UAF Professor coauthors study in Science magazine

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The collection of bones and tools from which the infant’s tooth was discovered sat in a museum in Copenhagen for nearly 70 years. Photo Credit: Jeff Rasic National Park Service

 

UAF researcher co-authors study about first Americans

UAF Professor of  Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Dr. Matt Wooller’s isotopic analysis of a 9,000-year-old tooth was published in Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the country.

Wooller’s work allowed insight as to the diets of some of the first inhabitants of Alaska based on a nearly-forgotten artifact from a cave on the Seward Peninsula. His work led to a counter-intuitive finding.

“The site is surrounded by ocean and yet what we found chemically in the tooth was signatures that were more consistent with a terrestrial-based sources of food compared with marine sources despite marine resources surrounding the site,” he said.

Wooller said that this finding was particularly puzzling considering that the only other known site of these people, whom archaeologists call the Ancient Beringians, is in Interior Alaska on the Upward Sun site on the Tanana River. Paradoxically, those isotopic analyses showed a strong preponderance of marine food sources.

“Of course salmon are anadromous, so they are bringing marine nutrients into Interior Alaska,” he explained, “That’s how we reconcile that, is that those people had access to in close proximity with the Tanana River where today we have salmon.”

The site at which the tooth was found is located near Deering, Alaska in an area that is now inhabited by Inupiat Eskimos. Dr. Wooller and his colleague Dr. Jeff Rasic, who works with the National Park Service, said that they worked closely with the Deering Tribal Council to make sure that the research on the human remains was conducted with local input, which Rasic says can be a sensitive subject.

“We formally met with the IRA Tribal Council and raised the different possibilities for research with the collection and gauged their interests and input and objections,” said Rasic, “And they had none. They were curious to learn about their site more.”

The story of how the tooth was found stretches across decades and continents. According to Rasic of the National Park Service, the tooth was unknowingly excavated at a well-known cave at a site called Trail Creek back in 1949 by a Danish archeologist, Helge Larsen. Larsen brought the artifacts, which were mostly caribou and small mammal bones, back to Denmark, where they sat until 2012. In that year, a German graduate student conducted a thorough analysis of the bones and for the first time discovered an infant deciduous human tooth among the remains. That was when Rasic heard about the find, and he decided to investigate on a previously-planned trip to Copenhagen. 

“I brought the tooth to the attention of the ancient DNA specialist. It happened that one of the leading DNA labs in the world–and there are very few of these–happened to be in Copenhagen, so it was a very easy connection to make,” said Rasic.

The DNA analysis revealed that the tooth was indeed related to the oldest known inhabitants of Alaska, known as the Ancient Beringians, a term which was only coined in 2017 by another UAF archeologist, Dr. Ben Potter, who found cremated remains at the Upward Sun Site. That DNA showed only a distant relationship to the Native American lineage dating back to 35,000 years ago. Potter thus surmised that the Ancient Beringian lineage had died out while the Native Americans went on to colonize the rest of North and South America.

Pieces of the tooth were sent out to other laboratories for analysis across the world, including to Oxford, England where direct dating was done. A small portion was also sent to UAF for the isotopic analysis.

“The tooth is gone, there is one small fragment that we retained, but between the dating and DNA analysis that consumed the bulk of it,” he said, “We were very thoughtful, I think about that. We knew upfront that this was a very rare specimen and we were careful to squeeze every little bit of information from that tooth out of it.”

While the tooth no longer exists, Rasic says that scientists made high-resolution photographs of the tooth, and made a 3D copy of it so that future researchers can continue analysis. 

So are these the first ever Americans? “It looks that way,” says Rasic. “These are the earliest Alaskans and the earliest Alaskans are the earliest American.”

Still, he cautions not to read too much into this most recent analysis. “More finds, more analysis could change the picture,” he says, “We’re dealing with a sample size of just two Ancient Beringians, but each of those samples points to other relationships.”




Indigenous Peoples Day at UAF

UAF Hosts 2nd Annual Indigenous Peoples Day

Gwich’in elder Luke Titus gives a blessing at Troth Yeddha’ Park, the future site of an indigenous studies center.

The University of Alaska held day-long celebrations for Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday, October 8th with guest performers from around the community and a visit from the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska.

“There was a time that this university reflected a society that was not particularly embracing of or understanding of or even welcoming of Alaska’s First Peoples and other races, and that has changed powerfully as society has changed,” said Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallot, a Tlingit from Yakutat in an interview with the Sun Star.

The day began with an invocation ceremony that was shortened by the cold temperatures that left the twenty or so spectators shivering as they circled up around the grass at Troth Yeddha’ Park on West Ridge.

