A Corporate Caribou Hunt

Documenting the Archaeology of Past Lifeways

By: Lewis R. Binford

Originally Published in 1991

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In seeking to understand the archaeological record, one of the most important conditioners of how well we infer a past and how accurate our inferences are is our naivete, or the scale of prior know­ledge we bring to the task. Late in the 1960s, while I was working with archaeological materials remaining from the ancient past, in particular the era of “Neanderthal man,” it became quite clear that my know­ledge of two very important areas was inadequate to enable me to phrase reasonable questions—in other words, to place in context the data that was available from the remote era between 45,000 and 120,000 years ago.

Faunal, pollen, and geological studies indicated that the Neander­thals had been living in Arctic-like environments in what is today the warm temperate setting of south-central France. I knew little about these environments, and this limited the direction of my thoughts re­garding what problems people had to solve in order to successfully inhabit this type of setting. Similarly, at the time of my initial research it was thought that the Neanderthals were regular hunters of large migra­tory game—in some eras, the Euro­pean reindeer, I knew very little about these animals and their be­havior in near-Arctic settings.

I chose to try to correct my acknowledged ignorance by study­ing one of the few remaining peoples who both lived in an Arctic setting and depended heavily on terrestrial migratory mammals, or big game. My goal in going to live with the Nunamiut in Alaska was thus two ­fold: (1) to learn what problems of both the environment and the orien­tation in subsistence had to be solved to render life secure, and (2) to docu­ment in as much detail as possible the archaeological record generated by an ethnographically known system of big-game hunters.

I did not expect that the Nunamiut would serve as a model for the Neanderthals, nor did I expect that the solutions worked out by them for success in hunting and survival in the Arctic would be the same as those worked out during the Paleo­lithic. I did hope, however, that understanding the problems that had to be solved, given the technological options available to the Nunamint and the culturally transmitted know­ledge to which they appealed in the execution of their adaptation, would permit me to postulate other solu­tions made by groups with a dif­ferent technology and perhaps dif­ferent knowledge and planning bases for behavior.

Nor did I study the Nunamiut simply to project them into the past; rather, I studied them to uncover certain general problem conditions presented by the environment and its subsistence potential that would have to be solved in some way to ensure successful adaptation. Simul­taneously, I wanted to thoroughly document, both ethnographically and archaeologically, the Nunamiut system itself, since similarities to and differences from other systems, whe­ther known ethnographically or ar­chaeologically, constitute some of our best clues for understanding the basis of the variety apparent among cultures.

The research conducted by myself and my students took place among the last regular hunters of large game, the Nunamiut Eskimo of north-central Alaska, between 19B9 and 1974 (Figs. 1, 2). The main goal was to links the dynamics of behavior with the static remains of this be­havior as seen by the archaeologist. An additional goal was to use the memories and folk stories of the Nunamiut to aid in identification of archaeological materials remaining from the eras prior to the use of guns to hunt caribou. After much study, our efforts were focused on Tulugak Lake (Fig. 3), which is the subject of a rich folklore referring to events in the lives of the ancestors of the contemporary Nunamiut. It is also an area covered with archaeological remains.

For the work described here, two old Eskimo men, Elijah Kakinya and Simon Paneak, were important sources of information. Both were born around the turn of the century, and their fathers had lived and hunted at Tulugak Lake during the last half of the 19th century. The story to be related here refers to a cooperative hunt in which the fathers of both of my informants had par­ticipated in the fall of 1892. When my informants were young men, they heard the story from their fathers many times. Thus, it is part of the “memory culture” of the Tulugak band of the Nunamiut Es­kimo. Both Elijah and Simon had participated in similar hunts in other locations as recently as 1946; how­ever, although neither was old enough to have taken part in the last communal hunt at Tulugak, many of the archaeological features could be identified confidently with the 1892 event and to the latter half of the 19th century in general.

