While working as a miner in Fairbanks during the 1930s, Louis Giddings wondered about the age of the tree trunks he was washing out of the silt. That curiosity eventually led him to several major archaeological discoveries and world renown as an Arctic anthropologist.
Giddings grew up in Texas and studied at a few universities before heading to Alaska. After graduating in 1932 with a degree in mining engineering, he worked for Fairbanks Exploration Co. On the side, he worked on establishing the age of northern trees by matching patterns in their growth rings.
In 1938, the University of Alaska hired Giddings to teach. Through the 1940s, he established a nearly 1,000-year tree-ring record for the Kobuk River region.
"I remember him each spring going off into the wilderness alone, equipped with a bed roll, some small bags of rice and raisins and a .22 rifle to shoot the ground squirrels upon which he would live for months," recalled Froelich Rainey, the university's first anthropology professor.
In 1949, Giddings left Alaska to earn a doctorate and take university faculty positions elsewhere. He returned to Alaska annually, making major archaeological discoveries at Cape Denbigh and Cape Krusenstern on Alaska's western coast.
Giddings' most significant discovery came in the early 1960s at Onion Portage on the Kobuk River, where evidence of humans dates back 12,000 years. In 1964, he and his wife, Bets, had a cabin built near the site.
Giddings died after a car accident in Rhode Island later that year. Colleagues continued his work, and Onion Portage was recognized as a national historic landmark in 1978.
More online about Louis Giddings:
- An obituary by Froelich Rainey in the American Anthropologist, 1965
- An obituary by Helge Larsen in American Antiquity, January 1966
- The National Park Service's biography