After delivering the invocation in Gwich’in, Vice Chancellor of Rural and Native Education Evon Peter announced new funding goal.

“Our number one fundraising priority for the university is getting Troth Yeddha’ built,” he said, referring to the planned indigenous studies center. Troth Yeddha’s architectural plan was completed in 2014 by a renowned national architect, but lack of funding has stalled construction since then.

At the invocation, Gwich’in elder Luke Titus recounted a story of growing up in his home village of Minto, 60 miles down the Tanana River from Fairbanks. He recounted waking up in an unheated cabin on days much colder than Monday’s 20 degrees.

“Who in the heck would wanna get outta bed when its -30, or -40 outside?” he joked, “My uncle taught me to do those things without complaining.”

Celebrants walk from Troth Yeddha’ Park to the Wood Center on Monday Morning

Titus said his uncle would wake him on those cold morning and he would pretend to be sleeping, but eventually was forced to go outside to “run out,” for a morning jog. He was supposed to go to a certain tree a ways down the trail and come back to the cabin. One day his uncle caught him turning around before his tree.

“In life you can’t take shortcuts,” he said, “In life you are going all the way, and if you try to cut off, you’ll get caught like that.”  

After the 10am invocation, celebrants walked down to the Wood Center for an impromptu dance performance that redirected traffic through the side stairs.

Alaska Governor Bill Walker signed the bill establishing indigenous peoples day in July of 2017. That makes Alaska one of only two states to recognize the day, which was formerly celebrated in Alaska as Columbus Day.

Dancers Julian Thibedeau, Evon Peter, and Travis Cole perform an Athabaskan dance at the Wood Center

Julian Thibedeau, a second year student in Rural Development and a member of the Troth Yeddha’ drumming group at UAF, echoed Mallot’s optimism about the progress the university has made in recognizing indigenous heritage.

“It’s huge,” he said referring to the celebration, “When we ignore the facts of the origins of our country–and don’t get me wrong, American has done a lot of good, and stands for a lot of good things–but it’s huge for the university to acknowledge us. It doesn’t fix all the wrongs.”

He said that he sees reasons for optimism elsewhere too.

“Not just at the university but around Indian country there’s progress being made,” he said.




Celebrated Ceramics Artist Patti Warashina Visits UAF

Patti Warashina explains her creative process at a presentation on Wednesday

Patti Warashina, an iconic Japanese-American ceramics artist from Seattle, visited Fairbanks last week for a workshop sponsored by the UAF Students Ceramics Arts Guild.

“When the Ceramics Guild proposed Patti I said, ‘No way, she’s too big of a star!’ ” said the Faculty Adviser for the guild, Jim Brashear, in introducing Warashina, “But she was super excited to come up.”

Brashear said that Warashina is considered a pioneering iconoclast in a movement of ceramics called California Funk that evolved from a hyper-masculine ceramics styles of the 50s and 60s.

“California Funk started looking at mold making: Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and that kind of shit, that was considered kitschy,” said Brashear, “Patti was one of the first successful artists to come out of that and she was the first successful female [ceramics] artists.”

Warashina hosted a public two-day workshop at the UAF ceramics studio as well as giving a presentation about her work that was attended by about forty people. The 78-year old Warashina talked about her wide-ranging influences–from the religious fragmentation of the Japanese American community she observed during her upbringing in Spokane, to her flower garden and King Tut– that have inspired her art over her iconoclastic 50-year career. While a lot of her recent work has included political commentary, she says she hasn’t let it get her down.

“My work is so happy,” she said.

Warashina says that she never tried to make explicit feminist commentary, but that it was taken as such.

Despite her trailblazing achievements, Warashina said she usually wasn’t trying to make feminist statements, but that they came out naturally from influences she was feeling.

One of her earlier pieces entitled “Clothesline Robbery,” portrays a naked woman smiling ebulliently from atop a car towing the scraps of a run-over clothesline. “I wasn’t consciously doing it as a women’s thing, but because of the timing it was taken as such,” she said.

In another example of her light-hearted irreverence, Warashina talked about her portrayal of her then-husband sitting atop a rat in “A Procession.” “My husband asked, ‘Why’d you do that to me?!’ I said, ‘It’s my work, I can do what I want.”

Despite her age, Warashina said that she continues to work in the studio and sleep only a few hours per night.

“I cat nap, but I sleep for two hours and then I’ll wake up and I just gotta read something,” she said, “But I still love going into the studio, and I feel bad when I don’t go in.”

Zoey Hensley, a sophomore art student, attended the workshops and said she was interested in Warashina’s entry into pottery.

“She talked about what was popular when she started was these large, macho, pots, and she started using things that were considered kitschy,” said Hensley.

Hensley said that she has never run into the barriers of being a woman that Patti described from her early career.

