Select Page

At the Tip of the Iceberg

At the Tip of the Iceberg

Allen McCartney has spent his career among the native peoples of the Arctic, studying their origins and their cultures. His pioneering work has helped forge links among researchers, government agencies and native peoples and has led to new insights into the human history and ecology of the region.

A map of the New World Arctic shows some of the locations McCartney has conducted field work. McCartney’s career has spanned 40 years and 25 seasons in the Arctic.

Back in 1978, anthropology professor Allen McCartney and his colleagues drove a greasy, oily, 15-foot whale bone to a Fayetteville car wash. They unloaded the unwieldy object onto the concrete floor of the building, sat down on the car wash floor and proceeded to spray it with heavy-duty hoses to clean it off. Then McCartney chopped the bone into small bits.

The episode is one of many firsts in McCartney’s 40-year career spent exploring prehistoric and modern Arctic whaling communities, and it illustrates how far he’ll go to gain new understanding for his field.

McCartney performed this task to study the structural properties of whale bones. By examining the bones of prehistoric whales washed up on beaches and modern-day whales butchered by Eskimos, McCartney and his colleagues can make determinations about the size and age of whales hunted in modern and prehistoric times.

Coastal mountains as Misak Bay, Katmai Monument, Alaska Peninsula. McCartney’s research has helped predict common traits among societies that live in cold coastal climates.

During his career, McCartney has published, presented and edited more than 100 papers, articles, reviews and books on native Arctic peoples and their prehistoric ties to whale hunting. He has also edited the journal Arctic Anthropology, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, served as assistant editor for the Journal of Alaska Anthropology and directed the Thule Archaeology Conservation Project.

McCartney’s prolific work has earned him a reputation among native Arctic people and Arctic researchers as the world’s foremost expert on prehistoric bowhead whale hunting. Unlike most Arctic researchers, however, McCartney chose not to specialize in one area. Instead, his work has stretched the boundaries of knowledge in place and time  from the tip of the Aleutian Islands to the eastern Canadian Arctic, from the earliest known signs of human habitation in the Arctic to modern-day culture.

During his career, McCartney became the first researcher to study Thule (too-lee) Eskimo culture, whale hunting and their relationship to environmental change. With the Canadian government, he pioneered a program to survey and preserve the Thule Eskimo heritage in Canada. He also studied Arctic maritime cultural adaptations and used them to predict adaptations in other maritime environments  predictions later confirmed by the research of other scientists. He has worked in the Aleutian Islands to examine the influence of Russian contact on native populations. Most recently, he and a colleague have studied whale biometrics  their size, shape, age and structure  and its link to historic and current native whale hunting practices.

“Allen brings something to our work that I lack,” said Douglas Veltre, professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. “He’s one of the few people whose work has spanned both the east and west part of the Arctic. It gives him a broader perspective to interpret from.”

McCartney and Veltre have worked together since 1984 in the Aleutian and Pribiloff Islands, when they initiated an archeological survey on one of the big bays. The survey was the largest site project of its kind in the Aleutians at the time, and students from Fayetteville and Alaska came each summer to help recover and document the more than 20,000 artifacts found there.

On the treeless, open tundra, McCartney and Veltre found the telltale depressions left behind by houses dug into the earth and more  a longhouse 45 meters long, the largest and most complex structure found in the Arctic. Through the years they have continued to uncover evidence of how Aleutian culture changed when the Russians arrived in the mid-1700s to pursue fur seals for their coveted pelts. Villages appeared on previously uninhabited islands, houses shrunk as extended families became smaller and metal tools appeared. The midden piles show evidence of dietary changes, possible evidence of shifting food-gathering patterns.

Metal artifacts excavated at an early Russian contact site in the eastern Aleutian islands.

Two years ago McCartney and UA geosciences professor John Dixon found themselves in a small plane about to land in Kaktovik, Alaska, in March. Outside, the sun shone in blue skies and the temperature read minus 32 degrees Farenheit.

“That was without the wind,” Dixon recalls. The wind chill brought the temperature down to about minus 80 degrees. “It was a little nippy,” Dixon admits.

But for McCartney and Dixon the journey represented another visit to an area they have studied extensively. Dixon arrived at the University of Arkansas in 1981 and began work on cold climates that eventually led him to collaborate with McCartney in the Arctic. McCartney first visited Alaska in the summer of 1962, and has spent 25 seasons in the Arctic since that time.

What impulse did McCartney follow almost 40 years ago that led him again and again to travel thousands of miles from the mild spring of Fayetteville, Ark. to a frozen, foreign landscape to do research?

McCartney and UA honors student Michael Yarborough place whale bones back in an excavated house in Izembeck Lagoon, Alaska, in 1971.

“I saw it as an opportunity to make a contribution to a part of the world that is not well understood,” McCartney said of his decision to specialize in Arctic anthropology.

