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Science on the Edge: Arctic and Antarctic Discoveries
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Science on the Edge: Arctic and Antarctic Research

Human Migration and
Local Knowledge

Scientists are only the most recent human arrivals to the poles—people have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years and the region offered the first migratory route for humans moving into North America. At least twelve thousand years ago, and possibly earlier, newcomers to North America are thought to have crossed to present-day Alaska from northeast Asia via Beringia, a vast plain—now submerged—that once connected the two land masses. Until recently, scientists believed that the newcomers entered the present-day Yukon Territory after crossing the land bridge, then headed south through an inland route. But recently, a science team funded by NSF offered evidence in support of another theory, which suggests that rather than going inland, the newcomers used watercraft along the southern margin of Beringia and southward along the northwest coast of North America. This may have enabled humans to enter the southern areas of the Americas prior to the melting of the continental glaciers. In 1997, NSF-funded researchers excavated a cave on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, and found parts of a human jaw and pelvis dating to between 9,200 and 9,800 years ago, the oldest human bones ever found in Alaska. Isotope analysis of the bones showed that the person had subsisted on a marine diet. These first peoples would have had plenty of fish and other marine resources to eat as they moved in skin-covered boats along the Pacific Coast south to Peru and Chile during the last ice age.

While the story of the first people to arrive in North America continues to unfold, another side of the story tells of the close collaboration between scientists and contemporary indigenous communities in the Arctic. During their excavations of the cave on Prince of Wales Island, the archaeologists sought and attained the approval and collaboration of the tribal governments in Alaska. Alaska Native interns work on the site and present research papers at archaeology meetings. Tribal councils discuss news of scientific discoveries. This relationship of mutual trust and learning exemplifies the Principles for the Conduct of Research in the Arctic, a set of Inupiat whalers near Barrow, Alaska guidelines based on the ethical responsibility of researchers working in the North to consult, listen to, and involve the people of the North.

The Principles, adopted in 1990 by the NSF-chaired Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, echo the wish of Arctic peoples that science involve them as partners. After all, science consists in part of good, systematic observation, a critical element in the long-term survival of indigenous peoples who have for generations carved out economies and cultures in a challenging environment. What's more, indigenous peoples have developed time-tested technologies, such as toggle harpoons and skin boats, well suited for the North. NSF-supported research teams, including Native elders and social scientists, have tapped into this locally held knowledge of the Arctic environment to enrich ecological models and to document oral traditions.

For example, from 1995 to1997 researchers conducting an NSF-funded study of beluga whale ecology in the Bering Sea asked Native whalers and elders to analyze patterns of whale migration. Surprisingly, the elders began to talk not only about belugas—the white whales with the "smirk"—but also about beavers. As the beaver population rises, more streams leading to the bay are dammed, spawning habitat for the salmon disappears, and fewer fish are available as prey for the belugas. Thus, the belugas may start to bypass the river mouth during their migrations.

PDF Version
A Surprising Abundance of Life
Human Migration and Local Knowledge
The Importance of Sea Ice
Studying Extremes Above and Below
Ozone Hole over Antarctica
Knowledge of the Whole
Ice Cores Hold Earth's Climate
Like Doing Research on the Moon
Why the Ozone Hole?
To Learn More...

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