Approximately 5000 years ago, a regional shift to village life occurred in the Aleutian archipelago. Villages existed before that time, as data from the well-documented village of Anangula 8500 years ago would indicate, but such settlements were small, localized, and perhaps unique. However, sometime between 5500 and 4500 years ago a massive reorganization of ancient Aleut society appears to have transpired. Islands that were previously unoccupied were now inhabited, the westward expansion of peoples was nearly completed to the furthest of the Near Islands, and the bays and lagoons of the western Alaska Peninsula, and eastern Aleutian Islands showed signs of vibrant community life. A number of events, including climate change, population growth, an influx of new peoples, or a shift in subsistence strategies, might have caused this settlement reorganization. Archaeological data from before this time are so rare and ephemeral in most of the region that it might be easy to argue for an influx of peoples, but no evidence exists to support this contention at present and modern research has not addressed this question.
Whatever the conditions that led to this societal shift, from Port Moller on the Alaska Peninsula in the east to the Near Islands in the far west, a suite of characteristics such as semisubterranean houses with roof entrances, oil lamps, sea mammal hunting and open water fishing, the use of red ochre and other pigments, long-distance travel, permanent villages, and inter-island trade all coalesced into a cultural pattern. This combination of traits is what Allen McCartney first termed the Aleutian Tradition (McCartney, 1984). The Aleutian Tradition is generally seen as the period when most of the traits that were described by early explorers and scholars came to be part of the indigenous pattern. Archaeologically, these artifacts include projectiles, endblades, scrapers, hafted knives and other tools that are bifacially worked, a huge variety of sea mammal hunting harpoons, fishing spears and hooks, net sinkers, line weights, polished bit adzes and, at the end of the tradition, bone spoons and slate ulus. On the western Alaska Peninsula, pottery is found at a number of sites dating to the last 2000 years, and in the greater eastern Aleutian region, toggling harpoons more reminiscent of styles further north are found.
One of the most spectacular aspects of the Aleutian Tradition is the ancient Aleut skill at mummification of the dead. Many of these mummies were individuals of high status, and when interred in caves they were perfectly preserved for up to 2000 years. This preservation allowed archaeologists to investigate many aspects of the Aleutian Tradition that are not preserved in the ancient village sites. These include baskets, mats, clothing, hats, masks, bags, shields, armor, spears, bows and arrows, kayaks, and many other aspects of perishable material culture.
Prior to the 1990s, the Aleutian Tradition was known primarily through research conducted at Port Moller on the Alaska Peninsula, on Umnak and Unalaska islands in the eastern Aleutian region, Amchitka in the Andreanof group, and a scatter of small collections from excavations that occurred over the previous 100 years in the more western Aleutians. Excavations either conducted early in the American period of occupation or by soldiers during World War II also provided enough details that an ancillary western Aleutian variant had been suggested by McCartney (1971). Based on work over the last ten years, the Aleutian Tradition now shows a number of emergent regional variants. These can be roughly divided into the Alaska Peninsula region (including Unimak Island, the Shumagin Islands, Sanak Island, and adjacent islets); the eastern Aleutian Islands dominated by Umnak, Unalaska, and the Akun-Akutan group (Krenitzin Islands); the Central Aleutian Islands, which include Amchitka, Atka, Adak, and adjacent islands (Andreanof and Rat groups); and the western Aleutian Islands area, which includes Buldir and the Near Island group.
Recent projects investigating the Aleutian Tradition period have found that while McCartney was correct in that a suite of traits could be found anytime during the last 5000 years and in any part of the Aleutian region, a great amount of variation is today recognizable. Perhaps most remarkable is that this newly recognized variation does not apply to all categories of data and all spatial scales. For example, house form and size generally grow larger through time, but the shape and organization of houses appear to change from east to west, with adjacent areas changing together in some time periods and clearly uncoordinated in others. Another important area of variation is in the degree of political complexity. The western Alaska Peninsula and the eastern Aleutian Islands had much larger villages at all times than farther west, and apparently embraced much more stratified social categories, including slaves. These differences in levels of integration probably reflected the density of food resources, which also resulted in a variable subsistence economy. While the Aleut of the Aleutian Tradition took advantage of almost everything edible in the north Pacific and southern Bering Sea, there have been significant spatial and temporal changes across the region. In the east, where salmon returns were greater, settlement, storage, subsistence, and technology reflected access to salmon. Elsewhere, cod, herring, and other fish were much more important. Sea mammals were central everywhere, although whales, sea lions, fur seals, harbor seals, and ring seals were harvested with varying emphasis in different areas at different times.
With violent weather patterns, constant earthquakes, regular volcanic eruptions, tsunami, and other catastrophes, the ancient Aleut thrived on one of the world's most dynamic landscapes. While the Aleut or Unangan people are one of the least known and least studied northern peoples, their archaeology is becoming one of the better case studies for investigating the relationship between humans and marine landscapes in the far north.
Herbert D. G. Maschner See also Alaska Peninsula; Aleut; Aleutian Islands
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