Researchers Seek Glimpse Into Lives Of Earliest Unangan Population
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.
“Nine-thousand years ago, this was just a blasted landscape,” Jeff Dickrell, a historian based in Unalaska, said. “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 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.
“We’re going to be going out to look at different settlements – prehistoric villages,” West said. “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.
“Since no excavation has occurred, we really don’t know,” West said. “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 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 IFM are uninhabited today, were what attracted prehistoric 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.
“That’s why I think the origination story comes from there, because that’s where the energy is,” Dickrell said. “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.
“In the entire history of archaeology, there’s probably been 20 digs in the Aleutians – almost none, relatively,” Dickrell said. “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.