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Pioneers in the Northern Circumpolar Areas

“Arctic Natural climate and environmental changes and human adaptation: from Science to Public Awareness” is one of Norway’s three flagship projects for the International Polar Year.

Archaeology and geology researchers from the University of Tromsø will contribute to the project together with a national team of researchers from around the country.

Archaeology professor Hans Peter Blankholm is looking forward to this interdisciplinary collaboration.

“I believe it’s fantastic that we, together with the geologists, can contribute to solving some of the puzzles of the past,” says Professor Blankholm. “From an archaeological stand point, we will carry out research on the Northern Circumpolar Areas in the period soon after the last Ice Age, which was around 10,000 years ago. We will look at how people who lived here during the Stone Age related to water, the sea, ice and temperature change.”

Where did they come from?

Professor Blankholm says the objective of this comprehensive research project is to create new models and scenarios about how the early settlement in Northern Circumpolar Areas took place.

“Most people believe the earliest human settlement in the High North came from the south, but some hypotheses are exploring the possibility that they also came from the east,” he says.

“There are also many hypotheses about how and why people came so far north. One reason can be that they followed their reindeer northwards. The early settlers also had a very strong connection with the marine environment and they utilised the marine resources well.”

Climate research among people of the Stone Age

What Professor Blankholm does know is that the move occurred very rapidly. In archaeological terms, that means that relatively large populations moved in the space of 500 to 1000 years.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a better chronological breakdown than that and, as such, we allow some tolerance with the notion of time. What we hope to achieve through this flagship project is a better chronological breakdown with the assistance of the geologists’ work.”

“Among other things, the geologists can tell us in detail about the change process in the area which occurred with the ice’s recession. They can help us to bring to light for example a 50-year cold period. After that, we will be able to go in and look at what significance a 50-year period with cold summers had for the population.”

Optimal in the north

Professor Blankholm looks with astonishment at many of the archaeologists’ and public’s marginalisation of the High North. He is often asked what on earth could have lead to human settlement in such isolated, cold and apparently unproductive areas.

“The archaeological discipline has been directed by western culture which has seen the High North as somewhat mystical. But there must be a good reason as to why humans moved here so rapidly after the Ice Age. I believe that the living conditions up here were optimal at that time, and that it must have been absolutely fantastic for these people to be here.”

He expands on this by noting that the population which remained in southern Scandinavia had to contend with a totally new type of natural landscape with new animal and plant species and a totally new way of living. Those who migrated northwards followed well-known animals and living patterns.

Mankind as a whole

It is unknown whether the pioneers who settled here stayed in fixed territories, says Professor Blankholm. “We will look at the dynamics in human migration which lead to the population of regions like Northern Norway. Several population groups probably moved into the area, but we are unsure who these groups were.”

“As far back in time as we are looking, it is difficult to talk about specific ethnic groups or about how the pioneers viewed themselves or others.”

He believes it is important to be aware that a possible nationalistic or ethnocentric attitude in the archaeology may exist.

“Archaeology should contribute to gaining an understanding of mankind as a whole – how we as human beings have related to each other and our natural environments. The long-time perspective in archaeology provides us a unique starting point for this,” says Professor Blankholm, adding: “These relationships require us to assist with the dissemination of information to the public and politicians and, as such, I am extremely happy that this project will contribute to educating research journalists.”

Karen Marie Christensen | alfa
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