Introduction: Origins and Settlement of the Indigenous Populations of the Aleutian Archipelago
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Origins and Settlement of the Indigenous Populations of the Aleutian Archipelago

Aleutian Islands, Indigenous Peoples, Colonization, Contact, Biology


The series of papers in this special issue of Human Biology use an interdisciplinary approach to address regional questions and to integrate disparate Aleutian data into a broad, synthetic effort. The contributors leverage decades of data on Aleut origins, biogeography, and behavior through integration of molecular analyses, linguistics, archaeology, and ethnography. This research explores the origin and colonization of the Aleutian archipelago, communication and the extent of prehistoric cultural exchange among Aleut subgroups, ethnographic information as applied to human biological variation, metric and genetic variation among Aleut groups, and prehistoric dietary reconstruction.

The Aleutian archipelago, composed of eastern, central, and western islands, extends 1,800 km between the North American and Asian continents and divides the northern Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. Volcanic in origin and formed during the early Tertiary, the archipelago is composed of more than 200 islands divided into six groups, separated by ocean passes. The climate is maritime and is characterized by foggy and cloudy weather, frequent rain and winds, and often cold but not severe annual temperatures. The Aleutians form the southern boundary for the most biologically and commercially important region of the Pacific—the Bering Sea. Until recently, this area was a rich ecotone that supported abundant populations of large marine mammals, ocean fisheries, thick kelp forests, complex near-shore ecosystems and intertidal zones, spawning streams, and a highly diverse avian fauna pivotal to the adaptations and survival of the human groups who, in the past, peopled the islands of the archipelago. However, the Aleutians, once considered one of the richest island ecosystems in the world, have been undergoing considerable biotic turnover (Estes and Duggins 1995). Population densities of marine mammals and some economical fish have dramatically declined, and the once thick kelp forests have decreased (Committee on the Alaska Groundfish Fishery and Steller Sea Lions 2003; Trites et al. 1999). In contrast, Aleutian waters have witnessed increases in sea urchin, pollack, and [End Page 481] shark populations, species that were historically uncommon in this ecosystem (Estes et al. 1998; Springer 1999). This biotic restructuring has occurred over a short time period and carries socioeconomic consequences and lessons for local inhabitants—and the world community, especially if rapid global warming is the cause (Estes et al. 1998).

The Aleutian Islands define the southern margin of Beringia, across which much of the early peopling of the Americas occurred, and present a 9,000-year record of human occupation in the east and a record of more than 3,000 years in the west. Current research suggests that these prehistoric human inhabitants had minimal interactions with populations outside the archipelago, with any new interactions commencing from the Alaska Peninsula. These remote islands preserve the critical cultural and biological information of peoples who settled, adapted, and thrived in a subarctic maritime world.

The historical record of the Aleut peoples, like many other Native Americans, is one of exploitation and decimation resulting from disease and warfare. During the 18th century, the arrival from Russia of sea otter hunters, followed by Russian Orthodox missionaries, had a drastic effect on Aleutian populations and their hunter-gatherer culture, economy, and maritime environment (Tikhmenev 1978). Upon contact, the native population declined rapidly; by 1831 only 16 islands were inhabited by an estimated 2,000 natives (Sekora 1973). This initial historical period has provided the richest reservoir of ethnographic data (Berkh 1974; Black 1984; Lantis 1970; Liapunova 1996; Veniaminov 1984), which largely focus on Aleuts living on the eastern islands. A second devastating blow to Aleut culture occurred in 1943, when the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Dutch Harbor in the eastern Aleutians and captured Kiska and Attu islands to the west. Naval weather observers on Kiska and Attuans were relocated to prisoner-of-war camps in Hokkaido, Japan, where less than half of them survived. The American military relocated Aleuts living in nine villages on six islands to evacuation camps in southeast Alaska for 3 years, where over 10% died. In the best interests of the United States, American...