The Paleoecology of Northern Seas: Human-Ocean Interactions in Subarctic and Arctic Waters

Vendredi, mai 17, 2019 - 1:30pm - 5:00pm
  • Christopher Wolff, University at Albany
  • Frank J. Feeley, CUNY Graduate Center
Contact Email: 
Session Description (300 word max): 

Human-environment interactions in northern waters, particularly those governed by significant sea ice formation and duration, has long been a necessary focus of archaeologists who study Subarctic and Arctic cultures. Historically considered marginal, both geographically and culturally, a growing body of research has been changing that view with the integration of high-resolution environmental proxy datasets and increasing knowledge of the archaeological record. This session brings together a diverse group of interdisciplinary researchers from Subarctic and Arctic regions around the world and examines human-environment and social dynamics that reflect and influence northern interactions with marine systems. It will present new data and Maritime Historical Ecology perspectives on fisheries and marine mammal exploitation as part of the Oceans Past Initiative ( Much of the session’s focus will be on methods of integration of complex environmental proxy data with the archaeological record, but particular attention will also be on the socio-cultural contexts that provide a historical framework to our understanding of northern coastal and island peoples.

01:40 PM: Provisioning Landnám in Iceland
Format de présentation :
Auteur-e(s) :
  • Wendi Coleman - Hunter College of the City University of New York

The traditional model of Icelandic Landnám in the mid-9th century CE was based largely on written accounts and a limited archaeological record. This model presents a narrative of land-hungry Nordic chieftains and their followers gradually filling a new agrarian island landscape who worked their way inward from a few coastal enclaves. Recent archaeological, environmental history, and environmental science investigations have provided a new understanding of Icelandic Landnám leading to the need to re-examine and revise the traditional models of settlement. Furthermore, these investigations show that walrus hunting may have provided an important impetus to initial exploration and settlement and that wild resources were key to the subsistence of early settlers. This paper provides an overview of current evidence for early strategies for using “natural capital” to provision the early settlers of Iceland. 

02:10 PM: Early Artisanal Fishing and Marine Bird Specialization on Hegranes, North Iceland
Format de présentation :
Auteur-e(s) :
  • Grace Cesario - The Graduate Center, CUNY

Four extensively explored sites on Hegranes, located in Skagafjörður, northern Iceland, show evidence of intensive use of marine fish and birds beginning at settlement in the late 9th century. These sites also appear to have functioned as year-round farms; however, they are not directly coastal, like the fishing-farms in the Westfjords, nor are they fishing stations. They represent a different kind of production site than the ones currently known.

            Along with farming activities, these sites produced a flat-dried fish product that was moved further inland. Their exploitation of seabirds also follows an interesting pattern with wing elements being the most commonly recovered. This paper will explore the specialized marine adaptations at these Viking Age sites and their unique place in Icelandic archaeology.


03:00 PM: A Zooarchaeology of Late Medieval Commercial Fish Production Sites In Iceland
Format de présentation :
Auteur-e(s) :
  • Frank Feeley - CUNY

Currently, Iceland relies heavily on the commercial fishing industry.  A 2013 study suggests that 25-30% of Iceland’s GDP is derived from commercial fishing and it employs 15-20% of the population. Despite how integral fishing is to Icelandic society we’re just starting to understand the 15th century development of the industry. While historians have been writing on the topic since the early 20th century, if not earlier, this critical 15th century juncture is poorly understood as it coincides with Iceland’s first brush with Bubonic plague and domestic documentary sources are thin as a result. Zooarchaeological analyses of a series of 15th century sites from the Northwest and West coasts of Iceland is broadening the narrative of late medieval commercial fish production sites. This paper will compare three of sites: Gufuskálar, Gjögur, and Akurvík.

