Punuk Islands: The Graveyard of the Bering Sea

(Image: Captain Budd Christman, NOAA, public domain)

There’s something deeply unsettling about an isolated cluster of islands that’s also a natural graveyard, especially when the washed-up remains include human bones. But thanks to the strong Bering Sea currents, the Punuk Islands – also known as Pinik Islands or Poongook Islands – have become a sepulchre of the natural world and final resting place of both man and beast.

(Image: NOAA, public domain)

Located east of St Lawrence Island, the three small islets comprising the Punuk Islands were first mapped using their Yupik name in 1849, on a chart obtained by Captain M. D. Tebenkov of the Imperial Russian Navy. Their position south of Apavawook Cape ensures they take the full onslaught of the north-flowing Bering Sea currents that transport all manner of deceased natural matter to these shores.

(Images: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; National Digital Library, public domain)

This mysterious place, however, is not all about death. The Punuk Islands are a rich haven of wildlife including seabirds, walruses and native Tundra Voles, which belong to an endemic subspecies. Though the islands are uninhabited, evidence of past settlement was laid bare when explorer Otto W. Geist discovered an Okvik archaeological site in 1931. Much of their find, including fossilised walrus ivory artifacts, is preserved at the University of Alaska.

(Image: NOAA, public domain)

Returning briefly to the natural graveyard: it seems strange that two human skulls were discovered side-by-side on the shores of the Punuk Islands along with other animal remains. Were they brought together by scientists to document their presence in photographs?  Or were the fates of these two people somehow intertwined?

Bering Sea Currents

(Image: U.S. Federal Government, public domain)

Beneath the Bering Sea is the world’s largest continental shelf. About the size of California, it’s one of the most productive North American fisheries. Currents flow north from the Pacific and the Aleutian basin to the Arctic Ocean, stirring up deep sea nutrients and giving rise to a thriving seabed habitat that forms the basis of the region’s ecosystem. To put it into perspective, half of the United States’ annual seafood catch comes from the Bering Sea.

(Image: U.S. Coast Guard, public domain)

According to the National Wildlife Federation, 2.5 billion pounds of walleye pollock is turned into imitation crabmeat, fish sticks and fast-food fish fillets each year. These waters have sustained native Alaskans for thousands of years, but despite human intervention, the region remains a mysterious and inhospitable place that may never give up its secrets – a fact researchers fear is becoming increasingly likely due to the melting ice.

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  • Thor

    This is one of the spookiest things I’ve ever seen – where can I find more info? Do they do cruises there?

  • Tom

    Hmmm, this is a pretty bleak place so don’t know if they do cruises… But maybe those Alaskan cruises go past the island? I get the impression it’s uninhabited, and to be honest there’s not much info on this floating around online – although there is some about the native people.

  • http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com Tom

    Thanks Thor!  There’s actually not a lot of info about this place (NOAA might be your best bet) and I’m not sure if cruises get too close to the islands but you never know!

  • Leslie kannan

    Those skulls are so intriguing. Any idea whether they are fossils?

  • Leslie kannan

    Those skulls are so intriguing. Any idea whether they are fossils?

  • http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com/ Tom

    Thanks for your comment Leslie!  The skulls are certainly a bit of a mystery.  I am not sure about fossils, but it would be interesting to do some more digging.  To the best of my knowledge the skulls photo dates to the late ’70s, but I doubt many people will have been on the islands since then.  I think NOAA would be the group to ask!

  • http://www.urbanghostsmedia.com/ Tom

    Thanks for your comment Leslie!  The skulls are certainly a bit of a mystery.  I am not sure about fossils, but it would be interesting to do some more digging.  To the best of my knowledge the skulls photo dates to the late ’70s, but I doubt many people will have been on the islands since then.  I think NOAA would be the group to ask!

  • Swami_Binkinanda

    Punuk has been owned by the local Native corporations and used primarily for local people to dig for antiquities for sale on the collector’s market since the 1970 passage of ANCSA.  No archaeology to speak of has been done there since then.

