Birnirk is the pre-Thule culture first identified by excavations in 1912 by Vilhjalmur Stefansson near Pt Barrow, Alaska. The first extensive description of the culture was by J. Aldon Mason based on University Museum, University of Pennsylvania collections acquired in 1919 from Kugusugaruk just south of Utkiavik (modern Barrow) by the school teacher William B. Van Valin.
The first fully scientific excavations of Birnirk materials at Barrow were made by James A. Ford in 1931 and 1932, but the publication was delayed until 1959. Other Birnirk sites were excavated in 1936 at Cape Prince of Wales by Henry Collins, in 1939 at Pt Hope by Helge Larsen and Froelich Rainey, in 1960
and 1961 at Cape Krusenstern by Louis Giddings, in 1968 at Walakpa by Dennis Stanford, and in 1970 and 1971 at the Kuk Site near Nome by John Bockstoce. Birnirk culture also appears to have existed along the northern coast of northeastern Asia as far west as the mouth of the Kolyma River in the East Siberian Sea, where in the early 1920s H.U. Sverdrup and later A.P. Okladnikov and N.A. Beregovaya located typical Birnirk objects in middens.
Birnirk settlements appear to have been rather small, with only one or two houses occupied at any one time. The houses themselves are also small and could not have been occupied by more than single families. Two forms of the houses have been noted, the more common with a relatively short entrance passage and a single side bench and the other with a long entrance passage and bench along the rear wall. Most of the houses lacked open fireplaces, and instead were lighted and heated by lamps. The physical type of Birnirk people, described in 1930 by Archaeology of the Arctic: Alaska and Beringia; Hrdlicka, is typical northern Eskimo.
Birnirk culture is characterized by a wide variety of objects that closely resemble implements of historic period Northwest Alaskan Eskimo culture, an indication that Birnirk, along with its successor Thule culture, is in the direct line of continuity into Inupiat (Inuit) culture. The long list of artifact types includes ice hunting equipment such as seal ice scratchers for attracting seals basking on the ice in spring, wound pins, and open water seal hunting equipment such as bladder floats. The characteristic sealing harpoon head type of Birnirk culture is self-pointed and open socketed, with a single lateral barb and an opposing chipped stone sideblade inset. The basal toggling spur is usually bifurcated or trifurcated. Another harpoon head form is the Sicco type, a variant of the unbarbed, endbladed Punuk-style harpoon head from St Lawrence and Punuk Islands.
Whether Birnirk people hunted whales or not is a subject of controversy. The settlements were too small to have permitted coordinated ice lead hunting with multiple crews, as the deemed prerequisite to successful whaling along the northwest Alaskan coast nowadays, but the presence in Birnirk of one whaling harpoon head from Barrow, a few triangular stone blades identical to those used for insetting into whaling harpoon heads from other sites, as well as whale effigies and baleen are difficult to explain if not related to whale hunting.
Birnirk is also characterized by the use of ground slate for knife and ulu blades and thick pottery with curvilinear stamped design.
Although Birnirk culture is clearly ancestral to Thule and historic period Inuit culture, its own origin is still a question. The stone tools from the Birnirk sites are derived stylistically from Ipiutak, an earlier northwestern Alaskan coastal and interior culture dating to the beginning of the Christian era, but the organic implements and pottery bear no relation to Ipiutak, nor do they relate closely to other earlier coastal Beringian or Arctic cultures such as found in Alaska, Chukchi Peninsula, St Lawrence Island, or Canada, except in very generalized ways. The best interpretation to date is that Birnirk developed so rapidly with the introduction of specialized ice hunting practices that traces of the unique aspects of the culture of its forebears were essentially overwhelmed by the new technology.
Douglas D. Anderson
See also HrdliJka, Ales; Ipiutak Culture; Larsen, Helge; Rainey, Froelich; Thule Culture
Ford, James A., Eskimo Prehistory in the Vicinity of Point
Barrow, Alaska, Anthropological Papers of the American
Museum of Natural History, New York, 1959
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