Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper on Aleutian Research

Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper on Aleutian Research


The Aleutian Islands Working Group (AIWG) took form in 2013 after a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded workshop in Seattle, WA. in the fall of 2012. That workshop, “Comparative Ecodynamics in the Aleutian and Kuril Islands”, brought together a wide range of scholars working on cultural and ecological questions in the Aleutian and Kuril Islands.  The organizers and participants in this workshop outlined a general Big Science wish list for continued research in these two island groups.  Tentative plans were made for developing a “white paper” to submit to the National Science Foundation to guide NSF in making priority funding decisions for research projects.

What is a white paper? Essentially it is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a certain viewpoint.  The contents are intended to provide information for people, in our case a funding entity, seeking to understand issues, or make decisions.

One of the first goals set by the AIWG at our first meeting in January 2013, was to develop a White Paper for Aleutian research to ensure our regional priorities were communicated to funding agencies. The goal of the white paper is not to mandate research foci, but to identify topics of broad general interest to the people living and working in the region. A wide cross section of people weighed in on the discussion.  The effort to draft an Aleutian white paper limped along for a couple of years but recently took on some urgency.

NSF’s Arctic Social Sciences Program (ASSP) recently announced an initiative, Arctic Horizons, to “bring together members of the Arctic social science research and indigenous communities to reassess the goals, potentials, and needs of these diverse communities and Arctic Social Sciences Program (ASSP) within the context of a rapidly changing circumpolar North.” Arctic Horizons is holding six workshops nationwide to solicit advice and opinions.  For more information check the web page at

To make sure our Aleutian voices were heard, AIWG solicited comments and suggestions, drafted and redrafted the text, and finally submitted the Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper to Dr. Anna Kertulla de Echave, Program Director for Arctic Social Sciences at NSF, on February 27. We are now posting it here, and it is on the Arctic Horizons blog at  Thank you to everyone who weighed in at our meetings or through e-mail!

Aleutian Islands Social Science Research White Paper


Written in February 2016 by Debra Corbett, Diane Hanson, and Douglas Veltre

for the

Aleutian Islands Working Group (AIWG), an informal gathering of people who love the people and environment of the Aleutian Islands.


The Aleutian Islands, a unique habitat for human beings, comprise a curving, subarctic archipelago linked to a continental landmass at their eastern end. The islands straddle one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world although many resources (e.g. migrating mammals and birds, plants) are seasonal. Prehistoric humans developed the most comprehensive maritime adaptation on the planet– as profoundly specialized as Pleistocene big game hunters, the bison dependent cultures of the Great Plains, or high altitude herding people.

As a long narrow archipelago between two oceans and two continents, the islands are a complex mosaic of physical and biological micro-environments that required constant human adaptation. Environmental variability resulted in cultural variability, including economic, technical, and craft specializations, and social, political, and religious complexity manifesting differences over 1100 miles.  The Aleutian Islands directly link to the mainland of Alaska through a relatively narrow point at the eastern end; this geographic constraint resulted in limited mainland influences and subsequent filtering their adoption from the east to the most remote western islands.

Beginning in the 1980s, a surge of research greatly expanded our understanding of Aleutian precontact history and culture. These projects include NSF funded archaeology by: 1)  Veltre, Black, McCartney, and Aigner, at a historic site in Reese Bay on Unalaska; 2) Corbett, Lefevre, and West, in the western Aleutian Islands; 3) West, Lefevre, Hatfield, and Wilmerding on Adak Island; 4) Funk on Rat and Kiska Islands; 5) Hanson, on Adak Island; 6) West, Hatfield, Nicolaysen, and MacInnes in the Islands of Four Mountains; 7) Johnson in the Shumagin Islands; and 8) Hoffman on Unimak Island. Berge has received three grants for linguistics research.  Coltrain, O’Rourke and Crawford have received seven grants for paleoanthropological studies, and Reedy-Maschner received funding for studying the sociology of modern fishing communities.  Regional surveys conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1980s for land claims resulted in extensive data on the distribution and nature of archaeological sites throughout the archipelago.  Other important work was funded by the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska Bay (Knecht), and mitigating construction projects in Unalaska Bay and Akun/Akutan Islands (Yarborough, Knecht).  These projects all trained young researchers and Aleut community members as archaeologists, researchers, and teachers.  Many of these young scholars are now beginning their own research careers.

