Petroglyphs found in Alaska history

Mouths of salmon streams in Southeast Alaska are filled with inscriptions pecked into hard rock like this one found near Hoonah.
Mouths of salmon streams in Southeast Alaska are filled with inscriptions pecked into hard rock like this one found near Hoonah.

Not only is Alaska history steeped in fur trading, whale harvesting and gold mining. It also has drawings on rocks that are usually associated with primitive people in exotic far-away lands.

Greek for rock carving, petroglyphs are among many enigmas of science. Because their true meanings are elusive, they remain a mysterious link to a people who inhabited the world a long time ago.

The petroglyphs, which are in abundance in Southeastern Alaska, are unique because they are associated with salmon streams, rather than primitive village sites, and they always face the sea. Mouths of salmon streams are filled with inscriptions pecked into hard rock-like sandstone, slate and granite, while good rocks for carving remain bare in villages near those streams.

To those familiar with the ancient beliefs and oral traditions of the Tlingit and Haida Indians, the petroglyphs show that salmon is life. These Native Alaskans, whose diet was primarily fish, were not hunters and had no agriculture. If the salmon failed to return, it could mean starvation for the clans.

It made sense, therefore, for them to try to avoid small runs and to do everything possible to try and increase the runs. They may have carved images of intermediaries, including deities, “Raven” and others in special favor with the Salmon People, on the rocks in an effort to bring salmon back to their communities.

Legend has it that a Tlingit boy named Shin-quo-klah, or “Mouldy End,” was punished by the Salmon People for wasting dried salmon. They took him under the sea, but later returned him to his people.

He became a great shaman. It’s said that his image is etched on a rock at Karta Bay, placed near where he died after he accidentally killed his own soul that was inhabited by a supernatural salmon at the time. Copies of the etching were all around the beaches of Hydaburg and Wrangell, where it’s believed his influence was being used with the Salmon People to insure adequate runs of salmon.

Petroglyphs also appear in the Kodiak Archipelago, where at least seven sites have carvings that depict human figures, animal forms and geometric designs. There are four large clusters of petroglyphs at Cape Alitak, at the entrance to Alitak Bay. Some Alaskans think that the designs were made to mark territory, to act as permanent signs that linked families with particular subsistence harvesting areas.

The oldest rock drawings appear to have been carved as early as 10,000 years ago, and archaeologists have found similar abstract symbols along the coast of Siberia. There is no way to discern the true intent or motivation of the artists, but the drawings are one of the few sources of ancient art that tie Alaska Natives to their heritage.

Petroglyphs and associated sites are under the protection of federal laws and state of Alaska antiquities laws.

By Laurel Bill

Alaska history