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Tigara and Ipiutak: Two Alaska Ghost Cities

by Bill Jones

    We walk along the surface between patches of tundra and gravel. We are close enough to the coast to see the sand dunes that block the view of the Chukchi Sea. Point Hope, the western-most point of North America, is within walking distance. From the village of Point Hope you look north over the Arctic Ocean, or southwest over the Chukchi Sea. The population of the village is 750, mostly Inupiaq Eskimo with some Caucasians who have chosen to live there. The buildings at Point Hope are mostly small wooden houses, but there are some modern buildings, built since the Prudhoe Bay oil fields opened to provide income to the arctic villages. Prudhoe Bay is far to the northeast, about 450 miles distant. This is a very isolated place.

    The Inupiaq have lived along the Arctic coast for some 3,000 years. They are the ice hunters who hunt seal far out on the sea ice. In the past they hunted whales when the ice floes separated from land during the summers. They made large floats from the stomach of whales and tied the floats to lines. Then when they harpooned a whale they used the floats to prevent the whale from sounding while it was dying. Once the whale ceased struggling the entire village population would go out on the ice and work to butcher the huge animal and bring the meat and bones to the village. This ancient way of life is gruesome to some, but we are carnivores and killing animals for food is still our mode of living. The killing part is just not as visible to us as it once was.

    Where we are is inland and a few feet higher in elevation than the village. There is hard earth here beneath the tundra. Sporadic bald spots are covered with sand and gravel. There are no trees or shrubs in sight, only the undulating growth of tundra to the east that gives away to sand and gravel toward the sea. It is a bleak place, windy and chilly in July. We see occasional bleached white bones lying about amongst the gravel, some partially buried and protruding from the earth. There are huge rib bones of whales and occasionally an even larger head or back bone.

    Then we see what we came for - evidence of an ancient city. Now just depressions in the earth, some are recognizable by their symmetrical shapes as being dug by man, but most are eroded by time. These are the remains of pit lodges where families once lived. There are hundreds of them scattered about over more than a square mile. There are many that show recent activity, re-shaped by excavation, neat square pits five to six feet deep. With closer inspection one can discern the ancient city's pattern, with avenues between the lodge pits.

    An archaeology team from the University of Alaska is busy with shovels, working at one edge of the place. Off to the side are a group of tents that they use for shelter. The bright colors of their clothing contrasts vividly with the bleak surroundings. Most summers they come to continue to study the ancient city of Ipiutak, professors and college students, pretty girls and husky guys, our next generation of archaeologists. The University's archaeology study has continued for several years. The present team will work for a few days to excavate another lodge pit, all eager to find some artifact left by the people who once lived there. But alas, none have yet been found. In a day or two the kids will return to their campus in Fairbanks.

    Unfortunately, the university's archaeology team has been thwarted in their efforts to find artifacts to date Ipiutak. They have estimated that the village consisted of at least 800 permanent pit lodges that were dug some 3-6000 years ago. Many artifacts have been found over the years, but all were left by succeeding waves of habitation by the Inupiaq people. The Inupiaq people have used the area over and over during the past few thousand years. Their usage has obliterated whatever artifacts that the older culture may have left behind.

    U of A has determined that Ipiutak was the home of a distinct culture of people who they named "The Ipiutak" people. Another smaller village named Tigara, where people lived some 1500 years ago, is nearby.

Speculation about the Ipiutak

Ipiutak poses a puzzling dilemma to archeology.

    The lack of artifacts makes the time line of its existence speculative. The hundreds of lodge pits comprise the only evidence of the Ipiutak peoples' existence. The size of the city is another puzzler. It is the largest settlement ever found to have existed in Alaska prior to the arrival of Europeans. Moreover, no other settlement even near its size existed across the expanse of Canada until that country was settled by Europeans.

    U of A archeologists are loath to speculate but they continue to search the site. It is a difficult site to explore for there are problems of digging through the frozen earth there. Their dating of the site is admittedly a guess. The Ipiutak could have been there thousands of years before.

    Now let us build a logical model of the Ipiutak town. More than three thousand years ago people along the arctic coast had little to use for building material. They had no lumber to make houses. The nearest trees were more than a hundred miles away across the Brooks mountains. The only durable material available to them were whale and walrus bones. Above-ground temporary lodges' frames could be made of whale ribs fashioned in the shape of a cone and covered with animal hides. But to withstand the severe winters they needed more protection from the elements than a hide wall tent would provide.

