Prehistory: First Inhabitants
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Alaska Early History
First Early Inhabitants of Alaska
Early history examines the archaeological record that tells the story of the first inhabitants of Alaska. Learn about the prehistory and culture of the first early inhabitants, and what lessons it might teach us about the early history of Alaska.
- 35,000 - 10,000 years ago - The Glacial Period
During the last Ice Age, Alaska was covered by glacial ice. What is now the Bering Sea, separating Siberia from Alaska, was a wide and ice-free plain across which ancestral American Indians moved to North America, and then down the Pacific coast to the areas south of the ice sheets.
- 15,000 - 10,000 years ago - Shortly after the glaciers melted, the land looked very much as it does today, with caribou and muskoxen grazing the tundra, and walrus, seals, and whales - including bowhead whales - feeding in the channels between the Arctic islands. Indian hunters followed the migrating caribou northwards across the barren grounds, much as the Dene did in more recent times, but never reached the Arctic coast or islands.
- 10,000 - 5,000 years ago - North American Indians move northward to tree line with retreat of glaciers
- 5,000 - 4,000 years ago - Tuniit (Dorset Culture people) cross Bering Strait and move eastward
- 3,000 -2,000 years ago - South Bering Sea and North Pacific people became North Alaska Inuit
- 5,000 - 1,000 years ago - The Tuniit, or Dorset Culture
The first people to arrive were the Tuniit. The earliest Tuniit brought with them two items of technology which allowed them to quickly occupy arctic North America: the bow and arrow, which may have reached America for the first time in their hands, and finely tailored skin clothing similar to that still used by the Inuit and northern Siberian peoples. Until about 1,000 years ago, the Tuniit (or as archeologists call them, the Dorset Culture people) were the sole occupants of most of arctic Canada.
- 1,000 years ago - Thule (North Alaska Inuit) move eastward, displacing Tuniit .
- 1,000 - 500 years ago - Thule Culture
Inuit groups learned to hunt bowhead whales, the largest animals in the arctic seas. Large communities were established on points of land along the northern coast of Alaska, where whales could be easily hunted as they migrated through narrow leads in the spring ice. Then, about 1,000 years ago, some of these North Alaska Inuit spread rapidly eastwards across arctic Canada and Greenland, quickly displacing the previous Tuniit occupants of the region and establishing the first Inuit occupation of Nunavut.
- 500 years ago - Inuit and the Little Ice Age
Inuit culture in many parts of Nunavut underwent a significant change. Most regions of the High Arctic were abandoned, and many groups throughout the central portions of Nunavut gave up whaling and began to concentrate on hunting smaller sea mammals, caribou and fish.
Early History of Native Americans in Alalaka
The Indigenous People of Alaska
The first native inhabitants of the area now known as Alaska probably migrated from Siberia, part of what is now Russia, at the end of the last ice age ten to twelve thousand years ago. Although experts are unsure whether they traveled a land bridge or by boat, archeologists have found signs of different native groups dating back thousands of years in Alaska.
The Athabascan nations traveled throughout the vast inland in areas, surviving the difficult interior winters from the Brooks Range mountains east to the Yukon and south to the Kenai Peninsula. The Athabascans were made up of at least eleven subgroups, speaking different languages. The Athabascans were nomadic, traveling long distances in harsh conditions to hunt herds of caribou and moose, fish the rivers for plentiful salmon, and take advantage of Alaska's seasonal berries and plants.
Further north, the Inupiaks and Yupiks of St. Lawrence Island lived along the northern coast, hunting for seals and whales and surviving arctic winters on the frozen tundra. They also hunted polar bear and migrating caribou.
To the south along the coast lived the Yup'iks, and Cup'iks settled along the more western coastal areas north of the Aleutian islands. These people developed the uluaq (ulu) knife, a unique curve-bladed knife used to skin fish and game as well as chop and slice just about anything. Early examples of early stone bladed knives date back centuries. The modern, steel-bladed ulu knife is a favorite souvenir from Alaska today.
Many of these native groups survive today, forming 16% of Alaska's population and contributing their cultural heritage throughout Alaska. Be sure to find out more about them at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
The European exploration of Alaska began with the 1741 voyages of Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikoff to the Aleutian Islands, the coasts of the Gulf of Alaska, and southeastern Alaska. Bering died from scurvy later that winter on an island named after him, Bering Island.
Around this time the British, Spanish, and French were exploring the coast of Alaska. The unregulated exploitation of the fur resources by rival companies led to a depletion of accessible fur areas and the killing and enslavement of the peaceful Aleut natives. Consequently, this led to the chartering of the Russian American Company in 1799. Under its first manager, Alexander Baranov, which was a period of about 20 years, there was an order and systematic exploitation of the fur resources.
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