To identify priorities for future research in the Aleutians, we examined 1) seven articles on the history of Aleutian archaeology, 2) notes from two sessions of the AIWG focused on research priorities, and 3) comments from the 2013 Aleutian/Kuril Islands workshop in Seattle.


Culture History

The Aleutian archipelago’s rich history spans nearly 10,000 years. Yet, despite over 130 years of archaeological exploration, the cultural history is still poorly known. Long considered remarkable for 6000 years of cultural continuity and stability, recent research has revealed a rich mosaic of cultural development, interactions, and regional florescence.  Regional chronologies and artifact typologies, fundamental building blocks of archaeological interpretation, are almost completely lacking.  Events and processes leading to the historically complex cultures found at contact in 1741 are virtually unknown in most areas.  Critical work is needed to understand settlement patterning, household archaeology, political and social changes, and population histories.  Funding basic field research is time critical. Rising sea levels, and increased intensity of storms in the North Pacific Ocean, have accelerated the loss of coastal sites to erosion, putting the vast majority of Aleutian Islands archaeological sites at imminent risk of destruction.

Recent work on Unalaska Island and the Alaska Peninsula clearly shows the Aleutian Islands have never been isolated from cultural trends moving across the north. Several projects over the last 20 years have found evidence of interactions with the mainland and two-way transmission of at least technological information (artifacts).  More work needs to be done on relationships and influences among the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak, the Northwest Coast, Bristol Bay and southwest Alaska, as well as with older paleo-Eskimo cultures, and Athabascans.  The question of whether or not the Unangax (Aleuts) were in contact with Asia is far from resolved.  With one access point in the east, and a linear configuration, the Aleutian Islands are a natural laboratory for study of how and why people migrate.


Work focused on existing collections, especially unanalyzed collections of wooden artifacts and textiles from cave excavations and burials, could yield major insights into origins and development of complex Unangax social, political, ideological, and ceremonial patterns.

Environmental research has always been inextricably linked to Aleutian archaeology. Relationships between people and the environment remain of broad, general interest.  Important questions include human subsistence changes over time and across the archipelago, and understanding the long term sustainability of both wildlife and humans.  Linked to this is a desire to document, preserve, and teach traditional Unangax environmental knowledge.  A renaissance of linguistic research and education could be strengthened and enhanced by linking language revitalization to environmental knowledge and historical/archaeological research. Human responses to climate changes over ten thousand years and the resultant effects on economic patterns and human impacts on local environments have been staples of Aleutian archaeological research.  These questions are far from exhaustively treated and the very different Aleut adaptation visible in the eastern Aleutian Islands during the Neoglacial period has raised more questions than answers. Also of interest, is cultural response to catastrophic events such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.   Modern climate change threats to archaeological sites makes documenting the prehistoric baseline critical before sites are irretrievably lost.


Continuity of Unangax culture over thousands of years, relative isolation from mainland Alaska, and a single biological population are fundamental to traditional archaeological interpretations of prehistory.  While they have often been presented as overly simplistic generalizations, the themes themselves are valid theoretical questions.  Questions about the origins of the Aleut people and their relationships to other Alaskans, addressed through modern DNA research, have implications for the peopling of the Arctic extending far beyond southwest Alaska.

Continuity, the links between the prehistoric cultures and modern people is a strong theme for modern Aleuts. This meshes with the need for culture-historical archaeology, linguistics, and studies of museum collections. Research being done in these fields should be more closely linked with heritage education and the  culture camps in the region.

Historic Archaeology

The effects of Russian and later American contact on unangax culture cannot be overstated. Although a solid foundation in the archaeology of the Russian period exists through work at Korovinski on Atka Island, and Reese Bay, on Unalaska Island, the field is hardly exhausted.  Research on the earliest period of contact, prior to the chartering of the Russian America Company, is heavily reliant on translations of historic records.  Only targeted archaeological work, hinted at by finds on Rat, Kiska, Carlisle, and Adak Islands, will reveal the varied responses and accommodations made by the Unangax people to this intrusion.

Researchers have barely begun to examine the legacy of American rule in the Aleutian Islands. Early 20th century commercial fox trapping supported a poorly understood or appreciated cultural renaissance with long abandoned islands being reoccupied and economic prosperity promoting regional interactions, education, and political growth.  Aleut culture experienced a tidal wave of cultural shock and change 1) with the outbreak of World War II and the transformation of an isolated region into a modern theater of war and, 2) into the front lines of the Cold War.  With these world events as backdrop, traumatized and diminished communities interned during the war, attempted to resettle their villages and recreate their lives.

