Ancient Alaskan Fuel Selectivity Strategies




Alaska; Birnirk; Denali; firewood; fuel; human behavioral ecology; Nuñamiut; principle of least effort; selectivity; Thule


In ancient Alaska, people allocated wood, bone, and oil for both fuel and non-fuel purposes, which required careful management. By examining these resources through the lens of human behavioral ecology (HBE) and the principle of least effort (PLE), we can understand fuel use—especially woody fuel use—from the standpoint of selectivity, wherein ancient people considered energetic output, handling costs, and state when choosing fuel sources. At any given site, some degree of firewood selectivity, ranging from complete indifference to marked discrimination, would have been most advantageous. Accordingly, ancient Alaskans at Cape Espenberg, Gerstle River, Hungry Fox, and Walakpa would have employed different fuel management strategies tailored according to their evolving needs. Results suggest that firewood indifference was more common, and that selectivity was advantageous only at longer-term occupations where fuel was abundant. Otherwise, proximity and handling costs trumped the benefits of taxon-specific selectivity, which is a strategy meant to confer desired combustion outcomes. Detecting when and where it was beneficial for ancient Alaskans to be selective grants insight into how they categorized fuel and adapted their fuel selection behaviors to fit particular circumstances. Moreover, the restrictions imposed by finite fuel availability have general implications for settlement patterns and mobility that may help trace ancient migration routes as hunter-gatherers leap-frogged from one fuel patch to another.