“She got picked on a lot,” said Hensley, ”I haven’t had any problems with gender issues, and thinking about what she did is so much more impressive.”




UAF Hosts Ceremony to Inaugurate new Combined Heat and Power Plant

Tents erected for Wednesday’s event at the former site of the UAF Greenhouse, which was dismantled to make way for the new Combined Heat & Power Plant.

About 200 people celebrated the near-completion of the nation’s first coal-fired power plant in a decade at UAF with a ceremonial flip of a switch last Wednesday, August 29. The event included speeches from a state Senator and the President of Usibelli Coal Mine, which has long supplied coal to the university power plant. 

“I thought a lot about what this means to the university,” said UA President Jim Johnson, who also spoke at the celebration, “It means the merging of state of the art technology and responsible natural resource development.”

The event also included a ceremonial switch-flipping event, though the plant is not expected to be fully operational until the end of November. Currently, the different systems are being tested independently.

Though the event on Wednesday was celebratory, UAF Public Information Officer Marmian Grimes acknowledged some mixed feelings about building a coal power plant at a time when about 27 such plants have closed since 2017, according to the Sierra Club.

“We certainly recognize that this is unusual to be building a new coal plant in late 2015,” she said in a phone interview, “but for Fairbanks, and for the university, that option made the most sense from the economic, logistical and even an environmental standpoint. The new plant does greatly reduce emissions.”

Guests at Wednesday’s event listen and learn about the new plant.

The 9-story power plant uses a circulating fluidized-bed technology, a more efficient industry standard, instead of the Atkinson Power Plant’s stoker boiler, a technology that dates back to the 1890s. Project engineer Piotr Sawka estimated that the new boiler would use about 20% less coal per unit of electricity produced.

Particulate emissions, which are a major health concern in winter in Fairbanks, will be reduced by an estimated 45%, according to the project website, as will other contaminants such as sulfur dioxide.

“This plant is designed to have the lowest emissions of any plant in the US,” said Scott Bell, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Facilities Services. It also is permitted to run on up to 15% biomass, though so far the university has not found a reliable source, according to Grimes. It also has the potential to be retrofitted to burn more than that, or, with a little more invested, be converted to natural gas, should it become more cheaply available.

Construction teams broke ground on the project in early 2014, but the origins date back to December 11, 1998, when a pipe from one of the coal-fired boilers burst, shattering windows in the plant and shuttering electricity and heat to buildings across campus. Power wasn’t restored for 12 hours, but the incident stoked Mike Ruckhaus, a Senior Project Manager along with Utilities Director Chilkoot Ward to begin investigating alternatives to the old Atkinson plant that was nearing the end of its planned 50-year operational life.

Ruckhaus showed off his commemorative t-shirt from the time at Wednesday’s ceremony, which read “Where were you when the lights went out?”

Speakers on Wednesday elaborated its ability to secure the $245 million in funding in a time of tight budgets, though they acknowledged the project was not without hiccups. A major one occurred when Ruckhaus and his team were working on a comprehensive project estimate and realized that they were about $50 million over their $245 million budget. By slashing the administrative room from the plan and leaving the room designed to house the biomass turbine empty, the administrators were able to cut the costs back to within the original estimate.

“You can’t do those things because I sit here and tell somebody to do that,” said Ruckhaus “there has to be a level of cooperation.”

While the mood Wednesday was of celebratory students and faculty interviewed by the Sun Star had mixed emotions about the plant.  

“It’s a pretty impressive structure–it’s huge and state of the art!” said Sherjeel Cheema, an Electrical Engineering Sr. who interned at Chugach Electric in Anchorage last summer and was at Wednesday’s event, “Of course you always want the greenest technology and the cleanest fuel, but in Fairbanks coal is the only fuel that is economical.”

The new plant is linked to the old Atkinson Power Plant through an elevated tunnel, allowing workers easy access to between the plants.

Computer Science professor Jonathan Metzger brushed off any criticism of the plant. “It [coal] is more efficient than it’s ever been,” he said, “It’s not like you can put wind up here–I don’t think anyone wants to build a nuclear power plant up here!”

Wenshi Fraser, a civil engineering Junior, was more critical and expressed an interest in seeing more investment in renewable energy. “I like that it’s fitted for other options,” she said, referring to the potential to retrofit the plant to burn more biofuel or natural gas, “But it is what it is.”

Fraser said that although she found the building to be an eyesore each day when she walks from her residency at the Sustainable Village, she has come to appreciate it for a paradoxical reason. 

“I like that it’s right in front of you so that people can decide what they want their future to look like,” she said, ‘It is a good reminder since it is right in front of you every time you come onto campus.”