The 1,600-kilometer stretch of the northwestern Pacific coast of North America (from southern Alaska to Washington State) provided an ideal environment for the growth of stable communities. Despite the northerly latitude, the climate is temperate. Natural resources were originally so rich that the inhabitants could subsist by fishing and hunting and gathering, without the need to domesticate stock or cultivate the land. Forests yielded an abundance of wood for buildings, for boats, and for sculpture. Beyond them the Rocky Mountains were an impenetrable barrier against raids. The area appears to have been settled around 500 A.D. by tribes of diverse origins speaking mutually unintelligible languages: from north to south they include the Tlingit, the Haida, the Tsimshian, the Bella Coola, the Kwakiutl, and the Nootka. The culture to which they contributed has, nevertheless, an underlying homogeneity and a distinct visual character. The peoples of the Northwest engaged in trade as well as warfare with one another, and this may account for the diffusion of cultural traits and artistic motifs throughout the area. Much of their art was concerned with religious ritual objects. But the rest is secular and springs from a preoccupation with the hereditary basis of their complex social structures. The Tlingit and other nations or language groups were collections of autonomous village communities composed of one or more families, each with its own chief, who inherited his position through matrilineal descent. They had no centralized political or religious organization, but cohesion was given by extensive kinship networks established through marriage, and men and women were obliged to marry outside the larger divisions of clans and moieties (tribal subdivisions) into which they were born and into which the social group was divided by matrilineal or patrilineal descent. Thus families built up riches by marriage without any one family acquiring a dominant position. Totem poles (see figure below), the most distinctive artistic product of the Northwest, were conspicuous declarations of prestige and of the genealogy (family history) by which it had been attained. These magnificent sculptures that probably originated as funerary monuments were first described by travelers in the late eighteenth century. Each one was carved from a single trunk of cedar, and the increasing availability of metal tools both permitted and encouraged more complex compositions and greater height – up to 27.4 meters. Their superimposed figures – eagles, beavers, whales, and so on – were crests (symbols of identity) that a chief inherited from his lineage, his clan, and his moiety. They were not objects of worship, though the animals carved on them might represent guardian spirits. Poles were designed according to a governing principle of bilateral symmetry, with their various elements interlocked so that they seem to grow organically out of one another, creating a unity of symbolism, form, and surface. Pacific Northwest Culture Area  Masks (see figure above) are the most varied of the carvings from the Northwest, where they were an essential part of communal life. In style they range from an almost abstract symbolism to combinations of human and animal features and to a lifelike naturalism sometimes bordering on caricature (a style that strongly exaggerates features or characteristics), taken to its extreme in Tlingit war helmets. Some differences must have been due to those among the cultures in which they were created, but their place of origin cannot always be ascertained as they seem to have passed from one contiguous nation to another in the course of trade or warfare. Although carvers worked according to established conventions, no two masks are identical and those with basic similarities reveal varying degrees of skill.   The major differences between masks were determined by their purpose. Some were representations of chiefs and their ancestors and made to be displayed and treasured as heirlooms. Although they appear to record the styles of facial tattooing customary in different groups, it is difficult to say how far they were intended to be portraits rather than generalized images. Many masks, sometimes quite large, were carved to be worn in dance-dramas that re-enacted and kept alive the cohesive myths of a culture. Often, Tlingit masks were made for religious leaders and incorporated the animals that were believed to be their spirit helpers. Conjuring up forces of nature from the ocean, the forests, or the sky, they mediated between life on Earth and the inscrutable powers around and above.