From the bookshelf

Humanity's trip to Alaska explained

Posted: Thursday, April 21, 2005

A Prehistory of the North: Human Settlement of the Higher Latitudes

By John F. Hoffecker

Published by Rutgers University Press

245 pages


$29.95 (softcover)

Contemplating the high arctic today, with its oil camps and whaling villages, it is hard to believe that its human residents originated in the tropics on the other side of the globe. Yet scientists overwhelmingly support that "Out of Africa" theory.

Archeologist John F. Hoffecker, a University of Alaska graduate now at the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, has written "A Prehistory of the North" to explain our species' remarkable odyssey.

The story he tells serves as preamble to all of Alaska's history.

Hoffecker opens the book a thousand years ago in Greenland. In a dramatic historical coincidence, Viking pioneers moving west from Europe encountered Inuit pioneers moving east from the Canadian archipelago. Unbeknownst to them, their clash was both the preview of the coming struggle over the Americas and the culmination of tens of thousands of years of human expansion into the north.

"This book is about the settlement of cold places," he writes in his first chapter. "It is primarily an attempt to explain how humans achieved each successive advance into the middle and higher latitudes."

His explanation involves vast swathes of time, space and interdisciplinary scientific inquiry. Pulling together research on climate, culture and physiology as well as archeology, he takes us back millions of years to the shadowy origins of hominid primates and works forward to the present exploitation of the polar frontier.

Hoffecker dispels the notion that people gradually drifted into remote regions. Instead he describes waves of advance and retreat, driven by climate fluctuations and technological advances. With each breakthrough and opportunity, the genus "Homo" pushed into new territory, often with amazing speed.

"The dispersal of modern humans out of Africa was an event remarkable not only in hominid evolution but in earth history," he writes. "At least among the vertebrates, no single species is known to have colonized so many diverse environments in such a brief interval of time."

Hoffecker, who has worked at digs in Europe, Russia and Alaska, serves up provocative ideas about the fundamental definitions of humanity and about ways our species came to thrive in places so alien to our biology.

Upright posture, he contends, set our primitive forbearers on the path to becoming human. The ability to use symbolic language gave modern humans the key to ruling the world. And in order to survive in the frigid, infertile lands of the far north, early people needed the female technology of sewing plus a special partner — the domestic dog.

The author, and the people he describes, do not reach Alaska until the last two chapters of the book. Although brief, his explanation of the distinct waves of settlement creating modern circumpolar Native traditions is particularly compelling.

And although the book's title uses the term "prehistory," he includes a section on the Cold War's remote, arctic settlements as the final word on the move north.

Hoffecker addresses readers outside his specialty, stripping out technical jargon and compressing his vast topic into 150 pages. For those who want more details, the last 100 pages of the volume contain detailed footnotes and a wide-ranging bibliography.

The book's comprehensive scope is both a strength and a weakness.

To someone with a background in the subject, "A Prehistory of the North" is a convenient and thorough over-view. Its language is clear enough for a non-scientist to follow, but those outside archeology will find the text challenging. It contains so much material that the reader can get lost in a blizzard of information about australopithecines, the Upper Pleniglacial, the Gravettians and the Ipiutak people, to name just a few. This book gives the impression that each section could be expanded into a tome of its own.

Maps, illustrations of artifacts and charts showing ancient climate trends are helpful, but they leave many questions unanswered. More summary material and timelines showing the events discussed would have been helpful.

"A Prehistory of the North" is a solid look at a complex and fascinating topic, told with authority and clarity. In this case, however, "solid" also implies high density.

This is not a book for casual dabbling, but for serious readers curious about the topic, it provides a rich trove of images, ideas and information.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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