A Landmark Siberian Odyssey Seeks Ties Across the Bering Strait

The scene looks ordinary enough: gently rolling hills stretch off into the distance, covered only with the scrubby little plants that can withstand the rigors of the Arctic winter. But the unremarkable vista here hides a multitude of archaeological treasures.

''You can see how these pieces of quartz have been worked, flaked in a way that couldn't be natural,'' says Bill Fitzhugh, running his fingers along the sharp edges of milky-white bits of rock he has picked up off the ground. ''This is no surprise, because this hill we're standing on sits right in a valley which would have been rich with game animals. And it's right on the route from the Bering Strait.''

It also comes as no surprise that Dr. Fitzhugh, who directs the Arctic Studies Center at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., has tracked down signs of early human activity in such an innocuous-looking place. He has done so repeatedly on the ''1995 North Pacific Rim Expedition,'' a long odyssey starting in Siberia and ending here in Alaska that retraced the route early humans took into the New World. (See map, above.)

Curiosity about when these early humans inhabited the area, when they moved on in search of better conditions, and how many generations it may have taken for the descendants of early Siberians to arrive in the American West, led Fitzhugh and his team of scientists on this expedition to traverse thousands of miles of dramatic Siberian landscape in two small Russian bi-planes en route to the Bering Strait. (See story, right.)

The plan was to retrace the steps of the landmark Morris K. Jesup expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History 100 years ago, the first major visit by Western scientists to northeastern Siberia - and the last, until now.

Fitzhugh's group decided to barnstorm across Siberia, stopping wherever something looked interesting: perhaps to visit with nomadic reindeer herders on the move with their animals, or to check out a remote island off the Arctic coast.

Many members of the 16-member team have spent decades living in and studying the Arctic - everywhere, that is, except the Siberian Arctic. So the chance to travel through this once-forbidden region seemed ideal, given the new openness of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But the trip was not an easy one. While the versatile planes could provide great access geographically, they could do nothing about endless quarrels with petty bureaucrats over landing fees and rights at small regional airports. In the end, the route itself proved haphazard because of constraints imposed by unpredictable weather and the availability of fuel.

Nonetheless, the members of the group felt the opportunity to visit many remote but archaeologically significant places was worth the effort. In addition to Fitzhugh, others on the team included Steven Young, director of the Center for Northern Studies in Wolcott, Vt.; retired anthropologist Ted Carpenter and his wife, photographer Adelaide de Menil, of New York; London-based banker and Arctic adventurer Peter de Roos; and Andrei Golovniev, a Rus- sian ethnologist and filmmaker.

Also along was Sven Haakanson Jr., a Harvard University graduate student and Alutiiq native of Kodiak Island, Alaska, who is currently conducting field work with Fitzhugh among reindeer-herding peoples in a remote corner of northwestern Siberia. A team of journalists rounded out the group, trying another first: to send out weekly reports on the expedition's progress via satellite telephone to Discovery Television's new Internet Website.

Uncharted territory

The journey began in the city of Yakutsk, capital of the semiautonomous Sakha Republic, an area larger than western Europe located entirely within Siberia. It is here that Fitzhugh and other scientists believe the ancestors of early Americans originated. ''Much of this region remains virtually unknown, especially its archaeology,'' says the tall, soft-spoken Fitzhugh. ''This area is where you still find traditional cultures ranging from reindeer herders to hunters, as well as the roots of the earliest peoples of the New World. Our objective was to try to answer some of the many questions we have about the area, as well as lay the groundwork for future projects here.''

The first migrants from Siberia are thought to have crossed into Alaska between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago in what many researchers now believe was a series of migrations over a long period of time. For foreign specialists, access to the region may help fill some gaps in what is known about the early cultures.

