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They call me the bug lady

August 3, 2014

Bugs are a reality of Alaskan archaeology. They inspire fashions, as shown by the beautifully net-ornamented hats and shirts worn by archaeologists. They sometimes trigger dance movement from the part of diggers on which they land, mostly consisting of waving or vigorous tapping with the hand, often accompanied by a sound track of swear words. When excavating on dry and still days, it may be recommended to keep one’s mouth shut to avoid the swallowing of undesired protein. Indeed, archaeologists working on Eskimo sites are more than acquainted with mosquitoes and midges, but there are other bugs around them, at least here at Nunalleq. These are not flying and buzzing around their head, but rather buried beneath their feet.

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Ana, bug-fashion style

One of my roles in this project is to study the insects that are preserved in the archaeological layers that we are excavating. This requires the collection of samples of dirt from the site. For each stratigraphic layers excavated – whether it is a floor, a sod wall, midden or debris – one two-litre bag of sediment is kept to allow the analysis of small biological remains, such as seeds and insects. These samples are then shipped to the laboratory in Aberdeen, where I use a technique called ‘paraffin floatation’ to extract the insect remains. The method basically consists of using paraffin as a floating agent: because it preferably bonds to insect exoskeleton and is lighter than water, it allows insects to be separated from the rest of the organic matter that is present in the sediments.

I already had the chance to look at some of the samples that were collected during previous years at Nunalleq. What is exceptional about the site is the excellent state of preservation, which is of course enabled by the presence of discontinuous permafrost. I have found many different insects and other bugs at Nunalleq: some lived very close to the past occupants (human lice) and their domestic animals (dog lice), others were transported to the site along with resources, such as sods, plants, water and hunted and fished resources, or entered the sod buildings for shelter. These insects are interesting not only because they are there, but also because they have the potential to reveal minute details about the life of the people who lived at Nunalleq. A good example is the hundreds of human lice I recovered from just a few litres of sediment. While their presence is not surprising as lice were a reality of human life in the past across the world, they are very useful for the reconstruction of hygienic practices such as delousing. I also identified numerous specimens of dog-biting lice and a few bird fleas. Their study will help understand the relationship between people and animals at the site, for example by revealing details about how mammals and bird skins were processed in the past and how these compare to traditional techniques described in Yup’ik ethnography.

Some 400 years’ old insects recovered from the floors of sod houses at Nunalleq Some 400 years’ old insects recovered from the floors of sod houses at Nunalleq

Most external parasites, like lice and fleas, are rather fragile and may not always be recovered from archaeological sites. In fact, the insects most commonly found are beetles because their carapace is particularly tough. They are also present at Nunalleq. As beetles occupy all terrestrial and aquatic habitats and many species have narrow ecological and temperature requirements, I will use them to reconstruct past temperatures, indoor ecological conditions and activities at the site. However, in order to be able to do so, it is necessary for me to become familiar with the local beetle fauna as well as their ecological habitats. This is why I am conducting a survey of beetles around Nunalleq this August. Ana and James have helped me place pitfall traps, collect habitat data and try my cool nets this past week. They were also with me for the first ‘beetle harvest’ last Thursday and were thus able to witness my joy at finding a shiny green beetle in the first trap we emptied out and the many more that followed. The survey will continue for the next four weeks and I will keep you updated as we get to know Quinhagak and Nunalleq’s bugs better.

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A pitfall trap in the tundra

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The joy of the first catch!

Véro

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Luce Desjardins permalink
    August 3, 2014 19:04

    Whow le beau spécimen!
    Encore, d’autres Véronique

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  1. Travels and marvels of Nunalleq’s beetles | Nunalleq 2016

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