Friday, March 29, 2019

Hrdlička’s Alaska diary

Alois (later Aleš) Hrdlička, a pioneer of North American anthropology and evolution studies, was born 150 years ago today. While curator of physical anthropology at the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian) he undertook many field studies, amassing a large amount of data on the migration of man to the New World. In his later years, his expeditions were mostly focused on Alaska, and his attempts to show how humans had arrived in North America via the Bering Strait. The very last book he published in his lifetime was, in fact, a collection of diary entries from these Alaska trips.

Hrdlička was born on 29 March 1869 in Humpolec, Bohemia (today in Czech Republic), roughly halfway between Prague and Brno. In 1882, he emigrated with his father to New York; other family members followed later. Hrdlička worked in a cigar factory to finance his studies at night school. Aged 19, he contracted typhoid, and by luck was attended by a Doctor M. Rosenbleuth who also subsequently helped him gain attendance to the Eclectic Medical College of the City of New York. Graduating with the highest grades in 1892, he began to practise medicine for several organisations on the East Side, but at the same time continued his studies at the Homeopathic Medical College. While working for a period at the Middletown asylum in Baltimore, he began to be interested in anthropology. Subsequently, he travelled to Europe to visit scientists and laboratories, before taking, in 1896, a post as Associate in Anthropology at the newly-organised Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals. That same year he married the German-American Marie Stickler.

In 1898, Hrdlička went to Mexico where he was involved with a medical and anthropometric project among the Indians; and on his return to New York he took up a new position as director of physical anthropology for expeditions sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. Many field trips followed, to study the Indians of the southwestern US and northern Mexico, as well as many publications. In particularly, he became the first scientist to argue and document the theory of human colonisation of the American continent from east Asia, something he claimed had happened only in the last 3,000 years. In 1903, he became the first curator of physical anthropology at the U.S. National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History). Further anthropological expeditions followed, not least to Europe and the Mediterranean, and to South America, as well as to speak at international congresses. In 1907, he was made President of the Anthropological Society of Washington; in 1910, he was promoted to curator in the Division of Physical Anthropology; in 1918 he was elected to the American Philosophical Society, and the same year he launched the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. In 1918, his wife died, and in 1920 he married Wilhelmina Mansfield.

In 1927 Hrdlička published an article - The Neanderthal Phase of Man - in which he tried to prove that all races had a common origin. Among his published books are Physical Anthropology (1919), Anthropometry (1920) and Old Americans (1925). In trying to support his theory that Americans immigrated across the Bering Strait he organised and conducted ten expeditions, between 1929 and 1938, to Alaskan rivers, the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak and Commander Islands. His final years were spent in Washington where he was fully occupied with his vast collections, recording and publishing his experiences. He died in 1945.

According to a biographical memoir by Adolph H. Schultz (available online at the National Academy of Science website): ‘Hrdlicka’s outstanding and lasting contributions to anthropological knowledge are centered around his following three general interests: 1. The detailed investigation and tabulation of the ranges of normal variations in features of the outer body, the skeleton and the teeth among the different races of man, in the two sexes and, to a lesser extent, at different ages. 2. The collection and publication of reliable and adequate data on the somatic characters of the three large divisions of mankind in America, White, Indian-Eskimo and Negro, to provide basic standards for comparisons. 3. The compilation of precise information on all discoveries attributed to early man and critical examination of all evidence of the real nature and antiquity of these findings.’ The Smithsonian says his ‘contributions to American physical anthropology were great’ and that ‘his travels and field studies alone were impressive and important in his growth as an authority on the migration of man to the New World, human evolution, and the variations of man's physical form.’ Further information is also available at Wikipedia,, and SciHi Blog.

In the year before his death, Hrdlička put together a number of diary entries from several of his Alaska expeditions, and these were published as Alaska Diary 1926-1931 by The Jaques Cattell Press in 1944. According to Hrdlička’s own preface: ‘The following pages give a simple account of the more noteworthy experiences of the author and his companions on his 1926-1931 expeditions to Alaska. They have no pretense to any literary value, nor to any other virtue aside from reality. They are just brief but faithful records of what befell or was encountered by the writer and his coworkers in those far-away and lonesome, yet scientifically important regions, in quest of anthropological information. Perhaps a century or several centuries ahead, if a copy of these records survives, they might prove as interesting to the workers of that time as similar Russian notes on Alaska are to us, or would be if more of them existed, at this time.

The more formal scientific results of these expeditions are gradually being published elsewhere; nevertheless these notes contain numerous items that are more or less relevant to the scientific work proper, or complement it. And there are shown here views which will not be given in the scientific reports.

