One of the most mysterious ‘lost cities’ on the American continent is not in its Southern but in its Northern hemisphere. Even more baffling, it is in the region that is the most hostile to human life on this planet—inside the Arctic Circle, called Ipiutak.
Ipiutak is near Point Hope, on the north coast of Alaska. It is on a vast, treeless tundra which is permanently frozen. One polar explorer described it as “a land of icebergs, water and cold blue sky.” Winter is virtually all year long.
Based on the artifacts that were being examined and the accomplishments of the Ipiutak people were being evaluated that another question arose—if they were different from other Arctic tribes, it was unlikely that they were the descendants of local inhabitants. So where did they come from and why did they abandoned their city?
Ipiutak is an A̳n̳c̳i̳e̳n̳t̳ metropolis in northern Alaska that is the type site for a culture also called Ipiutak, dominant from 500 BCE to 1000 CE. It was discovered (or rediscovered) in 1939 by an expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in New York and led by Helge Eyvin Larsen and Froelich Gladstone Rainey.
Both had previously published papers on the Arctic whale hunting culture and were acknowledged experts on the archaeology of North Alaska. They found a city that had been home to several thousand Inupiat Eskimos at least 3,000 years ago.
There were no trees within a hundred miles and no building materials were available except the bones of walruses and whales. The only way of establishing a permanent community was to dig and this they did—six feet at least—so that the earth could provide insulation against the biting cold. This was by no means an easy task, for after digging only a few inches the permafrost is encountered— soil frozen solid all year round.
While this tedious and lengthy construction process was under way, temporary shelters were essential and these were built by tying whale ribs together and covering them with animal skins to form a tented roof.
A University of Alaska archaeology team counted over 800 of the permanent “pit lodges” at Ipiutak and estimated that at least the same number of “tent lodges” would have been built. These lodges were all neatly lined up with avenues between the rows. This means that at the time it was found, Ipiutak was larger than Fairbanks and by far the largest settlement ever found to have existed in Alaska prior to the arrival of Europeans.
It was even bigger than any arctic coastal village in Alaska or Canada today. The town of Ipiutak must have been home to more than 8,000 people. Seals and walrus were their principal source of food and were hunted with harpoons from the edge of the ice. Bows and arrows were used for the hunting of caribou.
Ipiutak was a community that was sophisticated enough to be static and this in turn means a widely based land hunter culture. These characteristics make it completely different from other Arctic communities. Ipiutak’s level of advancement was quickly evident as excavation expanded as rapidly as Arctic conditions permitted. Its people had a knowledge of mathematics and astronomy at least as advanced as the A̳n̳c̳i̳e̳n̳t̳ Mayas.
Beautiful ivory carvings, unlike those of any other known Eskimo or other American Indian culture, were discovered. Tombs were found containing skeletons with artificial eyeballs carved of ivory and inlaid with jet. Brooches, necklaces and pendants carved from whalebone displayed similar artistic ability while numerous tools and implements show practical applications as well as being of intelligent design.
For most of the 20th century, archaeologists and anthropologists assumed that the forebears of Native Americans had crossed from Asia to America over a “land bridge,” following herds of game animals. The close proximity of the two continents at the Bering Strait—which separate Siberia and Alaska—was a favored hypothesis. It was reinforced by increasing knowledge of the Ice Ages, as the idea of an exposed ocean floor between those two regions provided a perfect migration path from the Old World to the New World.
Vitus Bering, Danish-born but a captain in the Russian Navy, crossed the strait in 1728 and it was named after him. Today, it is 58 miles at the closest point between the easternmost point of the Asian continent and the westernmost point of the American continent. Winter storms are frequent and the sea is covered by ice fields as much as five feet thick. Even in mid-summer, drift ice is common in the strait.
Later during the 20th century, other routes were being proposed as the means by which migrants entered the Americas from Asia, but very recent research by Dr. Scott Elias at the Colorado Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research has established, as far as orthodox scholarship is concerned, the validity of the Bering land bridge route.