Battlefield archaeology and historic research on World War II itself are also virtually untouched research fields with immense potential.


Aleutian archaeology, in a beautiful but challenging environment, is expensive. At a very fundamental level, increasing logistical collaboration among all researchers would dramatically reduce the costs associated with multiple individual projects. For example, archaeologists, biologists, geologists, and others with contemporaneous projects should share logistics costs and resources. Furthermore, coordination with government entities (e.g. USFWS, AVO) working in the region could also reduce costs.

To maximize the potential of new research, a systematic attempt should be made to collate information on known data gaps, including several large, rich and unanalyzed or incompletely analyzed collections. Key to this is increasing access to existing collections and encouraging their use and re-analysis. Funding and permitting processes need to establish firm guidelines for reporting results and making data sets available to other researchers, the Unangax people, and the public.  Making data and results widely available will increase wider participation and collaboration with local people, researchers, educators, and others. One example of an effort to collate data is a bibliography project by AIWG in cooperation with the Aleutian Islands/Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

The richness of Aleutian sites means that even small excavations often result in a huge quantity of material to be analyzed. Archaeologists should systematically sample all data sets, including vertebrate and invertebrate faunas and soil chemistry.  The development of consistent and standard methods for collecting and analyzing adequate samples should be encouraged and expanded.  Sampling methods should be clearly defined by all researchers in proposals and reports.  Traditional and emerging technologies should be fully integrated into research proposals.  These include GIS, remote sensing, soil chemistry, isotope and DNA analyses among others.

Finally, new excavations should focus on house and household archaeology, larger excavation units, and attention to under-reported site types, such as non-midden settlements, isolated features, ephemeral artifact scatters, and caves.

Selected references

Bank, Theodore P. and Richard Williams

1975    Urgently Needed Research on Aleut Culture.  Research Bulletin 1 Vienna, Austria: International Committee on Urgent Anthropological and Ethnological Research. 1975


Veltre, Douglas

2012    One Hundred Forty Years of Archaeology in the Central Aleutian Islands, Alaska. In The People Before: The Geology, Paleoecology and Archaeology of Adak Island, Alaska. D. West, Virginia Hatfield, Elizabeth Wilmerding, Christine Lefevre, and Lyn Gualtieri, ed. Pp. 35-45. British Archaeological Reports International Series. Oxford: Archaeopress

Spaulding, Albert C.

1953    The Current Status of Aleutian Archaeology. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology 9:29-31.



Aleut Sulfur Mining on Little Sitkin Island.

Authors: Caroline Funk | University at Buffalo, Debra Corbett | Nanutset Heritage, and Brian Hoffman | Hamline University – The Rat Islands Research Project

An email string discussing Aleut use of sulfur* recently was passed among the community of Northern researchers. A number of people provided insight and ethnohistoric citations describing Aleut use of sulfur in past times: Aleuts used sulfur as a fire starter, as a dye, as pigment and paint. We can speculate that like other places in the world, Aleuts used sulfur as an insecticide or a fungicide and as a topical medicine. Sulfur is used to make black gunpowder, which may have been important to the more recent Russian occupants of the Aleutians. Elemental sulfur is rare and expensive to obtain, unless one happens to be near a sulfur deposit-bearing volcano.

LittleSitkinLast June the Rat Islands Research Project crew mapped and tested what we suspect was a sulfur mining operation on Little Sitkin Island in the Rat Islands (RAT-162). The archaeological site seemed different from a typical prehistoric Aleut village site – although, as you might expect, the site is located on a resource rich small bay with a reef. The air was a little bit dense on the site, because a smoking sulfur deposit rimmed the bluff a few meters below the ground surface.

The extent of the sulfur deposit.

The extent of the sulfur deposit.

Smoking sulfur (Photo by B. Hoffman).

Smoking sulfur (Photo by B. Hoffman).

