TThe Aleutian Islands, which stretch over 1,100 miles across the Bering Sea from the Alaska Peninsula, are generally described in books as “untouched” and Documentaries. The remote islands, most of which are uninhabited, actually look wild and largely untouched by human hands. But they are not. As an archaeologist, I know that people have used this land for thousands of years.
I have been studying Aleutian archaeological collections for six years but had the privilege of only making the expensive trip from Buffalo, New York to the islands once. In 2019 a flight of several hours from Anchorage took us to Adak, the westernmost island of the Aleutian Islands with an airport and an airport with around 300 inhabitants. From there we loaded onto a boat for a 20-hour drive to the island of Kiska in the group of the Rat Islands.
ÖOur first archaeological site on Kiska was in a sheltered bay. As with many ancient archaeological sites, its importance to man in the past was only visible in very minor changes in vegetation and topography. The rocky beach gradually rose and met a hilly tundra completely devoid of trees. Occasionally we saw sea otters or sea lions in the bay watching us as curiously as we were watching them.
L.As we looked across this bay, it felt like we were in a place that was “untouched” or “untouched” by human hands. But using words like these is problematic. For one, it erases the history of indigenous occupation, often to the detriment of the living population. We do not call places like the Mediterranean Sea untouched, not even in places without modern settlement, because they were inhabited by farmers who shaped the landscape more obviously. Your story is more visible. However, that does not mean that non-agricultural ancestors can be dismissed.
TThese terms also assume that humans are or should be the head of an ecosystem. Rather, we should acknowledge that people an integral part of nature, not “about”. All too often this dichotomy leads to the idea that “protecting” a landscape means excluding humans or human use. That is often to the disadvantage the indigenous or local population.
E.Even if these effects are unintentional, the choice of words is still harmful.
The Aleutians were from the Ancestors Unangax̂ for at least 9,000 years. In the 18th century, the Unangax̂ (a population once estimated at 15,000) were forcibly evicted from the Aleutians Russian colonists who came in search of sea otter and fur seal skins. Healthy Unangax̂ men were removed from their homes and forced to participate in the fur trade; others were killed in the war against the Russian invasion; even more died of introduced diseases.
B.When the Aleutian Islands were sold to the United States in 1867, most of the Unangax̂ settlements were wiped out, particularly in the western Aleutian Islands. Today there are around 12,000 people who make up the Offspring, mostly living outside of these islands.
ONArchaeological work in this region is still relatively sparse and many areas have not yet been fully explored. Yet thousands of archaeological sites have been found throughout the archipelago. Chances are, if you are on an Aleutian island you are within several hundred meters of a feature made by Unangax̂.
In the Aleutian Islands there are no pyramids, no amphitheaters and no clear-cuts.
The ancestors Unangax̂ built long-term settlements from semi-underground dwellings (called ulax, or barabaras in Russian), which consisted of pits dug in the ground and was covered by a frame made of driftwood that was thatched with grass and insulated with earth. They also built hunting camps consisting of individual, isolated ones barabaras and burial features such as mounds and caves, and they left behind large shellfish and bones. Over time, the Unangax̂ built ever larger and more permanent settlements and kept in touch with each other throughout the archipelago.
IIn addition to changing the landscape and the ecosystem through the construction and occupation of settlements, the ancestors of the Unangax̂ also influenced the food webs of the Aleutians. They were fishermen-hunters-gatherers who ate fish, whales, fur seals, sea otters, birds and their eggs, as well as sea urchins.
ONAccording to the few oral traditions that have survived, the Unangax̂ ancestors had a complex relationship with their landscape; they perceived all environmental factors as imbued with ghosts. Places, animals and plants were all enlivened by different properties that influenced their ways engaged in human culture. Birds of prey such as hawks and eagles, for example, were considered imbued with power, and their feathers were used as offerings to hunters.
F.From ethnographic reports we know that the ancestors were Unangax̂ information passed on about where and when migratory birds arrived so that a hunting party could be started on the day of their arrival. They devised a systematic way to collect the largest possible catch while leaving enough to replenish the population for the hunting party the following year.
R.Research into the lasting effects of Unangax̂ on the Aleutian bird populations has produced conflicting results. Some studies have found that humans low long-term impact on birds while others found them decreased number of local nesting colonies.
My own research Archaeological remains on the Council of Iceland suggest that humans continued to hunt certain birds, although their populations are believed to have declined due to climatic changes thousands to hundreds of years ago. Humans seemed to be using birds that were important to their culture, regardless of whether those birds had large or small populations at the time.
S.ea Otters stayed away from areas where the Unangax̂ ancestors lived and found refuge in bays where the harsh landscape prevented human settlement. As a result, the Unangax̂ hunted very few otters in many places on the Aleutian Islands – on the other hand, on the island of Amchitka, where these refuges are closer to the settlements of the ancestors than on other islands, archaeologists find higher proportions of sea otter remains. Overall, it was the very presence of people that for the most part dictated sea otter distribution. Only after the arrival of the Russians were the numerous otters in the region almost wiped out.
TThe shortage of sea otters near human settlements would have had a dramatic impact on the coastal environment. Sea otters eat sea urchins and sea urchins eat seaweed. So wherever there are otters, kelp forests thrive; Where there are no otters, there is seaweed wasteland. The ancestral Aleutians would have looked like a mosaic of seaweed wastes and seaweed forests, with seaweed wastes largely reflecting human coastal settlements. This was strikingly different from the extensive kelp forests that exist today.
ÖOverall, the Aleutians have remained relatively unscathed from thousands of years of human habitation. Most wildlife remained unchanged until the 18th century, in part because the animal populations were so large. Some – like birds and sea otters – have shifted locally, but there are no evidence of extinction due to the indigenous way of life. And the remains of the ancestors’ human occupation are largely invisible to the untrained eye.
TThis, of course, is very different from the tremendous environmental changes made by agricultural and industrial societies. The Aleutian Islands have no pyramids, no amphitheaters and no clearcuts – and no major changes in animal populations or the landscape in the 9,000 years of life as a collector. This story has left little traces.
B.But living in such a way that the environment you are in is not actively or drastically damaging it doesn’t mean you have no control over it. Nor does it mean that the existence of ancestral indigenous communities should be dismissed or forgotten by contemporary settlers. Most people have no idea that people have ever lived in the Aleutians in the past millennia; The indigenous history has largely been forgotten by outsiders. The cultural loss and change that resulted from the Russian occupation and during World War II were devastating to the Unangax̂ people and other indigenous peoples in the region.
USinging romanticized words like “untouched” makes social and cultural differences between indigenous peoples and colonial industrialists harmful. Just because the story is hard to make out isn’t an excuse to obliterate your memory.