Sea Urchins and Archaeology

Author: Debra Corbett, Nanutset Heritage.

The prominent mounds of old villages rest on the shores of every island, their surfaces dotted by the depressions left by old houses.  Some sites are huge, covering acres, and piled up to 3 or 4 meters deep with the debris of ancient life, charcoal, ash, bones, and shell.  In some sites 60% of the site fill is sea urchin shell.

Urchin on Sequam Island beach. Photo by D. Corbett.

Urchin on Sequam Island beach. Photo by D. Corbett.

Archaeologists have traditionally viewed urchins as famine food eaten only when nothing else was available.It is hard to reconcile this with the mountains of sea urchin left behind in the old villages.  Until recently most of us didn’t even attempt to collect and analyze urchin, we simply commented on the overwhelming amount present in the sites.  This very abundance makes collecting and analyzing sea urchins notoriously hard.  After working in Aleutian sites for almost 30 years I wanted to know more about the role of sea urchins in Aleut culture.  My questions were how valuable were urchins as food, and how were they used?  To answer these questions I learned more about sea urchins than I thought possible.  I reviewed historical and ethnological sources and tried to combine the information.

While anyone could, and did, gather urchins, women were the primary collectors.  Most were picked by hand in shallow pools.  However, three pronged spears, called itu-s, and four pronged chuniigasi-s, or chuhniyaquusi-x were used to catch sea urchins from deeper waters (Bergsland 1990; Jochelson 1925; Veniaminov 1984).  Thin, blunt bone cylinders are common in archaeological sites and it is likely that most of these were prongs for sea urchin spears.

In 1880 Turner noted a single woman could collect half a bushel (four gallons) of urchins in a few minutes.  He described groups of women and children carrying baskets of urchins to favored picnicking spots to eat.  They rubbed the spines off on the sides of the baskets or in the grass, then broke them open with a hand stone. People ate the rich orange gonads, called eggs.  They look like the yolks of bird eggs.  Each urchin has 5 gonads weighing up to 28 grams, almost half the animals weight.  A “serving” of urchin, 100 grams, has 126 calories, only slightly less than halibut, dried herring, and seal meat.  They are high in vitamins B12, C and E.  They were also abundant, providing sea otters were scarce.  In the 1970’s the reefs at Umnak supported up to 27 kg/m2, of live urchins,and on Shemya sea urchin were counted at 78 animals/meter2.

Archaeologists in New Zealand, California, Scandinavia and other places have begun to realize that lowly shellfish, far from being starvation food, are instead the rich, stable, foundation for the cultural complexity seen in many coastal societies.  Archaeological, historical and ethnographical information all supports understanding sea urchins as a vital element of the varied economic strategy supporting the rich and complex prehistoric Aleut culture.

Citations:

Bergsland, Knut, and Moses L. Dirks. 1990. Unangan Ungiikangin Kayuk Tunusangin: Unangam Uniikangis Ama Tunuzangis:Aleut Tales and Narratives. Collected 1909-1910 by Waldemar Jochelson: Alaska Native Language Center.

Jochelson, Waldemar. 1925. Archaeological Investigations in the Aleutian Islands. Volume 367. Washington DC: Carnegie Institution.

Veniaminov, Ivan. 1984. Notes on the Islands of the Unalashka District. R.H.G. Lydia T. Black, transl. Volume 27. Fairbanks, Alaska and Kingston Ontario: Limestone Press.

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