February 16, 2009

Alaska Natives = "ingenious inventors"

Alaska Natives thrived before the coming of the white man

COMPASS:  Other points of viewHomo sapiens have lived and prospered in Alaska for at least 10,000 years. Very resourceful people had advanced cultures and economies here when Europeans were huddling in caves drawing on the walls with burnt sticks.

It is easy for those of us from non-indigenous stock to assume that humans accomplished nothing of significance here before 1747. Most of our attitude is benign ignorance mixed with some cultural hubris. My purpose is to dispel some of the ignorance and engender more respect as we go forward.

Houses: Alaska's Arctic Native people evolved semi subterranean houses thousands of years before the hippies made earth houses popular in the 1960s. These houses had insulation several feet thick with "arctic entries" to keep out the wind and the vapor barrier on the inside. (Modern house designers did not figure this stuff out until the last 50 years.)

Tools: Alaska's indigenous people are ingenious inventors and very open to borrowing technology from all sources. They developed the toggle head harpoon, braided ropes, and inflatable buoys that made the hunting of marine mammals possible. The famed "Japanese" current brings anything that floats across the North Pacific and often deposits the flotsam and jetsam onto Alaska's coasts. Alaska Natives scavenged the iron and made axes, spear and arrow heads, saws, chisels, drills, knives. They called them "gifts from the sea." Early Alaskans developed laminated recurve bows as fine as any in Europe or Asia. They increased the range of their spears with "attalas," throwing sticks.

Great boats: In the north, Alaska's Native people developed boats that met three criteria. The boat's frame could be built from local trees, bushes and driftwood. The covering was from animal skins. And the completed boat was man-portable and could be dragged across the land or ice.

Now, thousands of years later, no one has improved upon the design and shape of the kayak. There is simply no other vessel in history or in the world that is so capable of taking one to three people safely out to sea. And these boats are fast and easily driven.
Comment:  Think about this a moment. Were any non-Natives living in polar regions more inventive than Alaskan (or Canadian) Natives? Hmm...no, I don't think so.

The only non-Natives who were more inventive were the ones with more natural resources and advantages to work with. Which is the point of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, of course. And the point of The Myth of Western Superiority, my take on the subject.

For more on the subject, see Eskimos:  The Ultimate Aborigines.

Below:  The traditional American view of Alaska Natives.

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