The first archaeological site visited by the team was Kulati, site of the first major excavation undertaken more than 50 years ago by the ''grandfather'' of Siberian archaeology, Alexei Okladnikov. He uncovered evidence of human habitation stretching back into the Stone Age. Even today, flints, arrowheads, and other remains are visible on top of mounds of dirt, now mostly covered with grass.

''These here are flint flakes and pieces of pottery,'' says Mr. Haakanson, who, like Fitzhugh, had just arrived from a month of fieldwork elsewhere in Siberia. Throughout the journey, Haakanson shared his insight into what the team was observing; in turn, the trip gave him an opportunity to dig a little deeper into his own roots.

''Working and traveling in Russia has given me a new perspective on my origins,'' he says. ''It's been especially helpful to meet the native peoples [of Siberia]. They've been very receptive.''

Haakanson hails from the tiny village of Old Harbor in the southern part of Kodiak Island, best-known for its huge brown bears. Not far from the village is the site of the first Russian Orthodox settlement in the Americas. Haakanson's long-term plans are to document thoroughly the history of his people, including preserving their language, which is in danger of dying out.

For Haakanson, the trip yielded intriguing hints of ties that might have reached across the Bering Strait. He found similarities to his Alaskan home in the Siberian camp of an elderly Yakut man named Vasily Posnikov, who spends his days whittling heads for duck decoys and preparing fish in a small smokehouse to supply him through the winter. The camp is about about an hour by boat upriver from the town of Belaya Gora above the Arctic Circle.

Mr. Posnikov lives in a small, one-room house made of plywood. Nearby are several teepee-like structures for storage, as well as the smokehouse. Soon after the researchers' arrival, Posnikov threw new wood on his outdoor fire. ''This fire protects you here, it will make the wolves stay away,'' the elderly man said. He talked slowly, evenly, often pausing to mutter ''eh-heh,'' mannerisms, Fitzhugh noted, that are very similar to those of Eskimos across the Bering Strait, over 1,000 miles to the east.

As the group traveled north from Posnikov's camp, the vegetation changed from thick evergreen forest to barren Arctic tundra, harsh terrain where only sturdy little plants and lichens are able to survive winters with typical temperatures of around minus 60 degrees C (minus 76 degrees F).

In some areas this delicate ecosystem is being damaged. Near the Arctic coast the effects of gold mining along riverbeds were clearly visible. Of special concern to Fitzhugh was evidence that some archaeological sites are being plundered by people who sell artifacts on a growing black market.

Reaching the coast

The end of the line in Russia was near the Bering Strait in the town of Provideniya, named by 19th-century English whalers who found refuge in its well-protected harbor during a long, cold winter. Today, the town is a depressing legacy of the Soviet era, its skyline dominated by a coal-powered energy plant constantly spewing smoke.

Yet the team visited several sites in the surrounding inlets that had been inhabited in earlier ages. One has myriad grass-covered pits lined with rocks, where early inhabitants once stored meat and other provisions. Another remarkable site in the area was an early settlement the team chanced upon in a different inlet.

''Here we have a housing settlement which probably dates back 500 to 1,500 years,'' Fitzhugh said, standing next to a circle of lichen-covered rocks. ''All around here are food cache pits for meat, fish, whale blubber, all essentials those early dwellers needed to make it through the long, dark winters.''

As at many other locations, Fitzhugh had applied his standard formula: Find higher ground, seeking any mounds that might have served as foundations for houses or lookouts for hunters.

In the end, the expedition offered an introduction to a key area rather than direct answers to age-old questions. Yet Fitzhugh says that with this overview, he has a better idea of where to explore in the future. Even before the expedition was over, he was making plans to return this summer to remote Wrangel Island off the northeastern coast of Siberia. There, Russian scientists have found mammoth bones dating to about 3,500 years ago, a discovery that has countered the long-held belief that mammoths died out at least 10,000 years ago.

As for Haakanson, this spring will find him back among the reindeer-herding Nenets people in northwestern Siberia, travelling with them as they migrate north with the herds towards the green pastures of summer.

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