Considerable attention, throughout, will be seen to have been given to the weather, to food, and to transportation. This is because these factors in the work in the Far Northwest are constantly with one and not seldom prove of paramount importance. They can “make or break” an expedition or at least a part of it. They can thwart or make very difficult the best laid plans, or again facilitate them. Mind, health and physical strength, however necessary, are alone often powerless in these parts. Man is here against the elements, against want of things and means, and must repeatedly give way.’

And here are several of the diary extracts published.

8 June 1926, ‘Alaska’
‘Leaving Juneau. Has been raining here every day but one. They count rainfall here not in inches any more, but in feet. It is misting now, depriving of view of most of the coast. Wherever there is a glimpse of this it is seen to be mountainous, wooded below, snowy and icy higher up, inhospitable, forbidding.’

10 June 1926, ‘Alaska’
‘Arrive at Cordova, a former native and Russian settlement of some importance, now a pretty little town when the sun shines, protected by islands. Will stay here large part of the day and so go to see about Indians, old sites, burials, and specimens. The local forester takes me out along a lake some miles into the rugged volcanic back country, where there are still plenty of bear and mountain goat. After that Dr. Chase drives me to an old Russian and Indian cemetery nearer the town. There are numerous graves here, mostly Indians, but also few whites and even a Chinaman. Russian crosses still common. Hear of skulls and bones on a “mummy” island in Prince William Sound, but no chance now to visit.

See quite a few living natives in the outskirts of the town, but most appear mixed. Two adult men evidently fullbloods - Indian type of the short-headed form.

The ship makes three more stops before Seward, the main one at Valdez. These permit to see some fish canneries. They employ Japanese, Philippine, and Chinese labor, and I find it is quite a task to distinguish these one from the other, and to tell some of them from the coast Indians. The Chinaman can be singled out most often, though not always, the Japanese less so, while the Filipino in many cases cannot be told from the Indian even by an expert. A striking lesson in relationships.’

29 May 1929, ‘Yukon’
Skagway to White Horse, over mountain railway, skirting the famous tragic old trail to the Klondike region, which has witnessed vast human exertions and sufferings. Pass by one of the very sources of the mighty river that flows tor 2,700 miles from its source northward and then westward.

From White Horse, a pleasing little Canadian town, a neat river boat takes us to Dawson, where there will be change to a larger steamer. On the boat, after one bad night, must ask for a cabin well apart from my associate - what will it be when we must sleep closer!

Boat steams day and night, for nearly four days, with the current, through man-void wilderness. As we near Dawson see many caribou trails on steep slopes to the right. Have a bear steak for lunch, moose meat for supper - local specialties. And one day see a live full-sized black bear far on a great slope. Not much disturbed - too far for a shot - boat just whistles at him but he does not mind.’

21 July 1929, ‘Yukon’
‘(Evening). Visit the village, dispatch boxes, see Fathers once more - like them better and better, and admire, too.

After supper go with Walker to the old “Kozherevsky,” a site near the mouth of the Innoko River. Located about four miles above mouth of the latter, a short distance above and across the stream from the “new village.” Man clings to vicinities once adopted by his ancestors; yet the explanation is, I think, simple - the old-timers chose the best there was.

Site here, too, being washed away. A large potsherd on beach -  nothing further. Place, what remains of it, not large, overgrown as usual by rank grass and weeds, full of sharp-stinging mosquitoes. Must apply quantities of mosquito “juice,” with result, that some gets into the eyes and for minutes makes these burn so they cannot be opened. Walker goes ahead - in some ways is much like Lawrence - and soon locates five old graves, a child and four adults. I open three, M. one. Find good skeletons, three men and one woman (child left, fullbloodedness uncertain). All from Russian times already, though doubtless early, for all wood rotten, bones clean, above-ground graves typically Indian, no roofs or little houses, and bodies contracted.

Finish at 10, reach Walker’s again at 11 p.m. A sunset coloring in the west, though sun not yet seen and sky still full of clouds, but these lighter and higher. No rain, too, since 6 p.m., and so prospects for tomorrow brighter. An everlasting struggle with weather.

The Indian part of the river ends and that of the Eskimo begins between Holy Cross and Paimute. There is no line of demarkation either geographically or otherwise, but only linguistically. The average physique of the Indian here and the Eskimo differs in the main enough for a recognition of each, but the habits of the people and many physiognomies arc considerably alike. The latter is, it seems, only partly due to mixture of the two people, but largely to the fact that both proceed from the same general old racial source.

The present Indians of the Yukon are largely admixed with whites and somewhat with the Eskimo, but have escaped admixture with the Negro. They are in a transitional and partly demoralized state, due to Jack of adequate education, and to alcoholism. Alcohol like everywhere has a detrimental effect on the Indian. They make some crude liquor themselves, from cornmeal and other substances but they also get liquor from white trash. There is, too, considerable sickness among them and but little if any real help.

