Aleutian Islands

The effects of environmental change on ancient Aleuts in the central Aleutian Islands

Kanaga volcano

More photos from the field seasons


The National Science Foundation/Arctic Social Sciences

Project Summary

This project was started in 2005 and involved 3 field seasons to the central Aleutian Islands. Most of our work was focused on Adak Island, but we also visited Kanaga Island. The question of how ancient peoples adapted to their environment is one that continues to intrigue researchers regardless of the cultures’ geographic locations and time periods. Ancient peoples probably adapted to, even capitalized on, the changes in the climate, the waterways and food resources. Studies have indicated that past environmental changes must have been simply too abrupt, catastrophic or extreme for people to adapt, but more often than not the changes were gradual and steady, allowing for cultural adaptation.  A geomorphological study of two central Aleutian Islands, Adak and Kanaga, was undertaken in order to investigate the possible environmental effects on ancient Aleut occupation during the Holocene. The environmental changes which may have affected the ancient Aleuts are general climate changes associated with warming and cooling events, tectonic uplift due to seismic activity, and volcanic eruptions. Multiple, thick layers of tephra cover most of the central Aleutian Islands. Tephra may have altered both local fresh and saltwater chemistry such that the Aleuts’ nutritional resources were altered. Tectonic uplift most likely temporarily altered the availability and types of marine resources of food.  Our results confirm the interpretations of a complex general Holocene geologic history evidenced on the other Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula to the east. This study documents field evidence for paleoenvironmental change in the central Aleutian Islands throughout the Holocene, though none of the changes seem to have been marked enough to significantly affect the migration and/or demise of the ancient Aleuts.

Publications resulting from this research

Gualtieri, L. Sarata, B., Okuno, M. and West, D. 2012. Did Holocene Paleoenvironmental Factors Affect Ancient Aleut Occupation and Settlement in the Central Aleutian Islands? In The People Before: The geology, paleoecology and archaeology of Adak Island, Alaska. Edited by Dixie West, Virginia Hatfield, Elizabeth Wilmerding, Christine Lefèvre and Lyn Gualtieri. Archeopress BAR International Series 2322: 47-57.

Okuno, M., Wada, K., Nakamura, T., Gualtieri, L., