a central sanctuary of a large inter-community group embracing a number of settlements on Seniavin Strait islands and adjacent territory (from Mechigmen Bay to Chaplin Cape). There the members of a particular social-political institution (male society) up to about 100 adult men (crews of 11–12 boats) could perform the esoteric rituals (initiations) and the potlatch-like rites. For this purpose the bowhead whale skulls and mandibles were deliberately brought to the Yttygran Island, and in the storage pits the food for the coming participants of the rites was preserved. Notches and holes on the poles could serve both for hanging of the ritual objects, and for fixing the prizes during the sports contests [Arutiunov et al. 1982: 131–133, 143, 149, 152–153, 159–160].

The Eskimo guesses appear to be more pragmatic. According to one of them on the Yttygran Island the inhabitants of the Chukchi coast hunted the bowhead whales “in the ancient times” and put the meat into the storage pits, while the skulls were set up for drying the boats. The abundance of the meat pits in the Whale Alley is in agreement with the Eskimo name of the island — Sikluk, meaning the “meat pit” (siklugak) [Arutiunov et al. 1982:38, 161]. However, the researchers are reluctant to accept the Eskimo version because of the “absence of large settlements in the vicinity of the Whale Alley.” Therefore, Sikluk could not be a seasonal hunting center — a place of the regular meetings, camps and cutting of the whale carcasses [Arutiunov et al. 1982:131, 143].

It seems to me, that the proposed interpretations rather complement than exclude each other on different levels: the Eskimo version fits the pattern of the ecological adaptation, the version of the researchers is evolved in the context of the social adaptation. Their principal difference related to the absence of settlements close to the site could be eliminated with the resolution of the main paradox of the Punuk/Thule culture — the combination of clear features of settled life and surprising mobility.

On the one hand, the Bering Sea whalers lived in large settlements, on the other, they migrated to great distances. This type of the “sedentary nomads” was already considered on the Scandinavian example; apparently in the Bering Sea area the dwellers of the islands and fjords also alternated the stays at home with the long sea voyages. Besides, the quality of Punuk and Thule Eskimo dwellings was not so much a sign of their sedentary life, as their preference for monumental structures from the whale bones, while the abundance of remains was rather an evidence of occasional abundance (if not wastefulness) of culture, than of its economic equilibrium.

Large dwellings of Bering Sea whalers, similarly to Scandinavian long houses, could be both the long-term residences and the camp barracks, serving not so much the comfort, as the social tonus of dwellers. S. A. Arutiunov and D. A. Sergeev [1975:185, 196] believed that the Punuk dugout nynliu could house up to 300–400 people; and the growth in size of the coastal settlements in transition from Old Bering Sea to Punuk culture could be caused not only by economic, but also by military motifs. It was repeatedly mentioned [Collins 1937; Chard 1962], that the development of the sea hunting during the Punuk period facilitated the formation of large groups and provoked more frequent intergroup conflicts that was followed up by emergence of military cult and warrior class.

Archaeology gives evidence of the active accumulation of arms in Punuk and Thule time. The whalers’ culture is characterized in addition to massive harpoons with the slat armor, heavy (fighting) arrowheads, long knives and daggers. At the same time, the artistic level of culture was declining — sea nomads alternating dangerous raids with semi-barrack lifestyle in crowded nynliu obviously could not be bothered with the fineness of decor. Their esthetic ideas were expressed in the “whale architecture”, the tridents and the amulets made of bear fangs. Punuk culture seems, by general appearance, rougher and sturdier than its predecessors.

Recession of the ice during the warm Punuk-Thule period opened the new ways both for whales and for whalers. However, it would hardly be worth seeing this pursuit in a purely ecologo-economic dimension [cf. McGhee 1969–1970]. Whale hunt was similar to naval battle and fostered the ideology of domination over the elements and the space, which was easily transferable to social relations. The whalers expedition consisting of 3 to 8 big boat crews (30–70 men) [Rainy 1947:259–260; Menovshchikov 1959:20–21] could turn, when necessary, into military or pirate fleet. Apparently, the long raids in pursuit of migrating whales were not so much of the hunting, as of the military-colonizing and trading purposes. In any case, the whale killing far away from home shores in the lack of trade opportunities had no economic sense because of transportation difficulties.