  • Swami_Binkinanda

    Punuk has been owned by the local Native corporations and used primarily for local people to dig for antiquities for sale on the collector’s market since the 1970 passage of ANCSA.  No archaeology to speak of has been done there since then.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    The Punuk Islands were occupied around , years ago through around 1,000 years ago. Modern Siberian Yupik inhabitants of St. Lawrence go there regularly to dig and scuba dive for walrus tusks and carved ivory from two archaeology sites on the largest of the Punuk Island group.

    The skulls in the photograph were found by Alaska Native ivory diggers, looking for carved ivory in archaeology sites to sell to collectors from the lower 48.

    Since St. Lawrence Island and the Punuk Islands belong to the Siberian Yupik inhabitants, they are allowed to sell these archaeological objects.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    The Punuk Islands were occupied around , years ago through around 1,000 years ago. Modern Siberian Yupik inhabitants of St. Lawrence go there regularly to dig and scuba dive for walrus tusks and carved ivory from two archaeology sites on the largest of the Punuk Island group.

    The skulls in the photograph were found by Alaska Native ivory diggers, looking for carved ivory in archaeology sites to sell to collectors from the lower 48.

    Since St. Lawrence Island and the Punuk Islands belong to the Siberian Yupik inhabitants, they are allowed to sell these archaeological objects.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    The Punuk Islands were occupied around , years ago through around 1,000 years ago. Modern Siberian Yupik inhabitants of St. Lawrence go there regularly to dig and scuba dive for walrus tusks and carved ivory from two archaeology sites on the largest of the Punuk Island group.

    The skulls in the photograph were found by Alaska Native ivory diggers, looking for carved ivory in archaeology sites to sell to collectors from the lower 48.

    Since St. Lawrence Island and the Punuk Islands belong to the Siberian Yupik inhabitants, they are allowed to sell these archaeological objects.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    No one is allowed to dig on the islands other than the Siberian Yupik inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island, in the villages of Savoonga and Gambell. They go there regularly to dig for ivory and artifacts from the archaeology sites on the main island.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    No one is allowed to dig on the islands other than the Siberian Yupik inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island, in the villages of Savoonga and Gambell. They go there regularly to dig for ivory and artifacts from the archaeology sites on the main island.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    No one is allowed to dig on the islands other than the Siberian Yupik inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island, in the villages of Savoonga and Gambell. They go there regularly to dig for ivory and artifacts from the archaeology sites on the main island.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    No cruises, and there are no buildings on the Punuk Islands and no accomodations on St. Lawrence Island for visitors.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    No cruises, and there are no buildings on the Punuk Islands and no accomodations on St. Lawrence Island for visitors.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    No cruises, and there are no buildings on the Punuk Islands and no accomodations on St. Lawrence Island for visitors.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    There has been a great deal of archaeology on St. Lawrence Island since 1970. I’ve done some of it!

    There has been less work done on the Punuk Islands than St. Lawrence Island, because the main Okvik occupation site has been washed away in the surf.

    Archaeology sites on thes islands have been throuoghly turned over by Native susistence ivory digging, so they have no archaeological value and have been removed from the Federal Register of Historic Places.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    There has been a great deal of archaeology on St. Lawrence Island since 1970. I’ve done some of it!

    There has been less work done on the Punuk Islands than St. Lawrence Island, because the main Okvik occupation site has been washed away in the surf.

    Archaeology sites on thes islands have been throuoghly turned over by Native susistence ivory digging, so they have no archaeological value and have been removed from the Federal Register of Historic Places.

  • Jospeh Saunders

    There has been a great deal of archaeology on St. Lawrence Island since 1970. I’ve done some of it!

    There has been less work done on the Punuk Islands than St. Lawrence Island, because the main Okvik occupation site has been washed away in the surf.

    Archaeology sites on thes islands have been throuoghly turned over by Native susistence ivory digging, so they have no archaeological value and have been removed from the Federal Register of Historic Places.

 
 
 
 
 

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