Many of the stories told by the elders of this particular Nunamiut band have reference to the com­munal hunting of caribou, which often occurred in the fall in and around this lake. Success in this communal venture was essential to the lives of these people. The meal and other products from animals taken in these events were processed and stored, and were used to feed the entire group during the period from October to May of the fol­lowing year. What follows is a dis­cussion of some of the things we learned about the communal hunting of caribou during the late 19th century. We successfully identified many of the archaeological feature remaining from these events. Ob­taining this type of knowledge crucial to the growth of archaeology, sadly, as the generations pass, important oral histories also pass, ren­dering this type of work critical for all of us who have such opportunity to learn.

The ideal situation, like that whict occurred in September 1892 and described here, was for about families to be camped at Tulugal Lake some weeks prior to the anticipated fall migration of the caribou (Figs. 3, 4). These people moved here because they had confidence it the judgments of the umiatik or hunt leader and were therefore willing to invest their energy and time in an uncertain but potentially profitable venture. They had to arrive early it order to construct or repair the facilities needed to drive the caribou into the lake. A good hunt always included more than one plan; in the event one strategy failed, the grout was prepared to initiate an alternative strategy. Let’s explore what this means in terms of labor for the families camped at Tulugak Lake.

At Tulugal, the major stand of willows is north of the lake, so the caribou migrating south along the east side of the river cannot see the lake—they see only the willows (Fig. 5). Because caribou prefer to have a clear view in front of them, the organizers of the hunt could antici­pate that the caribou would avoid the willows by moving close to the hills, where the willow stand essen­tially disappears, or west of the willow stand, where the water table is regulated by the lake level and its north-flowing outlet, ensuring a waterlogged setting not conducive to the growth of willows.

The desirable situation from the Eskimo perspective was for the caribou to move around the west end of the willow stand because the lake, which is just south and east of this passage, would not be visible to the caribou until they moved around the willows (Fig. 5). If the animals moved in this fashion, it was very likely that they could be successfully driven into the lake.

A successful drive would depend on patience and several “if…then” plans that would have to be made before the hunt could be carried out. What do the Nunamiut have to do to improve the accuracy of their judg­ments? Unquestionably they need as much information as they can get, as early as possible. Thus, while the bulk of the labor force is setting up for the hunt at Tulugak, a number of younger hunters are camped some miles north, in places where they can see over vast areas and watch for the movement of animals.

Let’s imagine that they spot a large herd moving in the distinctive single-file pattern of fall migrations (see Fig. 9) on the west side of the Anaktuvuk River, well north of the lake. The spotters now have some very encouraging information, but the exact path the caribou will take is not yet known. Herds moving down the west side of the Anaktuvuk River (foreground, Fig. 5) could cross to the east before they get near Tulugak Lake, or they could con­tinue moving south on the opposite side of the river from where Tulugal Lake is located. In the latter case it would be impossible to drive them into the lake as planned. What are the probabilities?

There are fewer willows on the east side of the river north of Tulu­gak than there are on the west side. Caribou approaching from the north on the west side cannot see very far ahead; from a distance this area looks like a dense and continuous stand of willows (although it is in fact a large number of willow patches). The spotters are well aware that caribou not uncommonly cross the river to the higher and less-vegetated east side some miles north of this concentration of willows. They also know the places where the caribou are most likely to cross the river.

While one runner has gone to the camp at Tulugak to inform the working group that caribou have been spotted, the remaining spotters observe the southward movement of the herds along the west side of the valley with great interest. As soon as the runner arrives at the camp, word spreads rapidly. The people are anxious: the caribou have been sighted on the west side of the river! At this point the umialik may quickly confer with three or four trusted younger men, who position them­selves along the edge of the hills to the east and north of the willow stand at Tulugak. If the caribou do in fact cross to the east side of the river above the lake, these young men must make the caribou “ner­vous” enough to turn west on ap­proaching the willows at Tulugak and move through the chute be­tween the willow stands just north and west of Tulugak Lake rather than along the edge of the hills to the east of the lake. The men know what they are supposed to do, and their task is very important, as we shall see.