03:30 PM: The conjuncture of local-scale sea ice dynamics, seal habitat and the 18th and 19th century Inuit taskscape in the Okak and Nain regions, Nunatsiavut.
Format de présentation :
Auteur-e(s) :
  • James Woollett - Université Laval, Centré d'études nordiques
  • Najat Bhiry - Université Laval, Centré d'études nordiques
  • Martin Fields - Arkeos
  • Yann Foury - Université Laval, Centré d'études nordiques

In this study, local-scale patterns of sea ice distribution in the Okak and Nain Bay regions of Labrador circa. 1500 to 1900 AD, are reconstructed through marine sediment cores and other proxies, in reference to contemporary ice maps and through zooarchaeological data. These fjord systems comprise two of Labrador’s most extensive zones of land-fast ice and are key ringed seal pupping territories. Sea ice distribution has varied significantly in these subarctic waters; past maximal ice extent phases correspond to documented severe winters and appear to have impacted key seal habitats (polynyas). Nevertheless, local ice conditions also vary significantly from year to year and within years and it is these variations that impact Inuit coastal hunting communities most directly. This study contrasts seal hunting activities from the 16th to the 19th century at several Inuit winter settlements as characterized by zooarchaeological research. Inuit winter settlement and seal hunting strategies targeted the ringed seal fast ice habitat or, alternatively, the more diverse ice edge environment. Areas with more predictable access to the ice edge foster stable Inuit settlement while areas dominated by fast ice favour a more mobile settlement pattern. 


04:00 PM: Cultures On the Rock(s): The Relationship Between Sea Ice Distribution and Human Settlement in Ancient Newfoundland
Format de présentation :
Auteur-e(s) :
  • Christopher Wolff - University at Albany

The distribution of sea ice in the waters surrounding Newfoundland is a formative influence in the development of economic traditions in that subarctic region. The timing and nature of sea ice shapes the seasonal distribution of coastal and marine species, including those that facilitated the colonization of the region by various Amerindian, Sivullirmiut, and European cultures, and formed the basis of their economies. Environmental proxy data suggest that at various times throughout the Holocene, western Atlantic sea ice was severely diminished and perhaps even absent for extended periods, and widespread and predictable in others. These data suggest that significant changes in sea ice conditions in the western Atlantic ecosystem roughly correspond with archaeological evidence for cultural abandonment of the island by Archaic and Sivullirmiut populations. This paper examines the possible links between variation in the nature and distribution of sea ice in that region and its effects on marine species and people who depended on them. It will also discuss problems with relying heavily on historical documentary evidence of the biogeography and ecology of the eastern subarctic of North America as baselines for interpreting prehistoric and modern human-environmental interaction, which has broader implications for those who study these interactions elsewhere.

04:30 PM: Human-walrus interactions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: new understandings from a threatened landscape
Format de présentation :
Auteur-e(s) :
  • Moira McCaffrey - Independent Researcher

Storms that sweep across the Gulf of St. Lawrence stir up tangible memories of a time when walrus were found across the region. On the Îles de la Madeleine, tusks and bones still emerge from the shallows – a testament to how prevalent walrus once were on the archipelago. Recent biological research suggests that Maritimes walrus was a morphologically and genetically distinct group, though similar to contemporary Atlantic populations. Herds of Maritimes walrus inhabited the Gulf for millenia, until their extirpation by European hunters in the late 1700s.

Archaeological evidence attests to the long time depth of human-walrus interactions in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, supporting the view that Indigenous peoples valued and hunted walrus from their arrival in the far Northeast. Ethnohistoric accounts document sustainable walrus hunting practices in the Gulf, with ivory and oil serving as trade items at a time when Indigenous populations were being forced from their territories. An increased European presence ushered in an intense period of walrus exploitation. On the Îles de la Madeleine, Maritimes walrus were subjected to unprecedented levels of human predation in the 1700s, leaving them with neither time nor habitat to adapt and recover.

Climate-related factors and concomitant ecological impacts such as relative sea level rise may also have played a role in the extirpation of Maritimes walrus. Today, these same factors and their attendants – erosion and amateur collecting – are destroying archaeological sites essential to documenting past ecosystems and understanding different levels of human impacts within them.