A Landmark Siberian Odyssey Seeks Ties across the Bering Strait Series: Despite Its Small Capacity, the Russian AN-2 Is a Favored Mode of Transport in Siberia Because It Can Land and Take off in Short Distances.; 4) EN ROUTE: Members of Expedition Travel between Remote Siberian Sites in a Single-Engine Bi-Plane. They Retraced Steps of a Similar Trip a Century Ago., PHOTOS BY BILL GASPERINI. MAP: ARCTIC JOURNEY: A Group of Researchers Traveled from Siberia to Alaska, Following Route of Early Humans. the Archaeological Trek Laid the Groundwork for Future Exploration of Long-Inaccessible Sites., DAVE HERRING - STAFF

Article excerpt

The scene looks ordinary enough: gently rolling hills stretch off into the distance, covered only with the scrubby little plants that can withstand the rigors of the Arctic winter. But the unremarkable vista here hides a multitude of archaeological treasures.

"You can see how these pieces of quartz have been worked, flaked in a way that couldn't be natural," says Bill Fitzhugh, running his fingers along the sharp edges of milky-white bits of rock he has picked up off the ground. "This is no surprise, because this hill we're standing on sits right in a valley which would have been rich with game animals. And it's right on the route from the Bering Strait."

It also comes as no surprise that Dr. Fitzhugh, who directs the Arctic Studies Center at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., has tracked down signs of early human activity in such an innocuous-looking place. He has done so repeatedly on the "1995 North Pacific Rim Expedition," a long odyssey starting in Siberia and ending here in Alaska that retraced the route early humans took into the New World. (See map, above.)

Curiosity about when these early humans inhabited the area, when they moved on in search of better conditions, and how many generations it may have taken for the descendants of early Siberians to arrive in the American West, led Fitzhugh and his team of scientists on this expedition to traverse thousands of miles of dramatic Siberian landscape in two small Russian bi-planes en route to the Bering Strait. (See story, right.)

The plan was to retrace the steps of the landmark Morris K. Jesup expedition sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History 100 years ago, the first major visit by Western scientists to northeastern Siberia - and the last, until now.

Fitzhugh's group decided to barnstorm across Siberia, stopping wherever something looked interesting: perhaps to visit with nomadic reindeer herders on the move with their animals, or to check out a remote island off the Arctic coast.

Many members of the 16-member team have spent decades living in and studying the Arctic - everywhere, that is, except the Siberian Arctic. So the chance to travel through this once-forbidden region seemed ideal, given the new openness of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But the trip was not an easy one. While the versatile planes could provide great access geographically, they could do nothing about endless quarrels with petty bureaucrats over landing fees and rights at small regional airports. In the end, the route itself proved haphazard because of constraints imposed by unpredictable weather and the availability of fuel.

Nonetheless, the members of the group felt the opportunity to visit many remote but archaeologically significant places was worth the effort. In addition to Fitzhugh, others on the team included Steven Young, director of the Center for Northern Studies in Wolcott, Vt.; retired anthropologist Ted Carpenter and his wife, photographer Adelaide de Menil, of New York; London-based banker and Arctic adventurer Peter de Roos; and Andrei Golovniev, a Rus- sian ethnologist and filmmaker.

Also along was Sven Haakanson Jr., a Harvard University graduate student and Alutiiq native of Kodiak Island, Alaska, who is currently conducting field work with Fitzhugh among reindeer-herding peoples in a remote corner of northwestern Siberia. A team of journalists rounded out the group, trying another first: to send out weekly reports on the expedition's progress via satellite telephone to Discovery Television's new Internet Website.

Uncharted territory

The journey began in the city of Yakutsk, capital of the semiautonomous Sakha Republic, an area larger than western Europe located entirely within Siberia. It is here that Fitzhugh and other scientists believe the ancestors of early Americans originated. "Much of this region remains virtually unknown, especially its archaeology," says the tall, soft-spoken Fitzhugh. …