The umialik then runs northward, accompanied by the runner, who knows where the other spotters are located. The hunt leader brings along his small “shaman’s drum” (usually only about 15 inches in diameter). The Eskimo have a saying that “all men are shamans; some are just more powerful than others.” The umialik knows in detail the topography, landforms, and crossing places between the lake and the place where the herds were first spotted (Fig. 6). Part of the reason the umialik’s judgment is respected is because he is also considered a “better shaman” than most. He has power to influence the caribou. This power is demonstrated when he sings songs that have reference to conditions and experiences known only to him. His singing is accom­panied by the slow beating of his small drum. Depending on the par­ticulars of the shaman’s history of obtaining power, he may hold various amulets in his hand or strung through his fingers as he holds the uniquely carved handles of his small drum, or he may wear them under his clothes so their power is not “blown away to others.”

The umialik tries to position him­self on a high kame (Fig. 7), in direct view of the caribou but a relatively long distance away. Shamans have a number of different songs: Dome to “contact” the moving caribou, some to “attract” them, and some to “inform” them of their situation (e.g., they are moving toward wil­lows, or a good shallow crossing is located nearby). In this case the umialik hopes that the caribou will “respond” and begin moving toward the shallow river crossing, which would bring them to the east side of the river—exactly where the Eskimo need them to be for their coopera­tive labor to pay off.

At the first clear indication that the herds had “listened to the sha­man” and would cross the river, one of the younger spotters was dis­patched back to the camp at Tulu­gak Lake with the news that the umialik was indeed powerful and that the caribou were moving in the desired direction. When the caribou were in the river, the shaman sang his last song, which thanked the caribou for giving themselves up to the people’s needs. He then ran back to Tulugak to be sure the partici­pants were all in place and every­ thing was ready.

A number of roles had to be per­formed in different places if the driving of caribou into Tulugak Lake was to be successful. We have al­ready seen that several young men were positioned along the talus area north of the willows to influence the caribou to move around the willows and through the “chute.” In addition, a number of others were hidden on the flats between the lake and the river to frighten the caribou into the lake at just the right moment. A group of hunters (generally younger men noted for their kayaking skills) was concealed in kayaks along the eastern side of the lake, ready to take to the water once the main body of the herd had entered the lake (Figs. 3, 4). A number of per­sons, generally women and children, were hidden from view but were ready to run along the margins of the lake as needed to scare the swim­ming caribou and prevent them from exiting the lake. Finally, another person, the “dog man,” took all the dogs from the Eskimo camp at Tulugak to an agreed-upon spot south of the lake and as far from a caribou migration route as possible, where the dogs would be muffled (skin gags were tied in their mouths) and staked out at sufficient distances so they could not interact (Fig. 8). Dogs in the camp or near the lake could frighten the caribou in un­expected ways.

Before this narrative can be con­tinued, we must understand a major pattern of caribou behavior that the Eskimo take very seriously. During migration, caribou move in multiple herds, and those following the lead herd follow the spoor of the lead animals. Thus, the initial herd of migrating caribou is never hunted; it is allowed to pass the hunt location completely unmolested (Fig. 9). If the lead herd is scattered by foolish men or uncontrolled dogs, there is no way to predict the movements of the following herds. In this case the cooperative hunt is a failure, since the lead herd is never hunted.

In the Eskimo experience this pat­tern is very reliable; hence disruption of the pattern (which can occur) is very harmful to the reputation of a shaman since the failure of subse­quent herds to follow a lead herd is viewed as a response by the caribou to the power of the shaman. The caribou are thought to be volitionally rejecting the shaman’s power by withdrawing their cooperation with the people. Not only is the reputa­tion of the umialik damaged, the place where the urnialik failed is considered “negatively charged” and not a safe place to organize hunts for some years, until the negative power sensed by the caribou has faded away. It is these types of events that turn a “good” shaman into a “bad” shaman or a person who has negative powers: “they could have good or bad power—you can’t tell until you see what happens.”