Forty years of research later, McCartney has accomplished that goal. In the fall of 2002, the National Science Foundation sponsored a workshop in Fayetteville: “Four Decades of Advances in Arctic Anthropology: A Workshop in Recognition of Dr. Allen McCartney’s Contributions to Arctic Anthropology.” The workshop featured 12 researchers from all over the United States and Canada, some of them McCartney’s former students, who discussed their research and McCartney’s contributions to the field.

At the beginning of his career, McCartney worked in the Hudson Bay area of Canada. At the time, native land rights issues became paramount, and the Canadian government sought a sense of the history of Canadian Eskimos. Arctic researchers were engaged in an ongoing debate about the presence of historic whale hunting, arguing that whale bones found at prehistoric sites offered no evidence that Eskimos took to the seas to hunt whales. The Canadian government sought out McCartney’s research. He had written a paper on Thule culture and bowhead whale hunting that has become a classic in the field.

McCartney inspects a late prehistoric/early historic whale bone house at Point Hope, Alaska.

“That represented the first discussion of the Thule Eskimos, whaling and environmental change,” Dixon said.

Over the years, McCartney continued to build on the evidence of whale hunting in Thule coastal cultures, citing prehistoric depictions of whale hunts, whale hunting equipment, whale bones in midden sites and whale bones used in structures.

McCartney does not just study the history and archeology of Arctic people, but also works alongside them. He initiated the first major archeological survey in North America that employed Eskimos. He used the survey as the basis for training native peoples in their own prehistory. Some of the teenaged students he employed, who spent time both on Arctic sites and in Fayetteville, went on to become ethnographers and anthropologists. Others developed a sense of their own history and culture that they can now pass on to their children. George Wenzel, an ethnographer with McGill University in Canada, tracked down some of McCartney’s former students, including Jassi Akpaljaluk, who lives in Iqaluit with his five children.

“What Jass remembers most is that working on the project instilled in him a curiosity about his culture, but also the world in general,” Wenzel said. Jassi also took something from his sojourn in Fayetteville  a love of basketball. He organized a league in Iqaluit that plays every week.

McCartney inspecton excavated bowhead whale bones at the Cape Garry site, eastern Canadian Arctic, 1976.

July Papatsi, who was 16 in 1976 when he worked with McCartney at Avvatatuq, credits the anthropologist with his strong interest in Inuit culture. He became, among other things, an interpreter and a trail warden.

In addition to involving native people in his archeological projects, in the mid-1970s, McCartney directed the first cultural resource management project in the Northern Arctic, which aimed at stopping the looting of whale bones for ivory carving. He launched a program to educate people about the importance of whale bone location to cultural history, and encouraged people to inform the Canadian government of prehistoric sites before taking the whale bones for commercial purposes. In this way, the bones could be properly studied and documented before they disappeared.

“It was a project that showed people that by selling the bones, they were really destroying their heritage,” Dixon said. The whale bones represented the winter homes, meat caches, kayak rests and midden heaps of their ancestors, the Thule.

“He has always focused on the meaning of things for the native people,” Dixon said.

McCartney’s research covers several thousand years, but his influence on modern-day whaling culture can be seen in discussions with the International Whaling Commission and native land claims in Canada, said James Savelle, professor of anthropology at McGill University in Canada.

“A lot of the basis of quotas and access to bowhead whales has come from historic records of hunting bowheads,” Savelle said. “In research on prehistoric whaling, Allen would be considered the world’s foremost expert.”

Savelle and McCartney have collaborated on research projects since Savelle worked as a graduate student under McCartney in the late 1970s. They have spent four seasons in the Arctic together, searching for stranded whale carcasses that can be up to 10,000 years old. The remains occur as parts of individual skeletons œ usually just the skulls, but in other instances mandibles, and the occasional rib or vertebra. They are often slightly embedded in raised gravel beaches.

By studying these remains, they can determine information about the prehistoric abundance and size of these animals. They can then use this information when studying prehistoric sites where native people used whale bones to build structures. They can compare the size, shape and age of the bones used in houses and those found on beaches to help determine the size of whales that might have been hunted.

McCartney and Savelle found that bones at Inupiat and Thule Eskimo sites come disproportionately from yearlings  whales not yet grown to full size. This would make sense because younger whale calves would swim with their mothers, making them a potentially dangerous target. Larger whales could easily sink a boat, drowning its occupants. The size of whales taken today remains consistent with historic observations.

As he studied the Arctic cultures from eastern Canada to western Alaska, McCartney began to see patterns in the cultural adaptations in the very distant sites. He began to explore these similarities and wrote several papers about Arctic maritime adaptations, predicting that the limitations of flora and fauna would drive native people in such lands to forage at sea.

