A different kind of polar bear news story caught my eye this morning: “Funerary polar bear skulls may be returned to St. Lawrence Island.”
St. Lawrence Island, Alaska lies just south of the Bering Strait (see map below). It has strong historical ties to Russia but lies within US territory; it also lies within the “Chukchi Sea” polar bear subpopulation region.
The story I found talks of “hundreds of polar bear bones, mostly skulls” that had been excavated from ancient human graves on St. Lawrence Island between 1930 and 1960. Hundreds!
These polar bear skulls and other bones had been stored separately from the carved ivory artifacts and other goodies
plundered removed from graves (a formerly common practice). The museum in New York had only recently found them in storage and was preparing to return them, as the law now stipulates.
St. Lawrence Island is an important region for understanding the development of Inuit culture and the history of the Arctic. I could tell you a story about that (based on my peer-reviewed published papers) but I’ll save it for another long winter’s night.
However, my knowledge of the region meant I found the short online summary frustratingly devoid of detail, so I went a’Googling and found that a total of 376 polar bear skulls were involved. Worth the effort, I think – have a look.
[Update evening of December 12, 2013 – I’ve been mulling over in my mind all day whether using the word “looting” in my title (and in the text above, “plundered”) was warranted and decided in the end that it was perhaps not quite fair. To be sure, looting of graves and midden sites has occurred on a massive scale on St. Lawrence Island but Dr. Geist was doing archaeology as it was legally practiced in those days, and he did, on one occasion at least (see below), ask permission of relatives to remove items. Still, the people of St. Lawrence Island may well perceive all of the disturbance of their ancestors graves to be looting or plundering. So, I changed the “plundered” in the text to “removed” but left the title as I wrote it — as a reminder for readers to think about whether or not calling these actions “looting” is unfair.]