Let’s return to the hunt. The cari­bou have crossed the river to the east side, as desired. They are moving south toward the willows just north of Tulugak Lake; as previously men­tioned, they can move around the willows either close to the mountains on the east end (trails shown south of willows, Fig. 3) or around the west end of the willow stand, which is exactly where the Eskimo would like the subsequent herds to be. The young men stationed along the talus slopes of the mountains north of the willows hope to encourage the herd to pass through the western chute just north of Tulugak Lake.

When the herd is within one-half mile of the willows, the drivers along the talus slopes begin moving in a slow pattern: they move their upper torsos in a circular, up-and-down motion, and they dip their heads as they lower their bodies. This motion is described as that of a female caribou calling its calf. These “rhyth­mic drivers” avoid all quick motion, and ideally their movements would be coordinated so the northernmost driver would move in the prescribed manner and then come to a sta­tionary position, at which time the driver next to him (separated by about 80 yards) would begin his movement, and when he finished the next driver would begin. This slow movement on the landscape is apt to make the caribou nervous, and the caribou will move away from it. If the caribou go around the willows to the west no further con­tact would be made with the lead herd. Since subsequent herds gener­ally follow the lead herd, the Eskimo could expect that the herds they intend to hunt would pass around the willows at the desired place.

While the “rhythmic drivers” are making their stow movements, other Eskimos would be concealed in the willows, watching the progress of the herd. Regardless of whether the lead herd moved east or west of the willows, no further attempts would be made to influence their behavior. The herd would be allowed to pass uncontacted. In the event described here, the “rhythmic drivers” failed to influence the herd, and it passed east of the willows along the talus slopes. The assembled Eskimos remained quiet and hidden until the last ani­mals had passed and were on the open areas to the south of the lake. Then there was intense activity since the umialik had organized the tabor force and prepared the inuqsuk (the “soldier rocks” shown in Figs. 3 and 10), which would be used to drive later herds into the lake. In addition, because the labor needed to drive the caribou into the lake from the edge of the talus on the east was considerably greater than that needed if they had entered the western chute, many more drivers, these known as “frantic,” were re­quired in different places. Days in advance of the spotting of the herds, a plan would have been devised and everyone would have practiced their parts in the activities to ensure suc­cess if the caribou took the eastern route.

This portion of the hunt is a time of uncertainty for the umialik since the appearance of the subsequent herds is the single assumption about caribou behavior that must be met if he is to remain an umialik. Herein we meet another pattern of caribou behavior: herds tend to follow one another with intervals of about 20 to 40 minutes between the passing of the last animals of one herd and the arrival of the lead animals of the next herd. Not surprisingly, the umialik behaves as a shaman during this crucial time. He goes to a special place just to the north of the willows, where boulders occur naturally. He watches for the anticipated herd and sings for the caribou with his most powerful songs, while beating his small drum in a crisp, continuous, slow, and unvarying rhythm. This particular place would have been prepared beforehand by the umialik; he would place amulets among the rocks and sing powerful songs each day for as many as 10 days before the spotting of the lead herd. This place is likely to have been used many times before by shamans about whom he learned when he was accumulating his knowledge from powerful men of older generations.

During the actual hunt, as long as the drum can be heard everyone knows they can still move about and get ready for the arrival of the second herd. When the umialik catches the first sight of the second herd approaching he abruptly stops drumming and moves quickly down from the kame and into the willows, where he takes his place as a “frantic driver” along the south side of the willows.