The Arctic people have adapted their lives to man-made and environmental change. With the advent of commercial whaling in the Arctic, whale stocks worldwide plummeted. Many of the Eskimo tribes incorporated modern-day equipment, including outboard motors and aluminum boats, into their traditional hunts. But when the bowhead populations appeared to be endangered, the International Whaling Commission moved to ban Alaskan Eskimo subsistence harvesting of bowhead whales in the early 1970s.

The Eskimos formed their own commission, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and worked with scientists to show that the bowhead population was higher than previously thought. In 1977, Alaskan Eskimo subsistence hunting of bowheads began once more. McCartney’s research helped the Alaskan Eskimos argue for whale hunting quotas for different villages.

Another concern comes from environmental change. As global temperatures rise, the permafrost recedes. Traditional “refrigerators” built into the ground no longer act to keep the whale meat cold year-round as they once would have, creating a storage problem for native people, Dixon said.

McCartney and his colleagues have created a Web site that contains information about traditional whaling in the western Arctic and more information about the Arctic region at <http://www.uark.edu/misc/jcdixon/Historic_Whaling/index.htm>. This project, spearheaded by McCartney, involves Arctic specialists in many different areas  a signature of the way he works.

“Allen finds personal satisfaction in sharing success with other people,” Veltre said.

People of the Ice Whale

A letter to the Minerals Management Service from Winton Weyapuk, President of the Wales Whaling Captains’ Association, Oct. 12, 2000:

My father once asked me, as I was leaving to attend an Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission meeting … who would speak for the bowhead? I believe what he meant was that, as members of the AEWC, we should attempt to communicate with federal and oil company officials from the bowheads’ perspective, because, through our lifestyle, we are connected with them. He meant that the disrespect we show to bowheads is disrespect we show to ourselves. He also meant that in speaking of them, we are disrespectful if we dare to discuss how and where they should live their lives. Putting up man-made islands and disturbing whales through associated activities in effect tells them they are not welcome in what was once their home.

• • •

In the spring, as the ice begins to break, a group of men from Wales, Alaska, begin to stake out whale- watching posts at the edge of the water. The posts can span up to 12 miles along the ice. On an April morning just before dawn, the omialiq, or boat captain, wakes the men, who rise, drink a cup of water, and set out into the bone-chilling cold.

The men wear white parkas so they blend in with the snow. In groups of eight, they huddle silently and still at the whaling grounds, eyes scanning the landscape for a sign of a whale. When someone spots a whale, they place their boats in the choppy water and glide silently through the newly formed channels.

The bowhead has been called the “ice whale” because it travels through the ice. The Eskimo have been called “the people of the ice whale” because, it is said, without the bowhead they would not exist.

The hunters spot the bowheads when they break through the surface of the ice to expel plumes of vapor. The hunters must get close to the whale to strike. There’s always a chance that a surfacing whale could swamp a boat. Bowhead whales can weigh 50 tons or more. But it is said the whales are ticklish, and will ease away from the boat if touched.

Once a group has struck a whale, they signal to the other boats to come assist them.

Several whaling crews work together to tow a whale to shore for harvesting. It can take up to 10 hours to tow a 35- to 50-foot whale many miles to shore. Timing is essential, because the meat begins to spoil after 12 hours. The crews must often rely on compasses to navigate the return journey in the dark, and must negotiate drifting icebergs, which can block their path.

The women greet the umiaks where the ice meets water, and help tow the creature onto shore, where they begin to butcher it. The skin and blubber, or muktuk, is removed first, then the women divide the carcass into sections and remove the meat. In previous generations, baleen and bones were also used to build structures or to make tools and utensils.

Part of the meat goes to the family of the captain of the boat that captured the whale, who then hosts a feast for the whole town. The village elders often take over the harvest and distribution of the whale meat. The whole community comes together to celebrate aqvuqtuut, which means, “We have taken a whale.”

The women pack much of the meat and blubber away to store in the permafrost that allows them to keep the food almost year-round. The villagers use the bones to build houses and storage units.

Because of the size of the whales, one animal could easily provide enough for the needs of a community for a year or more.

With thanks to Herbert Annungazuk, cultural anthropologist with the National Park Service, Wales native and colleague of Allen McCartney.

About The Author

Looking for an expert?

The University of Arkansas Campus Experts website is a searchable database of experts who can talk to the media on current events.

Trending Topics:
Mars
State and local economy
Environmental economics
Immigration politics

‘What Would Happen Here’; Instructor Talks About His Work on ‘True Detective’

The University Relations Science and Research Team

Camilla Shumaker
director of science and research communications
479-575-7422, camillas@uark.edu

Matt McGowan
science and research writer
479-575-4246, dmcgowa@uark.edu

Robert Whitby
science and research writer
479-387-0720, whitby@uark.edu

DeLani Bartlette
feature writer
479-575-5709, drbartl@uark.edu

More on University of Arkansas Research

Visit The Office of Research and Innovation for more information on research policies, support and analytics.

a graph showing research expenditure rising from under $120 million to over $170 million over ten years

Connect with Us