Whalebone Alley: the Antiquities of the Seniavin Strait Islands deals with the description and analysis of several historical relies in this northernmost corner of the Pacific immediately south of the Bering Strait, but mostly with a unique monument of a forgotten sea-mammal hunting civilization constructed of bowhead whale mandibles and skulls.
particular monument, called "Whalebone Alley," was discovered by the
authors in the summer of 1976 in Siqlluq Bay on the northern shore of
Yttygran Island. Detailed investigations conducted that year, 1977,
and 1979 determined that the monument is composed of the following
Most probably, Whalebone Alley was specifically designed as the site for such rituals, even though all the literature of ethnography fails to reconstruct the rituals once held there. On the whole, Whalebone Alley looks like an enormously large construction (for Arctic conditions) with a complicated and highly symmetrical composition. A monument of this kind could not be built in an unplanned, spontaneous and gradual way, but had to be constructed according to a single plan, consuming great amounts of labor. In this respect it can be compared to the largest burial mounds of the Eurasian steppes or to the megalithic complexes of Southeast Asia or Western Europe. In its scale it is unique for the whole Arctic region.
Radiocarbon dating of the bones from Whalebone Alley placed in the 17th century. Allowing for contamination by ground water, however, the authors prefer to date the monument in the Final Punuk period, that is from the 13th to the 14th centuries.
They conjecture that the rituals which were conducted at this huge sanctuary were of an esoteric nature. They were possibly carried out once per year or per several years and were accompanied by feasts. There is a probability that the participants were mostly or exclusively adult males from a number of territorial or social groups. The most probable organizational framework for such ceremonial activities might be a secret society of men. Institutions of this kind were known among the Aleuts, the Eskimos of Southeastern Alaska, and the Northwestern Indians.
The authors state that many features of the Old Bering Sea culture, which is ancestral to the Punuk culture, find their closest parallels not among the modern Eskimo, but among the Aleuts and the Indians of the Northwest Coast. There is also considerable archeological evidence that the ancient Asiatic society possessed a much more complicated system of social stratification and organization than is known to have existed among 18th-19th-century Eskimos.
The most natural units forming the reunion gathering at Whalebone Alley could have been umiak crews. The number of crews possible corresponded to the number of skull groups, about 15, which would make a total number of slightly over 100 participants representing a number of villages. The union of these villages might have embraced a rather vast territory, from Cape Chaplin in the south to Mechigmen Bay in the north, taking the form of a secret male society, with its ritual and symbolic center at Whalebone Alley.
The factors responsible for the decay of this complicated social system were most probably connected with the general decline of the Punuk culture, caused by the deterioration of the climatic and ecological environment of the Arctic sea hunting cultures of the 14th and 15th centuries.