An unprecedented three-year project involving scientists from four nations, as well as new studies of ceremonial burial caves that held hundreds of mummified men, women and children, has provided fresh insights into Unangax̂ people who began spreading west along the 1,100-mile-long Aleutian chain some 9,000 years ago.
By David Malakoff
This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.
Alaska’s remote Islands of the Four Mountains don’t seem like a very promising place to live. Ferocious winds buffet their steep, treeless slopes, and surf hammers rocky shorelines ringed by cliffs. The surrounding ocean—the Bering Sea on one side, the Pacific on the other—is notorious for its dangerous currents and lethally-cold waters. Massive volcanoes, including the quartet of conical peaks that give the islands their name, periodically erupt and bury the landscape in lava and ash. Powerful earthquakes can strike with terrifying suddenness and give birth to towering tsunamis dozens of feet high. Despite such hazards, at least 4,000 years ago—and possibly as long as 7,000 years ago—people landed on these small slivers of land in the central Aleutian Islands and built communities that survived, and even thrived, for generations.
Archaeologists Virginia Hatfield and Dixie West are about to load equipment onto a helicopter. The helicopter was used to transport the researchers and their equipment to the remote areas that the researchers investigated. | Credit: Mitsuru Okuna
Arkady Savinetskty of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution in Russia extracts a core sample from a peatland deposit in hopes of finding paleoclimate information. | Credit: Mitsuru Okuna
Geologist Lyman Persico (beard) instructs students analyzing bog deposits. | Credit: Kirsten Nicolaysen
Researchers set up a base camp on a rainy July day in 2015. That same month, a magnitude 6.9 tectonic earthquake rocked the camp. The ancient Unangax̂ also had to deal with earthquakes. | Credit: Kirsten Nicolaysen
An archaeologist maps a feature that consists of several flat rocks arranged near each other. The feature may have been part of the wall or floor of a structure. | Credit: Kale Bruner
Now, an unprecedented three-year project involving scientists from four nations, as well as new studies of ceremonial burial caves that held hundreds of mummified men, women and children, have provided fresh insights into the people who lived for millennia on the Four Mountains chain. Together, the studies speak of the remarkable history of the Unangax̂ people (they’re also known as the Aleut) who began spreading west along the 1,100-mile-long Aleutian chain some 9,000 years ago. They confirm that “these were very tough, very versatile people,” said archaeologist Dixie West, a co-director of the project and a retired researcher at the University of Kansas. And they fill some gaps in Aleutian archaeology; although researchers have identified over 1,000 prehistoric sites on the more than 150 islands that make up the chain, few have been studied using modern methods.