The twenty-two depression features which usually mark collapsed dwellings were remarkably diverse in shape and size. Some are clustered in a main site area, where we noted a series of linear trenches extending perpendicular to the bluff edge between several of the depressions. We suspect that the linear features were sulfur mining trenches. This area of the site was constructed by prehistoric Aleuts – our small test excavation was in this area and we found prehistoric tools. A charcoal sample from the test excavation is in the radiocarbon lab and soon we’ll have a date of occupation for this portion of the site.

RAT-162 site map.

RAT-162 site map.

RAT-162 looking down slope to the North (Photo by C. Funk).

RAT-162 looking down slope to the North (Photo by C. Funk).

Several other depression features, each measuring one to two meters in diameter, are spaced at regular intervals upslope from the main site (in the images, south is to the upper right and south is upslope). Most of these depressions were right on the bluff edge, often partially eroded. We recovered a chalcedony scraper from the eroded edge of one depression. This scraper gives us strong evidence that this portion of the site resulted from precontact Aleut mining as well. A set of small pits, each less than a meter in diameter, is clustered just upslope from the main site area and behind the bluff edge features – these also likely were sulfur mining pits.

Potential mining feature areas.

Potential mining feature areas.

Near the top of the slope we mapped two interesting feature areas. A rectangular depression is surrounded by five smaller rectangular depressions – we suspect this may be the remains of a Russian era structure. A tamped earth circle about 15 meters in diameter is just upslope from the rectangular structure. We are unsure what this is. Beyond the circle feature are exposed bedrock outcrops that contain chalcedony.

RAT-162 Other Features

Rectangular feature, circular feature, and chalcedony outcrop.

RAT-162 Square house

Potential Russian era feature cluster (Photo by B. Hoffman).

Circular feature (Photo by B. Hoffman).

Circular feature (Photo by B. Hoffman).

We visited this site on our final afternoon in the field and we had just two hours to map and test it. Two days after we left the Rat Islands, an Mw 7.9 earthquake struck the area, the epicenter just 39 kilometers southeast of Little Sitkin Island – potentially damaging this site and others in the region.  As our work in the Rat Islands continues, we’ll revisit this site to learn more about the history of Aleut sulfur mining. For more information our research project, visit our Rat Islands Research Project website.

* “Sulfur” is the conventional spelling in the United States and in Chemistry (Citation: Oxford English Dictionary, Sixth Edition).


Header image: Khvostof, Davidof, and LIttle Sitkin from Segula Island. Photo by C. Funk.

Volcanism and the Aleutian Islands

Authors: Dixie West: Kansas University; Mitsuru Okuno: Fukuoka University; Kirsten Nicolaysen: Whitman College; Breanyn MacInnes: Central Washington University; Virginia Hatfield: Kansas University

Volcanoes created the Aleutian Islands, and volcanic eruptions periodically impacted humans inhabiting the archipelago. Sizable geological events potentially disrupted food sources by killing fish; clogging spawning streams; and smothering ground nesting bird colonies, shellfish beds and sea mammal rookeries (Black 1981; Workman 1979). Volcanism also must have produced a powerful psychological effect on prehistoric Unangax^ (Black 1981).


The August 2008 Kasatochi eruption in the central Aleutians is useful for understanding past geological impacts on humans and their natural world. The explosion covered the island with meters of ash, endangered USFWS biologists, killed thousands of chicks, and destroyed sea lion rookeries and the breeding grounds of over 100,000 ground nesting birds. Pyroclastic-flow deposits created a coastline approximately 400 m further into the sea, and initiated a small tsunami recorded by Atka, Adak and Amchitka tide gauges (USGS 2009)

Our research (e.g. Okuno et al. 2012; West et al. 2012) suggests that prehistoric peoples settled on north Adak Island nearly 7,000 years ago. Five major volcanic events are recorded on north Adak: the Main, Intermediate, Sandwich, YBO, and 40 Year ash occurrences (Black 1976). By dating plant materials charred by ash falls in prehistoric village sites and by comparing the relationship of these ashes with cultural layers, we can determine how human occupations were impacted by volcanic events. Site ADK-171, the earliest site on Adak, lies immediately above the Intermediate Ash that fell approximately 7200 years ago (Okuno et al. 2012). Cultural layers capping a poorly developed soil and Intermediate Ash indicate the volcanic explosion did not prevent humans from settling north Adak soon after the ash fell.


