“Water, Water, Everywhere; Nor Any Drop to Drink” *

Authors: Dixie West, Virginia Hatfield, and Kale Bruner | University of Kansas

During 2014 we conducted our first year of fieldwork in the Islands of the Four Mountains (IFM), Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Our NSF funded, interdisciplinary research incorporates threads of geological, paleobiological, and archaeological analyses in Japanese, Russian, Canadian and U.S. laboratories. We are discovering and sharing these data to paint a clearer picture of the prehistoric, geological, and biological worlds of the Four Mountains.  Lead archaeologists for the campaign are Dixie West, Virginia Hatfield and Kale Bruner.

Six volcanic islands, Yunaska, Kagamil, Uliaga, Herbert, Carlisle, and Chuginadak  (Tana + Cleveland), comprise the Islands of the Four Mountains. Monitored by the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Cleveland is one of the more active Alaska volcanoes, last erupting in November 2014. The IFM are the second island group west from the Alaska Peninsula. Prehistoric Unangax faced their first dangerous Bering Sea voyage when they paddled the 40km wide Samalga Pass to cross from the Fox Islands to the Four Mountains. Currently, we do not know when this initial migration occurred. Anangula in the western Fox Islands was settled around 8500 years ago, and north Adak Island (Andreanof Islands) was settled 7000 years BP: presumably the Samalga voyage occurred quite soon after the earliest Fox Islands occupation.

Anthropologists Lydia Black (2003: 36) pretty much hit the nail on the head when she described our study area: “The Four Mountains Islands proper are…not desirable as human habitat: they are the tops of huge submarine volcanoes. Their coastlines are rugged, steep crags; there are no good landing places and even today any approach to their shores is considered extremely dangerous. There are no tide flats or easily approached off-shore reefs where mollusks can be gathered. The freshwater streams, fed by snows from the peaks, cascade to the sea over many waterfalls. There are no lakes.” For the most part, the volcanoes of the Four Mountains would have been tough places to make a living, possessing topographies unlike many islands located to the east or west.

Typical Four Mountains shoreline (Photo courtesy Anne Fulton).

Typical Four Mountains shoreline (Photo courtesy Anne Fulton).

Working in the Four Mountains during July and August, we inspected and excavated two high elevation village sites that lacked running water. Consequently, we transported fresh water from the ship to the camps while conducting archaeological work. Previously, in the western Aleutians we had simply set up our camps at prehistoric village sites with nearby streams from which we collected our water. This is simply not possible for some, if not many, prehistoric village sites in the Four Mountains. Village site CG-02 sits atop a cliff on north Chuginadak. Prehistoric humans probably settled this site because it: (1) contained suitably soft matrix in which to dig semi-subterranean houses and, (2) provided a lookout for sea mammals and potentially hostile human groups. An erosion gully, cutting through the village and dropping off a steep cliff, would have periodically provided fresh water during late summer storms (Fig. 2), but this runoff could not last long. Did Unangax capture rain as it fell during periodic deluges?  Gut bags could hold water, but would this be enough to sustain a population?

CG-02 erosion gully draining following a strong summer storm (Photo courtesy Mitsuru Okuno).

CG-02 erosion gully draining following a strong summer storm (Photo courtesy Mitsuru Okuno).

Village site CR-02 on Carlisle Island has a similar, deep erosion gully, but in July/August 2014 this drainage was largely dry, with only pockets of water.  At CG-02 and CR-02, among the house pits, we found curious, artificial depressions filled with water. Are these house pits? Borrow pits? Or are these water reservoirs excavated by the Unangax to capture rainwater after winter snows had melted and creeks ran dry? The only literary source for a possible Unangan water reservoir comes from Hrdlicka (1945:236) on Kiska Island: “…within the site, is a large artificial depression which only can have been, it seems, a reservoir for water.”

A water filled pit at CG-02 (Photo courtesy Anne Fulton).

A water filled pit at CG-02 (Photo courtesy Anne Fulton).

Fresh water requirements potentially necessitated seasonal movements to lower lying IFM locations where streams ran year round. We have previously used a variety of methods to determine seasonality of sites: (1) winter/summer bands on clams (but the Four Mountains lack these shellfish for the most part), (2) medullary cavities of bird bones (these cavities vary based on whether a bird is nesting) and, (3) bones of immature animals. Such studies can reveal what time of year high elevation sites were occupied. At the Russian Academy of Sciences, Bulat Khasanov’s recent discovery of charred crowberries in a CG-02 midden seems to suggest this high elevation village was occupied during summer when berries are ripe, but when potable water was least available. (Or perhaps the berries were stored and used during winter at the village?)

During 2015 we will core several of these artificial ponds. Recovery of cultural artifacts (stone tool fragments, bones, hearth debris) would indicate that these enigmatic depressions are house pits that have somehow filled with water over time. Hitting lava (and not cultural debris) could suggest either: (1) an artificial water reservoir or (2) an unfinished house pit abandoned when impenetrable matrix was encountered. These abandoned pits could fill with water over time. We will take specific note of these water filled pits to see if there is a pattern to their locations. If these are water reservoirs, productive hydrological systems can be added to the repertoire of prehistoric Unangax accomplishments.

* Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


Black, Lydia. 2003. Aleut Art. Donning Company Publishers and Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, Inc

Hrdlička, A. 1945. The Aleutian and Commander Islands and Their Inhabitants. The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, Philadelphia.


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