At this point everything seems to be going according to plan. The private tension of all participants was described as being almost un­bearable—tremendous inner excite­ment, yet not being able to move or make a sound. “Everyone is a little worried over the young ones; will they be good Eskimos and keep their feeling to themselves?” (Fig. 11). The children who could run well (more than 12 years old) were participants, the “little ones were in mother’s parka,” the ones in between were under the care of elderly women who remained in the tents during the crucial period.

The kayak hunters had moved from their hidden locations after the first herd had passed and were already out on the lake, spaced in an arc just south of the lake’s midpoint. A second group of drivers was in position along the west side of the lake, hidden from view. Their job was to keep the caribou from getting out of the lake on that side. Other members of the group lined the slopes of Long Rope Mountain (the northernmost hill on Fig. 3). A very athletic group of “frantic drivers” positioned themselves across the trail of the lead herd where it had turned south along the upper talus slopes of the mountains. Still another group of “frantic drivers” lined up along the south edge of the willows. Finally, a very important group waited be­tween the willows and a line of inuqsuk placed south of the willows to direct the caribou into the lake (Soldier Rocks in Spring Caribou Drive 3).

If the drivers can successfully divert the subsequent herd from the lead herd’s trail (the one in front of the hunting blinds, Fig. 3) along the talus slopes, the only path remaining where the caribou can see ahead of themselves will take them into the lake. The gap between the second stand of willows and the mountains is quite wide; hence, diverting the herd as they approach the turn in the trail established by the first herd is critical. (Keep in mind that the first herd did not turn aside and take one of the narrow chutes between the willow stands, which forced the umialik to resort to a backup stra­tegy.) To reduce the uncertainty, the drivers must frighten the herd when it is still between the willows and the mountain (near Caribou Drive 4 on Fig. 3). “If they are running they are less likely to change their direction; they will keep on going where they can see ahead of themselves.” You don’t want them running too fast too early, however; if they panic, they could “go anywhere.”

Once the drivers along the slopes of the mountain get the herd moving at a slow trot, it is up to the drivers across the open flats (between the talus slopes and the stream, along the line labeled (A) on Fig. 13) to panic the herd so they run toward the willows. Then the drivers in the willows move around and frantically wave skins, directing the herd back to the south between the inuqsuk (“all dressed up to look like people”; Fig. 10) and right into the lake. As soon as a good number are in the lake (herds range from 300 to 1200 animals), the people stationed on the west side of the lake get in position to discourage the animals from coming ashore while the kayaks move north from the center of the take, getting the animals to mill around in deep water. The drivers that were positioned in the willows run down to the outlet of the lake, because the shallow water in that area could enable the animals to get out “easy” or overturn the kayaks. All of the people now gathered along the north shore of the lake wave animal skins frantically to keep the caribou in the deep water.

The killing begins. Now almost everyone is around the lake shore, running back and forth to keep the animals confused and milling around in deep water. Animals approaching the shore might be shot by experi­enced bowman, but most are fright­ened back toward the center of the lake. Everything is now in the hands of the kayak hunters. Initially there is much yelling at the hunters and joyful laughs and shrieks when the hunters’ spears first find their mark. The young boys are particularly active, throwing rocks to keep the caribou in the lake, but all harbor the secret hope that they could kill one from the shore with a well-thrown rock. Shortly after the herd enters the lake the umialik and other elder men will pass the word for silence; some of the drivers have been sent north to watch for the arrival of other herds fallowing the spoor of the lead herd, and word has arrived that another herd is approaching.

Many of the men who served as drivers may then leave the lake shore armed with their powerful sinew-backed bows, going out to hunting blinds located along the southern route of the lead herd (Fig. 12). Others who had been designated beforehand would hide in positions across the area between the two willow stands. If the next herd, on rounding the first willow stand, should try to follow the spoor of the preceding herd, which had been successfully driven into the lake, they would be diverted aground the talus of Long Rope Mountain and thus encouraged to follow the trail of the lead herd. Regardless of the overall success of the killing then taking place in the lake, the Eskimo would know where the herds, which in some years could pass through for as many as fifteen days, would be most likely to travel in the days ahead.

