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Scientists Search for Siberia, Alaska Cultural Ties : Origins: Sixtenn-member Smithsonian team travels across the tundra, logging 1,898 miles and examining archeological sites.

December 17, 1995|RANDOLPH E. SCHMID | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — In village after village across the vast Siberian tundra, Sven Haakanson searched for America's oldest roots. But the people he met were more interested in his own.

Once the Siberians learned he was from Alaska, "they'd ask me about my culture . . . what it was like to be native in America," Haakanson said.

They were the same kinds of questions that he and other Smithsonian scientists were asking as they traveled along the route that brought the first people to North America.

The 16-member group of geologists, historians and anthropologists crammed into a pair of An-2 biplanes and spent August hopping across once-inaccessible lands to survey archeological sites. They logged 1,898 miles.

"We see this trip as a can opener" to future research, said William W. Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and developer of "Crossroads Alaska," a touring exhibit of the relationships between Alaskan and Siberian culture.

Fitzhugh hopes to do more research in the region formerly known as Yakutsk, now called Sakha.

"We see this as the real zone of cultural development for the arctic and possibly one of the routes for early Americans," he said, pointing out the region on a Russian map in his crowded museum office.

"We thought we had one culture in the early period in the Americas . . . but now in Alaska the work there has shown that there were at least two or three completely different cultures in the period between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago," Fitzhugh explained.

That "suggests that there is a lot more diversity in the origins of those groups. There must have been some groups who were Pacific-based; there must have been some groups who were Arctic Coast-based."

Native Americans are believed to have first crossed into Alaska between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago, but traces of the same culture go back much further in Siberia. In northern Russia, there are archeological sites dated from 35,000 years ago to as early as 65,000 years ago, he said, "so you have basically Neanderthals . . . we know there was pottery that was already in use 13,000 years ago.

You could compare this to Mideastern development very easily. So you have centers of major cultural development in this region that could supply lots of diverse culture to Alaska. We see very clear evidence of the migration of Asian people [to Alaska] and influence" there, he said.

But Fitzhugh put little stock in one claim that Siberia--instead of Africa--was the homeland of the original humans.

"There is a site reputed to be 4 million years old. There is a guy who claims this is the origin of civilization, not in the tropics, in the arctic," Fitzhugh said.

"He doesn't have a whole lot of professional support for that, but he has made a credible claim."

Fitzhugh's team visited the site, called Diring. "It didn't convince us, either. We saw the biggest hole I've ever seen," he said.

Fitzhugh worries that natives are selling archeological objects. "People are exploiting their sites and damaging their heritage."

Next year Fitzhugh is planning an expedition to Wrangel Island in the Chukchi Sea, off the northeast coast of Siberia, where 3,500-year-old mammoth bones have been discovered.

"We previously thought they went extinct . . . around 10,000 years ago," he said.

The 3,500-year-old find seems to have been isolated in a population on Wrangel.

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