Bering Strait Yields Trove of Ancient Relics

US and Russian archaeologists find liverwort, antique ice skate, evidence of early trekkers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For years the shores of the Bering Sea, host to some of the world's richest archaeological sites, have remained virtually unexplored.

The area's isolation, serious erosion, and tense cold-war relations inhibited any thorough research of the Bering Strait. But now, with the end of the cold war, a new program that is bringing scientists from the US and Russia to the shores of the Bering Sea has begun to answer longstanding questions about one of the most important crossroads in the world.

Archaeologists and anthropologists believe the first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere migrated to the Americas thousands of years ago over a land bridge between present-day Alaska and Siberia.

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"We're talking about populating half of the world," says Bob Gal, a US National Park Service archaeologist in Kotzebue, Alaska. But figuring out how and exactly when that occurred has been difficult. "We haven't had the ability, because of the world political situation, to really tackle that problem."

Now the Beringian Heritage Project, an outgrowth of a 1990 pact between former President Bush and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, is seeking to make up for lost time.

Researchers from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and other universities, the Smithsonian Institute, the US Interior Department, and Russia are taking part in the project, coordinated by the National Park Service (NPS).

Among the project's noteworthy accomplishments are discovering Alaska's oldest known sites of human habitation, which date before 10,000 years ago; discovering previously unknown plants; collecting new data on the region's geology; and renewing cultural ties between Inuit cousins on both sides of the sea, separated by the cold war's "Ice Curtain."

The process of reconstructing the prehistoric landscape remains a challenge, though. Sprawling stretches of Alaska's wilds are largely unexplored. The majority of the state's 1,600 archaeological sites are concentrated near the state's roads and along the trans-Alaska pipeline, thanks to modern laws that protect historic resources from construction's impacts.

"It's sad to say that development is one of the best friends of archaeology," says Steve Klinger, an NPS archaeologist. "Maybe 1 percent of the state's been looked at by an archaeologist."

One recent breakthrough was the discovery of 17,000-year-old volcanic ash on the Seward Peninsula. Excavations began in 1993. Underneath the ash was an intact landscape, preserved as it was when the land bridge existed.

Mr. Klinger and Mr. Gal say scientists believe the region was then a tundra steppe with herds of grass-eating big game and flocks of waterfowl that gathered at glacial lakes that no longer exist. It may have been more hospitable to hunters and gathers than the harsh landscape that exists today, according to evidence gathered so far. "It was a fairly rich environment for guys that knew how to take advantage of it," Klinger says.

Even discoveries about the more-recent past are enlightening. Archaeologists have been sifting through remains of nearby turn-of-the-century gold-rush camps. Among the relics uncovered: ice skates, apparently a popular mode of transportation along frozen rivers.

Botanists working with the Beringian project have found dozens of lichens, mosses, and other plants not known to exist in Alaska or North America. One moss-like liverwort, discovered by a Russian botanist, was new to science.

Researchers are also collecting oral histories to preserve village elders' recollections and native languages. Anthropologists have set up exchange programs to help relatives on opposite sides of the strait to renew contacts.

But plans to create the international peace park envisioned by Mr. Bush and Mr. Gorbachev in 1990 aren't going as well.

The Park Service's plan was to gain "world heritage" status for the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and some other nearby areas, along with a yet-to-be-established park on the Russian side. The title, bestowed by the United Nations, is largely honorary.

But as economic and land-status problems have stalled the Russians, US park proponents have hit a wall of political opposition in Alaska.

In Nome, a popular restaurant used to post tongue-in-cheek promotions for "grilled spotted owl" and people are unashamed to store industrial equipment or surplus household goods in their front yards. Here, new conservation measures are viewed suspiciously.

"It's difficult enough to deal with your own government, let alone other governments," says Nome Mayor John Handeland. "The Alaskan people are independent and want to stay that way."

Many Nome-area residents are leery of initiatives they say might hinder mining and other development. In response to those concerns, Alaska's Rep. Don Young (R), chairman of the House Resources Committee, has introduced a bill that would grant Congress veto power over any new world heritage site in the US.

Still, scientists remain hopeful about international recognition of Beringia's significance as a biological and cultural crossroads. If it is granted, "It'll make it easier for politicians to help and perhaps make it a little more difficult for them to hinder," Gal says.

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