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UMass Amherst Professor To Lead Team Researching "Last Great Arctic Mystery"

 Aerial picture of Thule Air Base in Greenland
Public Domain
Aerial picture of Thule Air Base in Greenland

A professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst will lead a team of researchers to explore how humans survived in the harsh conditions of northern Greenland thousands of years ago. The four-year project is receiving a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Ray Bradley, a professor of geosciences at UMass Amherst, about the work.

Bradley: Well we're trying to understand how the climate in the very high Arctic has changed over time, and how that might have impacted the first arrival of people who migrated into the extreme environments of northern Greenland. We're trying to put the present day in the long-term perspective, how have things changed.

Levulis: And how will you go about conducting that research? What sort of information will you be looking at?

Bradley: So one of the things we tried to find is an archive, sort of a natural history that's preserved in the landscape. And one of the ways we do that is to look at sediments at the bottom of lakes. Sediments accumulate in lakes, and they carry with them all sorts of information about the environment in the area around the lake. And so we take sediment cores from the bottom of the lake, and then we analyze them for a whole bunch of different properties. So for example, in many areas, we might look at pollen from vegetation. Or we might look at the organisms that were living in the lake, diatoms and other organisms that might be affected by in the case of the Arctic, the amount of ice on the lake. And in this case, we can also look at sedimentary DNA that is preserved from both plants and animals that were living around the lake and that material eventually washed into the lake in the rivers and streams. So we take sort of a multi proxy, multivariate analysis of different types of information and try to build up a picture of how the environment changed over time. And of course as time progressed, the sediments build up in the bottom of the lake. So when we take a core of sediment from the lake, where we're looking back in time, and trying to reconstruct the history as we go further, further back down the sediment core.

Levulis: And in describing this research, this effort here, it's being called the “last great Arctic mystery” – discovering how humans settled and survived in northern Greenland about 4,500 years ago, beginning. So as it pertains to this mystery, what do we know about the mystery so far?

Bradley: We don't know very much as a matter of fact. You know, if you go back, let's say six or seven thousands years, much of the Arctic, Canadian Arctic, and northern Greenland even, were covered by ice. And it's only around perhaps 5,000 years ago, 5,500 years ago, that people spreading out from Alaska started to occupy the different parts of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. And they spread very rapidly. They migrated all the way across the Canadian Arctic into northern Greenland, and all the way south, down the coast of Labrador and also down the west coast to Greenland. So there's very rapid expansion of people who traveled basically on foot over the sea ice, carrying all their possessions living with the Stone Age technology. And in the case of northern Greenland, this first arrival of people was around 4,500 years ago. Now, bear in mind, this is a brutal environment, it gets down to minus 40 or even lower in the winter. It's dark for four or five months of the year. It's really very, very hard to survive in that environment. But they did. They survived in the very northern most limits of Greenland, even north of the big Greenland ice sheet. And they seem to have lived largely on musk oxen, these big buffalo-like animals that lived up there. Reindeer or caribou, and probably also seals and marine mammals that they caught. But then after a short period of time, a few hundred years, they completely disappeared. And then the area was apparently completely abandoned. And then later on they came back or another group of people came back. And they lived up there successfully in northern Greenland for a while. And then they too disappeared. So there were these progressive waves or successive waves of people who arrived in the area and then abandoned it. And the question we posed is, what on earth was it like when they first got up there? Was it very different from the environment today? And why did they abandon the area repeatedly? Did the climate change? Was it much more difficult? Did the animals migrate that they were living on? So those are the kinds of great mysteries that we described as the last great mystery to try and understand what happened.

Levulis: How might understanding how humans survived in that region thousands of years ago, be applicable to today or for future generations?

Bradley: Well, we thought about that. Of course today nobody's living up there. It’s far, far north of the northern most settlements in Greenland. And even today, people in these coastal areas in northern Greenland have a hard time surviving. And so we thought that by trying to understand how people survived in the past, this might provide some pride and some inspiration for the people living in Greenland today and people living in the Canadian Arctic, the Inuit, to try and understand something about their ancestors, and how they were able to deal with the great difficulties that they faced, and also how they responded to the challenges of changing climate. So that's what we're trying to, as I said earlier, put the present in the context of the past and provide some insight for the people who are living in the Arctic today.

Levulis: And when will you and your team be going to northern Greenland?

Bradley: Well, we plan to go next year. We still have a lot of planning to do. Whether we can go early in the season, maybe in May, or later in July is an open question at this point. It's a very difficult place to get to, you have to charter aircraft and move the aircraft into that region. There's no commercial flights, you have to fly by Twin Otter on what are called tundra tires and land on off strip or on skis and land on the lake ice or sea ice or go by helicopter. And that requires even more planning because you have to get fuel placed in the area for helicopters. So it's really complicated. And that's going to be our main task for the next few months is to plan that out.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org