Pre-contact adaptations to the Little Ice Age in Southwest Alaska: New evidence from the Nunalleq site

Edouard Masson-MacLean* (Corresponding Author), Claire Houmard, Rick Knecht, Isabelle Sidéra, Keith Dobney, Kate Britton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
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The reconstruction of diet, subsistence strategies and human-animal relationships are integral to understanding past human societies, adaptations and resilience - especially in the circumpolar Arctic. Even in relatively recent periods, climatic excursions may have posed specific challenges for hunter-gatherer groups living at latitudinal and climatic extremes, and archaeological research in Arctic North America is increasingly looking to better understand the impact of past climate change on human groups. Here, through a unique multi-proxy approach (zooarchaeology, bone technology and stable isotope analysis), we explore human subsistence strategies, adaptation and resilience at Nunalleq, a recently excavated pre-contact Yup'ik coastal site in southwest Alaska. The main phase of occupation of the site (16th-17th centuries AD) corresponds with one of the coolest periods of the Little Ice Age – a climatic interval from the early 14th century through the mid-19th associated with global and more localised cooling events. The analyses reveal a subsistence strategy centred around the exploitation of three major resources, including salmon, marine mammals and caribou, supplemented by secondary resources such as birds and medium-sized mammals. This tripartite resource base (salmon, marine mammals, caribou) is similar to that seen at other Thule-era sites in Alaska and likely permitted a flexibility in resource use in the face of changes in resource availability (and competition over resources) during the Little Ice Age. Comparison of the different datasets, however, reveals variability and nuance in the use of animals for both dietary and broader subsistence needs. While caribou represent a vital and heavily-exploited resource at Nunalleq (evident from both the zooarchaeology and the bone technology), they did not represent a key dietary resource (indicated by stable isotope data). Instead, caribou played an integral and key part as a major source of raw material, especially antler, in order to manufacture the necessary acquisition technology to exploit primary coastal resources.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)130-141
Number of pages12
JournalQuaternary International
Early online date3 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2020

Bibliographical note

This work was funded by an AHRC-LabEx award (AH/N504543/1) to KB, RK, KD and IS and an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/K006029/1) grant awarded to RK, KB and Charlotta Hillerdal (Aberdeen). The onsite collection of samples was carried out by staff and students from the University of Aberdeen, volunteer excavators and the residents of Quinhagak. We had logistical and planning support for fieldwork by the Qanirtuuq Incorporated, Quinhagak, Alaska, and the people of Quinhagak, who we also thank for sampling permissions. Special thanks to Warren Jones, John Smith and Qanirtuuq Incorporated (especially Michael Smith and Lynn Church), and to all project team members, in Aberdeen and at other institutions. Thank you to Véronique Forbes and Paul Ledger for their valuable comments on the final draft of the paper. Finally, thank you to Peter Jordan (University of Groningen) for inviting us to contribute to this special issue and for his patience.

Research Data will be made available on request


  • Arctic
  • Archaeology
  • Zooarchaeology
  • Technology
  • Isotopes
  • Diet
  • Subsistence


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