Window On The Frozen Past -- Tiny Body Offers Glimpse Of Inuit History; Erosion Threatens Archeologists; Efforts

Archaeology. A 6-year-old girl who lived more than 800 years ago in the northernmost parts of Alaska is enhancing our understanding of the human species. By examining her remains, which were discovered last year, researchers are trying to learn more about the cultural practices of the Inuit and how they lived. -----------------------------------------------------------------

What were we like before good manners, bad television, ceaseless advertising, the socialization of school, job pressures, family ties, political correctness and all the other things that go into our modern makeup? Strip away civilization, and what is truly human?

Scientists say our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have had short lives, even nasty ones. But not necessarily brutish.

At least that is one interpretation that could be made from the body of a 6-year-old Eskimo girl who lived 800 years ago and lay frozen until coastal erosion exposed her at Barrow, Alaska, in 1994.

The girl, nicknamed Agnaiyaaq, or "Young Girl," by the Inuit residents of the nation's northernmost city, was disabled, an autopsy showed. A genetic defect deprived her of a key enzyme and allowed her lungs to be destroyed by emphysema, robbing her of the ability to walk around.

Bryn Mawr College archaeologists Glenn Sheehan and Anne Jensen have concluded, however, that Agnaiyaaq was not abandoned on an ice floe, as stereotypes might suppose.

Her blackened lungs suggest she spent her short life by her mother's side at the cooking fire. Her worn teeth indicate she tried to earn her way by chewing on hides to soften them, a common practice by Eskimos.

Agnaiyaaq did not have a wheelchair, but she did have a small toboggan made of whale bone that she was buried with. Instead of being discarded, she was laid to rest in a cold cellar and wrapped in her fur parka.

"That means people took care of her throughout her life," said Sheehan. "And when she was found again, the Inuit still took care of her," carefully reburying her after the scientific autopsy, accompanied by letters from the present to the past written by Barrow schoolchildren.

This care in a harsh environment - clay, leather and fur in the girl's stomach also suggest she and her clan were starving at the time of her death - contrasts sharply with that of 1930s Germany, where Nazi propaganda films prepared citizens for the idea that the retarded and disabled should become the first victims of the Holocaust. Those Germans were gassed.

With her flesh still intact, Agnaiyaaq was the most well-preserved prehistoric human ever found in Alaska. This summer Sheehan, Jensen and a team of 20 students and volunteers found two additional skeletons at Point Franklin, a whaling village site 45 miles southwest of Barrow.

The details of that discovery must wait. The archaeologists have won the respect and support of Eskimo elders in Barrow and Wainwright by including them in dig planning and by sharing results with the communities before releasing them to the outside world. They will make a briefing to the Inuit in February.

Jensen said the scientists gave 38 talks and local interviews in one week around Barrow after Agnaiyaaq's discovery, and used local teenage help in the excavation. The pair quizzed the Inuit on what questions the natives would like archaeology to answer, interviewed elders on fast-fading survival skills and, in Jensen's words, treated the body "as a person, rather than as a thing."

The result has been a working relationship between scientists and natives on the North Slope which the National Science Foundation cites as a contrast with many digs around the world, where archaeologists have sometimes been perceived as callous grave robbers.

The relationship is important because much of the archaeological evidence of arctic Alaska - which extends as far back as 11,700 years - is rapidly disappearing on the coast, where sea erosion is devouring ancient whaling villages. As late as 1949, the village that had been abandoned at Point Franklin still consisted of 60 mounds marking home sites. Today, three are left.

Archaeologists want to probe what is left before it is lost to the waves.

The mysteries of ancient lifestyles drive them. If prehistoric Eskimos cared for their disabled, they also warred on each other. One theory, Sheehan said, is that the Point Franklin village of 300 to 600 people was founded by refugees from chronic combat, possibly as early as 1200.

Warfare may also have forced the temporary abandonment of the site, called Pingasagruk, about 1700. Then, in 1871, when 31 American whaling ships were crushed in the pack ice, settlers came back to retrieve the debris washing ashore. By 1920, however, the last resident of Point Franklin had died.

Sam Fry of Olympia is a retired Foreign Service officer who accompanied the archaeological team to Point Franklin this summer as an "Earth Watch" volunteer. He spent his first night standing polar-bear watch with a shotgun: A bear had mauled a tent the year before. Wind was constant, rain was frequent and the only toilet was the nearby tideflat.

Yet Fry gladly paid for the chance to help dig. "I've had a lifetime fascination with the ability of people in the Arctic to create a culture in an environment most whites were unable to cope with," he explained. "I'm amazed at how, using driftwood and bone and whale oil, they could do all these things before any Western influence."

The archaeologists found one skeleton in a tunnel to the sod, wood and whalebone houses, and another from a body that apparently had been placed on a roof. Their story is still unclear.

Items that might rot in a warmer climate have been preserved, including old meat, furs and baskets. Fry helped wrap 2,000 bags of artifacts from a single house. "The wind can be blowing, the rain can be coming down, but the work itself is almost like a surgeon's," he said. "A couple centimeters can make a difference."

Electronic grid lines have replaced stakes and string, allowing archaeologists to enter an artifact's position in a computer and create a three-dimensional picture of a dig as it unfolds.

Plenty of mystery still shrouds the past. Point Franklin probably was established when a climate shift opened leads in nearby ice and allowed whaling, but the relationship between climate and history is still being reconstructed.

Also unclear is whether Agnaiyaaq's apparent starvation was rare or common before civilization. Many ancient bones show halts in growth called Harris lines that may be evidence of frequent famine, but growth also can halt because of infection, stress or weariness, Sheehan cautioned. "And there's no question that some individuals or families may have faced hard times in the midst of plenty," he warned.

Scientists probe these mysteries because they shed light on the essential us, and they are not unmoved when rediscovering the details of lives centuries or millennia in the past.

When the archaeologists uncovered Agnaiyaaq, they expected an adult. "The first thing we saw was a little foot sticking out," recalled Sheehan. "It was just the size of my 6-year-old daughter's foot."