    The solution was to dig pits in the ground. Then they could tie whale ribs together to form a roof over the dugouts. Even that would have been a tough job, for a foot or two below the surface the earth is permafrost. Daily scraping and thawing of a pit in the earth a few inches each day would have required most of a summer to excavate a lodge pit.. Yet we know that pit lodges have been commonly discovered all around the northern coast of the continent, as well as the Aleutian islands. But, because of the time required to dig a pit, Ipiutak must have had as many tent lodges as permanent ones.

Cross section of a pit house as built in Alaska

    By the University's count there were some 800 lodge pits at the Ipiutak site. These were their permanent lodges. So, let us envision a city of some 1600 lodges of both types. And, we will estimate that each lodge housed a family of five. Then the Ipiutak town must have had a population of 8,000 people!

    Hardly anything is known about the Ipiutak people except that they existed there at least 3,000 years ago. Was this the only Ipiutak town? Well, the Ipiutak certainly were not roving bands. They had a culture that was sophisticated enough to cause them to coalesce into a very large community, larger than any arctic coastal village of either Alaska or Canada today. Such a culture does not develop in one place. There must have been other Ipiutak towns, many of them! But, where would they have been?

    Were the Ipiutak of an Eskimo culture? There is no evidence that they were or were not. We do know that the Inupiat and Inuit Eskimo cultures across Alaska and Canada have not ever coalesced into such large villages. Their village populations were more like 100-400. Furthermore, the food and clothing requirements for such a large population would have required more diversity of sources than ocean hunting would provide.

    The logical conclusion must be that the Ipiutak people were a wide based land hunter culture. Then, this large town must have been at the western edge of that culture's domain, situated there on the coast to add diversity of resources from the sea for the main population of the Ipiutak people who lived eastward in the Colville River valley. Click here to view a detailed map of the region, including Point Hope and the Colville River valley.

    The Colville valley is 400 miles long and 100 miles in breadth. The valley lies between the Brooks Mountains and the Kiana Ridge. The Kiana Ridge provides some protection from the high winds and storms present at the Arctic shores. This valley is the present summer home of Alaska's western arctic caribou herd. Each spring the caribou migrate here to give birth to their calves, then migrate south again in the fall. The Colville River has always been a very productive fishery. During the 1950s I fished the Colville at Umiat. One could not drop a fly or a lure into the waters without it being immediately hit by a fish. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in Alaska the valley had a high population of musk oxen and there was an abundance of other wild animals. So, everything needed for food and clothing for a large population was in abundance in the Colville valley.

    The Colville valley has not been populated during recent time, mainly because of insect density during the summers which makes human life untenable. The valley lies there undisturbed and almost unexplored over its 40,000 square mile region. No roads exist. Walking in is not feasible because of the insects. The only practical way into the valley is via helicopter. The only existing human habitation is on the far eastern edge near the sea at Umiat Yet there are signs of past life visible from the air in the Colville valley. During the 1950s and 1960s I often hedgehopped the Colville valley in USAF fighter airplanes. One can cover a wide area speeding along at 300 knots. Visible below were scattered small frames of bones which I believed at the time to be lodge frames. Were some of these the temporary lodges of the Ipiutak? Are there other ancient ghost towns of the Ipiutak people in the Colville valley covered by the tundra? Were the Ipiutak the ancient ancestors of Alaska's Athabascans? Why and when the Ipiutak culture became extinct, and who they were, are mysteries yet to be solved.

Links and Further Reading

F. G. Rainey -
The whale hunters of Tigara. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 41 (II), 1947.

Helge Larson and Froelich Rainey -
Ipiutak and the Arctic Whaling Culture. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 42, 1948.
Based on excavations by the authors at Point Hope, Alaska, in 1939, 1940 and 1941; includes 100 pages of photographs of items found.

Ernest S. Burch, Jr. -
The Traditional Eskimo Hunters of Point Hope, Alaska: 1800-1875 (North Slope Borough, 1981)

The First Americans
Dr. Norman Chance puts the Ipiutak culture into context.

University of Alaska - Fairbanks

Features & Maps by Bill Jones