Recent North Pacific Rim research (e.g., Dumond 2011; Fitzhugh 2012) shows remarkable hunter-gatherer flexibility in the face of catastrophic geological events. Unangan resilience probably depended on multiple factors:

  • Intergenerational communication allowing all persons in any given group to recognize signs of an imminent disaster based on past experience of older individuals,
  • The capacity to pick up and move relatively quickly from impending danger,
  • An easily reproducible house architecture and technology if villages were destroyed and tools abandoned,
  • Possible communication with, and temporary aid from, Unangax^ living in nearby island groups, and
  • A remarkably consistent maritime ecosystem where adjacent islands possessed many, if not most, food resources and tool materials familiar to Unangan groups displaced by natural disasters.

The recently NSF funded research project “Collaborative Research: Geological Hazards, Climate Change, and Human/Ecosystems Resilience in the Islands of the Four Mountains” promises to add new information about the impacts of, and human reactions to, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and other geological events in the eastern Aleutians. In 2014 Kirsten Nicolaysen, Breanyn MacInnes, Virginia Hatfield, and Dixie West will launch this three-year interdisciplinary research on Chuginadak and Carlisle Islands.

Black, Robert F. 1976.  Late Quaternary Glacial Events, Aleutian Islands, Alaska. In D. J. Easterbrook and V. Sibrava (eds.), Quaternary Glaciations in the Northern Hemisphere: IUGS-UNESCO International Geological Correlation Program, Project 73-1-24, 285-301. Bellingham, International Union of Quaternary Research.

Black, Lydia. 1981.Volcanism as a Factor in Human Ecology: The Aleutian Case. Ethnohistory 28(4), 313-333.

Dumond, Don. 2011. Archaeology on the Alaska Peninsula: The Northern Section. Fifty Years Onward. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers No. 78. Eugene.

Fitzhugh, Ben. 2012. Hazards, Impacts, and Resilience Among Hunter-Gatherers of the Kuril Islands, pp.19-42.  In J. Cooper and P. Sheets (eds.), Surviving Sudden Environmental Change: Answers from Archaeology. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Okuno, Mitsuru, Keiji Wada, Toshio Nakamura, Lyn Gualtieri, Brenn Sarata, Dixie West, and Masayuki Torii. 2012. Holocene Tephra Layers on the Northern Half of Adak Island in the West-Central Aleutian Islands, Alaska, pp. 59-74. In (D. West, V. Hafield, E. Wilmerding, C. Lefèvre, and L. Gualtieri, eds.), The People Before: the Geology, Paleoecology and Archaeology of Adak Island, Alaska. BAR International Series 2322, Oxford.

USGS. 2009. Small Volcano—Big Eruption

West, D., V. Hatfield, E. Wilmerding, C. Lefèvre, L. Gualtieri (eds.). 2012. The People Before: The Geology, Paleoecology and Archaeology of Adak Island, Alaska. British Archaeological Reports, 2322, Oxford.

Workman, William. 1979. The Significance of Volcanism in the Prehistory of Subarctic Northwest North America. In Volcanic Activity and Human Ecology. P. Sheets and D. Grayson, eds., pp. 339-371. Academic Press. New York.

Safety first, surviving the research no matter what the discipline.

Author:  Caroline Funk, SUNY University at Buffalo

At a certain point all of we researchers are on the water, even if our focus lies on what’s happening on the island landscapes. The Aleutians are an archipelago after all. Many of the researchers who work in the Aleutians are not from cold water Aleutian home regions and we need to be taught how to survive if the boat gets into trouble. Moments after boarding the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s M/V Tiglax, we learn to climb into the survival suits. It’s an awkward process. We are assured that it is even stranger when a boat is listing and rocking in a storm. I hope to never learn that for myself.

Dr. Brian Hoffman, an archaeologist from Hamline University in Minnesota, practices his survival suit up in the summer of 2009:

On a rare sunny day in Adak, Deckhand John of the USFWS M/V Tiglax  lectures on the form and function of the survival suit.

On a rare sunny day in Adak, Deckhand John of the USFWS M/V Tiglax lectures on the form and function of the survival suit.

Dr. Brian Hoffman prepares to climb in. Plastic bags on your feet makes it easier.

Dr. Brian Hoffman prepares to climb in. Plastic bags on your feet makes it easier.

Halfway there. It's a struggle on a calm sunny day.

Halfway there. It’s a struggle on a calm sunny day.


Zipping with gumby paws.


Safe, secure, hoping this never comes up as a necessary event.