Getting back to the Whale Alley paradox let me note again the specifics of its location: the Yttygran Island was located in the area of intensive seasonal migrations of whales, halfway between large settlement centers, St. Lawrence Island and Mechigmen Bay. The absence of a synchronous settlement close to the site demonstrates that the Whale Alley was built not by the settled dwellers, but by the sea nomads, for whom the sea was not a barrier, but a well-known road. The whalers could use the island lying at the crossroads of their routes at least as a base for cutting and long-term storage of the whales killed in vicinity. I will risk to suggest even that the Whale Alley could be a fair, to which came the inhabitants of both nearby and remote settlements (this version, though, is close to the idea of “potlatch-like rites” proposed by the researchers of the Whale Alley). Trading on a neutral territory was a characteristic feature of the military conflict period.

The scope of migrations, trade and military actions of the Pacific-Arctic sea nomads apparently covered both northern and southern sea areas (which explains the spread of slat armor of southern origin in North Pacific and Arctic). Arctic Eskimo seafarers created a wide network of colonies involving local groups, from the ancestors of Yukaghir and Chukchi in the west to the Birnirk and Dorset people in the east, into trading, raiding and marital circuit.

Ships and Deer

Petroglyphs found in the northern Chukotka, in the Pegtymel River valley, perform a mixture of whaling (from multi-seat boats) and reindeer hunting (from single-seat kayaks) scenes. According to N. N. Dikov the complex of Pegtymel rock carvings was formed during the period of one and a half thousand years, from the late 2nd millennium BC to the mid 1st millennium AD. The author believes, that radiocarbon age obtained by analysis of the cave fireplace charcoal (1397±80 and 1460±70) refers to the final stage of the rock gallery life. Dikov confirms the cultural affiliation of petroglyphs by observation that a silhouette carved on rock V “resembles so-called winged figures of the Old Bering Sea culture” [Dikov 1971:36–50, 60, 68; 1977:154, 245].

To my mind a fragment of petroglyph 58 on rock V, which N. N. Dikov associated with the “winged object” is a whale’s tail in the hunt scene and thus serves more as evidence of another cultural tradition, Punuk/Thule. Apart from the tell-tale sea hunting scenes from boats and pictures of whales, the set of finds from the Pegtymel cave had other markers of the Punuk/Thule culture: armor plates and holed bear fang [Dikov 1971:43]. Closest to the Pegtymel rocks (35 km in a straight line) coastal site Shalaurova Izba is dated to the Punuk period (radiocarbon age 1240±70 LU 4422) [Golovnev 2000:186].

Pegtymel gallery represents the Punuk/Thule culture as combination of the sea hunt (from the umiaks) and the wild reindeer hunt (from the kayaks). Here, as in the American Arctic [Taylor 1966; Dumond 1984], sea nomads demonstrated the ability to penetrate along the rivers into the continent depths and set up temporary or long-term settlements. Possibly, Pegtymel rocks were a place of feasts and rituals dedicated to the end of hunting season at the sea and on the land. It is in style of the dialogue between marine and riverine hunting stories that the alternation of whaling and reindeer spearing scenes in the rock carvings is read.

In Pacific-Arctic and Atlantic-Arctic areas the sea nomads not only inhabited coasts, but also established the chains of river colonies. This triggered development of land, mostly winter-time, transport, and on the whole produced an effect of transport resonance, when the doubled potential of the land and water ways ensured the stability of vast social space. Two types of transport supported each other providing extension of the communication network to remote lands (e.g. Eastern European, Ural and Chukotka tundras). Apparently, the Yamal sites (Tiutey-Sale, Yarte) combining in various proportion the traits of maritime and inland tundra adaptations, with obvious evidences of progressing reindeer herding, owe their appearance to this effect.

For the land transportation Vikings preferred the horses, while Eskimos — the dogs. In the later periods dogs remained the main draught animals in the Eskimo American North. In Eurasia the reindeer gave the alternative to Scandinavian horses and Eskimo huskies. The largest centers of the Arctic reindeer herding, Saami, Nenets and Chukchi areas, were directly related to the centers of maritime culture: Saami and Nenets tundras approached the Viking “northern ring”, and Chukchi tundra touched the sea routes of Punuk/Thule Eskimos. The reindeer roads started at the end of the sea routes and were their land extensions ensuring the trade contacts among remote territories and peoples. As W. W. Fitzhugh [1994:40] noted, between 500 and 1,000 years ago Chukchi and Even herders reached the Pacific coasts, came in contact with Eskimos and other maritime groups, and established themselves as middlemen in the rapidly expanding Siberia-Alaska trade.

Some behavioral characteristics make tundra and sea nomads quite similar. As Vikings in their time captured each other’s ships, believing that the power over sea was the guarantee of superiority on the land, the Nenets and Chukchi fought with their neighbors over the reindeer herds, well aware that reindeer give them reign in the tundra. Both were called by settled villagers and townsmen the pirates and robbers. Both were famous for their extraordinary mobility, belligerence and love of trade. The story of the Komi-Zyryan can give an illustration of smooth transition from the sea/river to the tundra nomadic system: in Viking era Komi actively participated in the river trade (their ethnic name permi acquired for their neighbors the common meaning “vagrant trader”), then later they borrowed the reindeer herding from the Nenets and built on its basis their culture of “reindeer herding capitalism.”

Adaptation model of the sea nomads presumed control over both bio-resources and human resources. The culture of migrant traders-warriors was based on “pasturing” of settled people and hunting groups. Sea nomads acted as the elite — the dominating intermediaries — in the relations between different groups, often of another ethnicity. In their turn, the neighbors dragged into that network became participants in the cultural curcuit and found their place in the mosaic of northern civilization. Energy potential of the sea nomads flew into the tundra over channels of trade and military contacts. The seafarers awoke in tundra hunters a taste for trade and war, which in its time stimulated growth of the new nomadic cultures (initial ground of the large-scale reindeer herding was the use of domesticated reindeer as the goods and transport including quick military raids by “fighting sledge”).

Maritime civilizations that shed their energy potential onto endless expanse of the Arctic could maintain their integrity only while they supplemented their power from the base centers, Scandinavia and Bering Sea area. For a number of reasons this stock of energy weakened noticeably by the beginning of the 2nd millennium. The stage of colonization was replaced with the stage of colonies, and the heroics of conquest died away in the routine of established relations. At the same time both sea routes and coasts began to freeze — warm climate changed by the mid 2nd millennium to the “smaller glacial period.” The influence of the southern civilizations of the East and the West also played its role offering stable alternatives to the values of northern elites. The main factor that led to the “cooling” of the northern civilizations and their disintegration into colonies was the turning of nomadic naval crews, who initially created a broad network of social clusters, into a settled elite of the colonies. War fleets of the northern pirates and whalers passed into history, and together with them the ships-dragons, the tridents and the large communal houses.

Vikings were the first to leave the stage. They were pushed from the north by the ice, and from the south by Christianity. In the Russian North they dispersed among the White Sea Pomors, in Greenland their colonies disappeared in the 15th century. At the same time the Greenland Eskimos switched from the sea-mammal to the musk-ox hunting. The decline of whaling and, hence, the Thule culture occurred in the 14th–15th centuries across the whole space of the Arctic from Greenland to Chukotka; in the central part of Canadian Arctic the whale hunting stopped completely [McGhee 1969–1970:175–182]. From the 15th century the large whalers’ settlements on the Cape Krusenstern gave place to small isolated huts scattered along the shore, which dwellers caught fish instead of whales [Anderson 1986:113].

Sea and tundra nomads, who tied the Arctic expanses by their migrations, were most of all responsible for the creation of a ghost of the Circumpolar culture that keeps exciting the generations of researchers. We can ask though, were the Arctic nomads’ trade links and far-reaching military raids so illusory indeed? Can we consider the social network woven by them a northern civilization? The answer to these questions can hardly be found in a researcher’s laboratory, where the spirit of comparative method still reigns over the ceramics lying in tidy slots, and where the collation of bio-cycles of humans and animals is taken for a theoretical revelation. In its superb complexity the culture of Arctic nomads was in no way inferior to the culture of the present day researchers, and for its understanding not the simplified, but synthetic criteria should be found. It is particularly difficult to choose the archaeological tools, since the traditional techniques of “agricultural” archaeology allow us to discern just a shadow of the mobile and minimalistic nomadic culture. Its remains are hard to dig out from the earth, as it never dug itself in. Often its traces are uncovered not so much in its own sites, but in traces of impact upon the neighboring settled cultures. Only the wide-space archaeology can give a clue to the understanding of the nomadic culture, every material peace of which should be raised to a power of three-dimensional adaptation model.


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