Long before the first animals were sighted, the heads of each family had estimated their needs for the winter. Each household head knew how many caribou the family needed to have sufficient food until the spring migration (Fig. 14). Rarely did all the kayak hunters achieve their “quota,” since some were sure to be overturned or lose their spears or paddles in the confused melee of thrashing animals. In addition, some were more experienced and skillful than others. The hunters also had difficulty keeping track of the num­bers of animals they had killed. Some caribou thought to be dead were only stunned or wounded and might finally be killed by other hunters; these animals might be counted in two different hunters’ tallies.

For all practical purposes, the killing would stop when the umialik, in council with the elder household heads, judges from the shore that the kayak hunters are tired and hence more prone to accidents, or when the situation on the lake is particu­larly dangerous—an overturned kayak and a hunter struggling among the frantic animals, for example. Less common, but also possible, is the judgment that enough animals have been killed. At this point the umialik orders the runners and drivers to let the animals out of the lake. The hunters may not hear the “order” and may continue killing, but gradually the remaining animals begin to escape and only then may the hunters become aware of the fact that the word has been passed to “let them go.” The exciting time is over; now the work really begins. The water of the lake is red with blood and bobbing bodies of dead and dying animals. The kayakers must attach lines to the dead animals and begin the laborious task of towing them to shore, one by one (Fig. 15).

The only really gentle shore around Tulugak Lake is immediately north of the major stream that traverses the second willow stand. When the hunters arrive here they are mobbed by relatives and literally carried ashore. Younger brothers, brothers-in-law, or close friends take over the kayaks and continue the task of towing the animals to the beach. The hunters are dried by wives and admiring young boys, given dry clothes, and settled close to a fire, just back from the landing beach.

The animals killed by bowmen from the shore had already been taken to the butchering area just behind the landing beach some time before the kayak hunters had stopped killing. Thus, fresh meat is already roasting on the fires. The women are quick to give the choice pieces to the hunters, and the conver­sation around the fires begins. Com­mon stories include descriptions of times when kayaks were almost over­turned, when a particular big bull had not been “willing to die,” and most important, how many animals the individual bunters thought they had killed. As the sociality builds among the hunters and the young, the older female heads of households begin to turn their attention to the growing number of caribou car­casses piling up on the landing beach (Fig. 16).

I have chosen to stop the narrative of past events with the butchering of animals from this well-remembered “old-time” hunt. Of course, I col­lected additional information about the events that took place after the hunt and that are represented in the archaeological remains, including a feast and a hosting of visiting hunters who lived on the Noatuk River in western Alaska. The importance of the “memory culture” of the Nuna­miut, and its value to the archae­ologist, is clearly illustrated in the foregoing description.

In this example I have focused on only one aspect of my work with the Nunamiut: an attempt to links the dynamics of behavior and action with the static, structured archae­ological remains that survive for archaeologists to study. I was using the knowledge of behavior the Nuna­miut had to inform me about what was admittedly a rather confusing archaeological picture at Tulugak Lake. This example is simply an illustration of an archaeologist ad­dressing areas of his ignorance. What organized activities yield patterning in the archaeological record? How do different things—piles of rocks in one place; piles of caribou bones in another; and in yet another place, remains of tent bases or distributions of amulets unassociated with any of the above—implicate one another to yield a dynamic picture of past activities and organized systems of adaptation?

Archaeology is the science of the archaeological record. Insofar as that science is robust and is de­veloped with perceptive recognition of our ignorance, with regular and heavy research investments made to correct that ignorance, we may come close to, or even succeed in, making some accurate statements about the past when we make in­ferences from archaeological ob­servations.

Cite This Article

Binford, Lewis R.. "A Corporate Caribou Hunt." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 1 (March, 1991): -. Accessed February 29, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-corporate-caribou-hunt/

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