There is no possibility of estimating how long the Indians have been in this region. None of the still recognizable sites of their forefathers are ancient, but it is certain that many such places have been cut away by the river and all traces of them lost. The process is now going on in some localities. Nor is it possible to say as yet from what direction the river was originally peopled by the Indians. The skeletal remains now gathered should aid much in these directions.’

17 June 1930, ‘The Kuskokwim River’
‘Rain. cold, all night. Leaky roof in school, doors cannot be closed, floor sagging, walls also. A little cat-wash in a ditch - no water in school, no rain barrel. At 7 at Mrs H.’s house, breakfast with her and Miss Martin, an exceptionally good Indian teacher. Then pack, carry a good-sized box of specimens to my place - almost a mile - and then again patients. A lot of chronic conditions.’

20 May 1931, ‘Nushagak - The Peninsula’
‘A year ago this day I stood facing the frozen lake on the Yukon-Kuskokwim portage; today look wistfully over miles of bleak, slaty, forbidding mud flats. The ice was friendlier. And so were other things.

In an hour leaving on a tug for Naknek. No prospects here for the present - no boat, no help, no possibility to get farther up the river or into Iliamna Lake - the latter will not be free of ice before June 20. So must postpone work here and take other places first.

Cold, northwestern breeze from the ice fields. Depart on large tug near 10 a.m., when water sufficiently high. Trip four hours. Out in the bay somewhat rough but not bad. The tug brings me to the big ship Bering. Find a talkative interesting captain, but cold draughts everywhere, begin to get sore throat. Nice cabins on this boat, though but a few in number - used to be a Dutch freighter. At 8 p.m. descend on rope ladder to a “lighter” and start for Naknek. Have with me a poor Italian who is developing insanity - ran away from the cannery and frantically wants to “go home, go home” - by airplane, boat, any other way, only “go home.”

Arrive at the Naknek cannery 9:30 - cannot get to dock, water too low. Wait over half an hour, then considerable maneuvering with our barge, finally reach another barge in front of the dock and all rush out, climb high ladder, and are at the cannery. It is now nearly dark and raw cold.

Go to Superintendent’s house - have met him in San Francisco and so need no introduction. Sends me to sleep in a house that has not yet been fixed and has no heat. Go with the ill Italian to the doctor -  has no malted milk for him, no other needed things, and wants to know why the man has not brought with him his own blankets.

To bed - near 12 - room cold as ice box. No lights, but get smelly little lamp half filled with impure yellowish oil.’

30 May 1931, ‘Nushagak - The Peninsula’
‘Morning icy cold. Water so cold that cannot gargle with it. No means of making fire, stove “broke.” Outside cloudy all over. Breakfast at 7 in the “mess” - anxious again, no boats visible  - throat sore.

Have a talk with the Superintendent - “cannot help.” Introduces me to an old-timer, who gives some information. Pale sun coming out and mildly warmer but with snowy undercurrent. Walk two miles northward along left bluff of river to an old site at a creek. Find place, climb perilously along edge of high bluff. Locate two feet from surface half-rotten rafters, a nest of many burnt beach stones, fragments of plain pottery, bones of animals. Scanty remains, and nothing on beach indicating stone work; no specimens in fact whatever.

When I come back see “old-timer” again and want to tell him what I found, but find him in a grouchy, barking mood and with breath smelling liquor. House still cold. To shave must heat a little water above the lamp. Ask Superintendent where to get some wood for starting fire - tells me “there’s wood in the carpenter shop over there” somewhere, and when abashed I do not answer, repeats: “I say you can get some wood in the carpenter shop if you want it.” Has evidently no use for anyone not connected with fish.

Start, throat now very sore, about 1, for a cannery of another company, from the vice-president of which I have a good letter. Follow wrong trail - get far out on tundra and then have to cut across - difficult walking. The place is five miles away but make at least 8. A toe on left foot begins to hurt badly - old sprain. Reach after 4. Find Superintendent, Mr. Daly, in a shop. Show him my letter - and received real kindly. Offers me accommodation in his house, also aid in work, so decide to stay here, has his pleasant wife with him, and two boys, and all accept me almost as one of the family. How good it feels.

Shows me the whole cannery. And after supper we go, with his two lively boys, to look at a site I had been told of - but find nothing.

Return at nine. Cold now in nose, throat and head bothers, a little fever. Get something from doctor - all the larger canneries have to have one - and to a nice bed in a warm house soon after. A little after 12 the night watchman comes to get the Superintendent - “the Finns got drunk and raising hell.” Night feverish.’

No comments: