Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Building Beringian Bridges

The light blue areas represent the contemporary continents of Eurasia (left) and N. America. The tan area represents Beringia, the land mass revealed when sea levels dropped during the last ice age. Scientists think Beringia allowed plants and animals to migrate from Asia into N. America. Image by National Park Service.

During the last North American ice age, the continents of Eurasia and North America were united by a land bridge called Beringia. Only about 1000 miles from north to south, the now submerged land bridge allowed plants, animals, and humans to migrate between Siberia and Alaska. Many believe that the first humans to populate North America travelled this path from Asia around 15,000 years ago or so.  

In the spirit of this common Eurasian heritage, the annual Beringia Days International Conference unites Russian and American government and non-governmental organization officials, Native leaders, scientists, students, tourism developers, members of the public and native peoples from Alaska and Russia’s Chukotka province. During the three-day event, participants summarize progress on projects funded by the National Park Service’s (NPS) Shared Beringian Heritage Program and discuss topics and concerns common to the Beringia region.  

This year, about 30 Americans were invited to attend the program in Chukotka, including NPS regional head Sue Masica and NSF-funded scientists Peter Schweitzer, Andrew Kliskey and Sveta Yamin-Pasternak, all of U Alaska Fairbanks; and Nikolay Shiklomanov (George Washington U) and Fritz Nelson (U of Delaware). Our own Tom Quinn (who manages PFS support for researchers working in Russia) also attended the conference.  

The delegation assembled in Nome, Alaska, and flew over to Anadyr, Chukotka, one of Russia’s most isolated and remote regions. Given the shroud of mystery that often veils this region to outsiders, the next few days were both celebratory and highly enlightening, Tom reported.  

“It was fascinating to explore how the cultures of Beringia are alike and also how they are strikingly different,” Tom said. “For example, Sveta, an ethnologist who studies the traditions surrounding the history, harvest and consumption of wild mushrooms among the various ethnic groups in the region, talked about how mushrooms are celebrated on the Alaskan side of the Bering Strait, but hated and feared as ‘devils ears’ on the Chukotkan side.  

“I was able to talk with Chukotkan support providers and officials with whom I interact via email or telephone, but whom I rarely am able to meet in person when trying to secure permissions and support for NSF researchers who want to work in the region. It was really helpful to talk with them and gain a better sense of some of their constraints.”    

The conference coincided with Festival Ergav, Chukotkan for “Let’s Have Fun.” Conference attendees were treated to traditional dances and music.

Two days of presentations on research and planning for future projects were followed by a day of cultural demonstrations by native peoples from the Chukotka region. These included song and dance performances. “The demonstrations were very traditional and you could feel the reverence for past generations,” Tom said.