Ancient polar bear skulls looted from Bering Sea graves to be returned

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.

St Lawrence island wikipedia marked

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.]

Here’s the meat of the original summary I found, which is a transcript of a radio news story [by A.R. MacArthur, Nome; December 10, 2013 with an audio link].

For over 80 years, hundreds of polar bear skulls from St. Lawrence Island have been sitting in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Now, under NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the artifacts may be returning to the tribe that buried them.

Between the 1930’s and 1950’s Dr. Otto Geist—who was at the time affiliated with the University of Alaska Fairbanks— excavated hundreds of animal bones, mostly polar bear skulls, from human burial sites on St. Lawrence Island.

The oldest artifacts, according to a notice by the National Park Service, date from about 200 B.C. to 500 A.D and derive from the Old Bering Sea culture of the island. Many bones were taken from the grave of the hunter and whaler Kawarin [sic]. The remaining bones were extracted from the Kukulik Eskimo burial mound.” [my bold, links added]

It turns out this story is based on a much longer report contained in a recent issue of the Federal Register (for December 3, 2013; links and pdfs below).

The “hundreds” of polar bear bones are actually 376 skulls: 89 skulls were recovered from the grave of a hunter named Kowarin who died in 1910 and was buried near the village of Gambell, and another 287 skulls from the so-called “Kukulik” prehistoric burial mound, which is four miles east of the village of Savoonga.

Quotes from the Federal Register report, with maps supplied by me, are below.

Kowarin’s grave goods [FR report, pg. 72712]

Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Google Maps.

Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Google Maps.

On an unknown date in 1947 or prior to 1947, 89 polar bear skulls were collected by, or under the authority of, Dr. Otto Geist, whose affiliation was then reported as the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. These items were accessioned by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY (AMNH), in 1947.

AMNH catalog records indicate that these remains were collected from “Cape Chibulak.” An examination of records at the AMNH in 2011 led officials there to conclude that “most, if not all of the remains from Cape Chibulak came from the grave of Kowarin.

Additional records at the AMNH indicate that these remains were removed from the surface of the grave of “a hunter, Kowarin,” which Geist reports was located “on the sandspit just above the rim of the freshwater lake at Cape Chibulak,” near the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, AK.

Dr. Geist also reported in his records that he collected “polar bear, reindeer and dog skulls” from this burial location. The AMNH does not have any of the reindeer remains. Geist’s surviving correspondence at the AMNH reports that Kowarin was a “Siberian Yuit, whose sons Booshy, Otiyohok, Koonuka and Okinilloo are quite old but still living [in 1947].”

Dr. Geist also reported that the grave of Kowarin had been “ransacked” for “souvenirs” and that his remains had been removed. Dr. Geist recorded that “after considerable consultation I was permitted to remove all of the specimens” with the son Otiyohok helping him remove “all of the skulls.”

Records at the AMNH indicate that at least one box of polar bear remains that were removed from this gravesite were received by the AMNH. Further, one polar bear skull has the name “Kowarin” written on the skull.

Officials of the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] Alaska State Office have determined that:

  • Pursuant to 25 U.S.C. 3001(3)(B), the 89 items described above are reasonably believed to have been placed with or near the individual human remains of “Kowarin” (Quwaaren) at the time of his death in the 1910s or later as part of the death rite or ceremony; the remains of Quwaaren are not in the possession or control of the BLM Alaska State Office; and the items can be identified, by a preponderance of the evidence, as related to the human remains of Quwaaren, a Native American Individual.
  • Pursuant to 25 U.S.C. 3005(a)(5)(A), known living descendants of Quwaaren on St. Lawrence Island and elsewhere are the direct lineal descendant of the individual who was buried with these objects.

Kukulik/Savoonga grave remains [FR report, pg 72711]

Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Google Maps.

Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Google Maps.

Between 1931 and 1932, 86 partial sets of polar bear skulls were removed from the vicinity of the “Kukulik” Eskimo burial mound (also spelled “Kookoolik”), about four miles east of the village of Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island, AK.