This brings up the critical questions— how often do Ice Ages occur and when was the most recent? There have been, it is believed, four Ice Ages in the last million years. The last reached its peak 10,000 years ago and ended 8,000 years ago.
The work of Dr. Elias and his team included carbon dating to establish that plants and animals were on the land bridge about 11,000 years ago. It probably had a similar terrain to that of Northern Alaska today, birch and willow trees and clumps of sedges (resembling grass but with solid rather than hollow stems).
It had no glaciers because although it was cold enough, the regional climate was too dry and glaciers cannot form without moisture. Perhaps, living conditions on the Asian side deteriorated and emigrating represented an escape. Perhaps—as far as the humans were concerned—it was the desire to finder greener pastures, and possibly animals followed their route.
Equally plausible is the possibility that animals, mainly elk, bison and caribou, took the route after their herds had consumed what little vegetation was present on the Asiatic side. Men could have followed them as their meat supply moved east.
In March 2006, two adventurers crossed the Bering Strait from east to west on foot by walking across a frozen section where the distance is 56 miles and the perilous journey took them 15 days. They were an Englishman, Karl Bushby and a Frenchman, Dimitri Kieffer—and upon arrival, they were arrested for not entering Russia through a border control station!
Eleven thousand years ago, the denizens of Northern Siberia were undoubtedly tougher than humans today and being accustomed to living in Arctic conditions, they could have made the crossing faster. Animals might have taken longer, lacking a human compulsion and having no curiosity as to their destination.
But then, as far as we know, the humans knew nothing of the existence of continents although they could have had an awareness that a strait that used to be water was now land.
Point Hope, the location of the Ipiutak village, is about 400 miles north of the narrowest section of the Bering Strait so the crossings of the migrants could have been longer in distance than that taken by the two modern adventurers.
Another consideration is that by staying close to the shore of the land bridge, the migrants could have had access to fish and game to sustain their journey. This would have enabled them to have taken longer for the crossing.
Some of the excavations of Russian archaeologists in the Amur River district in Northern Siberia have revealed the remains of a number of prehistoric settlements very similar to Ipiutak. The climate in that region is just as hostile as in Northern Alaska, yet evidence has been found of large Paleolithic, Neolithic and even Bronze Age populations.
A further connection with the Asian continent has been identified in that the decorative carvings of the Ipiutak resemble those from North C̳h̳i̳n̳a̳ 3,000 years ago, while other carvings resembled those of the Ainu peoples of Japan.
The conclusion was that the people of Ipiutak had a material culture far more elaborate and imaginative than that found elsewhere in the Arctic. When knowledge of a region’s earlier history is lacking, it can often be helpful to review the mythology of its past.
The philosopher, Will Durant, says in The Story of Civilization, “Immense volumes have been written to expound our knowledge and conceal our ignorance of primitive man. Primitive cultures were not necessarily the ancestors of our own—for all we know they may be the degenerate remnants of higher cultures that decayed when human leadership moved in, in the wake of the ice.” This profound thought may well be an explanation of the lost cities of the Arctic.
Most authorities have no doubt that Ipiutak is but the first of many ‘lost’ cities to be found. Another, lost city, Tigara, has already been identified and but for the extremely short portion of the year when excavation of the frozen land is possible, a string of other names would have already have been added—and with them, more details and information on their talented, imaginative and determined peoples.
Much remains to be learned about Ipiutak. There are two reasons for this—one is that it was discovered only fifty years ago, the second is that the bitter Arctic conditions make the work agonizingly slow. As a result, archaeologists have far more questions than answers regarding this enigmatic frozen city.
The archaeologists have strong evidence for believing that they know where the Ipiutak people came from, but still don’t know the answer to the question—where did they go? If they went south, they would have been in a less severe climate and remains would surely have been found by now that could be linked with the city near Point Hope.
It is possible that they went east and in this case, discoveries may be made in the future in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Wherever the Ipiutak went, their advanced culture will be identifiable and that may even lead to an answer to the next inevitable question, why did they go?