A huge, unusually shaped polar bear skull emerged in 2014 from an eroding archaeological site southwest of Utqiagvik.
It is so different from most modern polar bear skulls that scientists believe they have found the skull of the legendary ‘weasel bear’.
Aboriginal hunters from Arctic Canada have a couple of names for what they say is an extremely rare polar bear that is huge, narrow-bodied, fast-moving and lithe: “tiriarnaq” or “tigiaqpak,” meaning “weasel bear.”
Now the thawing and rapidly eroding Chukchi Sea coastal permafrost has produced evidence that one of these legendary weasel bears — or some other strange kind of bear — roamed Arctic Alaska centuries ago.
The ‘weasel bear’ skull
A huge, fully intact and unusually shaped polar bear skull emerged in 2014 from an eroding archaeological site about 13 miles southwest of Utqiaġvik (Barrow).
It is one of the biggest polar bear skulls ever found — and quite different from most modern polar bear skulls. It is slender, elongated in the back and has unusual structural features around the nasal area and other areas.
Through radiocarbon dating and subsequent analysis, Jensen and her colleagues estimate that the big bear skull — which appears to be the fourth largest ever found — is from a period between the years 670 and 800. It is possibly the oldest complete polar bear skull found in Alaska, inspiring a name for the departed creature that owned it: The Old One.
Exactly what accounts for its differences is yet to be determined; genetic testing is needed for that. It could have been a member of a subspecies or a member of a different “race” in genetic terms — similar to the varying breeds that are found among dogs — or possibly something else entirely.
Other archeological discoveries
The Old One’s skull was only one of several treasures newly found at the now-eroding site, which is called Walakpa and has been known to archaeologists for at least half a century.
The newly split-open bluff revealed another first-in-Alaska discovery – four mummified seals, naturally preserved in an old ice cellar. They are the only mummified seals ever discovered outside of Antarctica’s Dry Valley.
The excavated seal was much more modern than the polar-bear skull, dating back to only the mid-1940s.
Threats for the coming years of excavation
With open water present up to eight months of the year instead of two and with temperatures rising and shorelines crumbling, the threats to the archaeological sites are increasing exponentially. Sites are eroding at a rate that far outpaces the normal grant process used to secure funding for work, and some new emergency approach is probably warranted.