Surviving records report that at least one skull was recovered from a depth of “3 feet and nine inches, but on clay bottom, associated with objects of the Old Bering Sea culture.”

The excavation was done by, or under authority of, Dr. Otto Geist, who was affiliated with the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (today called the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, AK). No human remains or other items are known to have been removed during this excavation. At an unknown date after 1932, these polar bear skulls were sent to the American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY (AMNH).

In 1957, one partial polar bear skull was removed from the vicinity of the same “Kukulik” Eskimo burial mound (also spelled “Kookoolik”), about four miles east of the village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, AK.

The excavation was done by, or under authority of, Dr. Otto Geist, whose affiliation was then reported as the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, AK. No human remains or other items are known to have been removed during this excavation. At an unknown date after 1957, this polar bear skull was sent to the AMNH.

Between 1931 and 1947, 204 partial sets of animal bones were likely removed from the vicinity of human burials on St. Lawrence Island, AK, by Dr. Otto Geist or under his authority.

The 204 partial sets of animal remains include 200 partial polar bear skulls, two dog skulls, and two post cranial dog skeletons lacking skulls. Between 1931 and 1947, these animal bones were sent to the AMNH.

Dr. Geist’s records at the AMNH state that some of the polar bear skulls came from surface contexts and others from subsurface contexts. As no records identify the specific provenience for each specimen, the exact numbers of surface-collected and subsurface-collected specimens are unknown.

Of the 291 [87 plus 200 polar bear skulls – 287 total – plus two dog skulls and two dog skeletons without skulls] sets of animal bones listed in this notice, those found on the surface are approximately one or two centuries old. If they were any older, natural erosion from freeze-thaw action and consumption by animals would have destroyed them.

The specimens found in buried contexts, including at least one partial polar bear skull was found at a depth of three feet and nine inches below the surface, may reasonably be connected to the Old Bering Sea culture of the region, and date from about 200 B.C. to 500 A.D.

Ethnohistorical and genetic data indicate a continuity of cultural occupation of St. Lawrence Island from at approximately 300 A.D. to the present.

Historical accounts and oral tradition presented by representatives of the Native Village of Gambell and the Native Village of Savoonga support this evidence for occupation, as well as the custom of placing polar bear skulls and dog remains at or near human graves.

Based on the provenience, type, and condition of the animal remains, they are directly associated with Native American inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island. Descendants of these inhabitants are members of the Native Village of Gambell and the Native Village of Savoonga, who have made a joint request for these animal bones. [my bold]

The inclusion of polar bear skulls as grave goods in ancient and not-so-ancient burials by the people of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea speaks to the issue raised in my last post: the Inuit tradition of polar bear hunting and the importance of polar bears to Inuit culture.

Skulls and/or bones of animals included as grave goods indicates the importance of the animals’ spirit to the culture: for example, dogs have been buried with people almost as long as dogs have existed as a distinct species, in all parts of the world and in a wide variety of cultures. Polar bear skulls included in burials (or added after) almost certainly indicates the importance of the polar bear spirit to these people.

I don’t recall a practice like this in the Canadian Arctic — I’ll have to look into it further. But at the very least, this report gives me information to add to my list of “Ancient polar bear remains of the world,” which I hope to get to after the holidays.

See two previous posts on similar subjects:
The extirpated polar bears of St. Matthew Island spent five months on land during the summer [St. Matthew is just south of St. Lawrence Island]

“The ancient polar bear hunters of Zhokhov Island, Siberia”

References
Federal Register, Vol. 78, No. 232. December 3, 2013. Pages 72710-72711 (on 291 bones recovered from Kukulik, near Savoonga) https://federalregister.gov/a/2013-28913
Federal Register, Vol. 78, No. 232. December 3, 2013. Pages 72711-72712 (on the 89 bones recovered from Kowarin’s grave) https://federalregister.gov/a/2013-28918

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