New Expedition to Delve Into Unangan Prehistory

Monday, April 07 2014

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Islands of the Four Mountains are at the center of the Aleutians -- geographically, and in folklore passed down from prehistoric times. But we don’t know much about the people who lived there.

An upcoming expedition to the site may change that. KUCB’s Annie Ropeik caught up with the researchers in Unalaska as they prepared for their trip -- and for what it could reveal about the earliest Unangan people.

The current story goes like this: the Unangan people came across the land bridge from Siberia and started making a loop. They moved down through the Alaska interior and along the coast. Nine thousand years ago, they got to the Eastern Aleutians and started working their way up the chain.

Jeff Dickrell is a historian based in Unalaska:

Dickrell: "Nine thousand years ago, this was just a blasted landscape. There was no grass, there was no dirt -- it was just volcanic ash."

That’s exactly what they would have seen on the Islands of the Four Mountains, in the center of the chain. The islands are mostly just -- volcanoes.

But for whatever reason, some Unangan Unangans decided to put down roots there and build house pits. Past researchers have found those ruins, but they don’t know much else about the settlers. It’s a mystery that University of Kansas archaeologist Dixie West will try to unravel this summer.

West: "We’re going to be going out to look at different settlements -- prehistoric villages. We want to know how prehistoric humans adapted to the changes in the climate, and also, what were their strategies for living in an area which had the potential for massive volcanic explosions?"

West and her research team will look for genetic evidence in peat bogs on the islands to tell them who lived there and when. They’ll also search for artifacts like stone tools, and carbon date them.

Their expert on that is Virginia Hatfield, also of the University of Kansas. She says she hopes the house pits they find on the four volcanoes -- Cleveland, Herbert, Tana, and Carlisle -- will be in good enough shape to study.

Hatfield: "Since no excavation has occurred, we really don’t know. We’re real interested in the one on Carlisle, since it has multiple layers of ash deposits and prehistoric occupation. And that’ll give us an idea of how people lived through time."

They know at least one group of prehistoric Unangan lived on the islands -- and they think more might have moved in as recently as a thousand years ago. Even if it hasn’t always been inhabited, it’s clearly an important place to the Unangan Unangans. In oral histories, the islands are described like the Garden of Eden -- a place where life began.

Jeff Dickrell, the local historian, says all the reasons that the Islands of the Four Mountains are uninhabited today, were what attracted prehistoric Unangan Unangans. Each islands is made up almost entirely of its volcano, with no bays or salmon streams. And between them, changing tides create a rapids.

Dickrell: "That’s why I think the origination story comes from there, because that's where the energy is. That's where all the sea mammals are going to be, where all the fish are going to be. They don't like the quiet backs of bays. They like the energy places -- the points, passes -- and that is the place."

But some Unangan in the Eastern Aleutians take the story one step further. They say their people literally came from the Islands of the Four Mountains -- which would mean they moved against the east-to-west tide of migration that we understand today.

This summer, the research team will be looking for evidence on the islands that might match up with the oral histories. It would be a big find.

But Dickrell says this expedition is going to change our understanding no matter what happens.

Dickrell: "In the entire history of archaeology, there’s probably been 20 digs in the Aleutians. Almost none, relatively. … So the amount of information is so little, that every new site changes the story."

Whether it’s adding onto the one we already have, or rewriting it altogether.

Lauren Rosenthal on Monday, April 14 2014:

Hello, Moses -

We did not reach out to any Unangan residents for this story, but we did not intend to exclude them or their perspective. We will be writing more stories about the Islands of the Four Mountains in the coming months, and we hope to speak with Unangan elders and experts to gather their input on the research that's taking place out there.

As you point out, the term "Unangan" was incorrectly pluralized in this story. We have corrected that error.

Thank you for taking the time to comment, and thanks for following KUCB.

Lauren Rosenthal
News Director

Moses Dirks on Monday, April 14 2014:

I am very disappointed that you didn't involved Unangan/s people to comment on this particular issue. What is "Unangans". I wish that you would not attempt to write Unangam tunuu without consultation from a local expert. Hopefully, the Akuugun people will thank you for it if they were around.


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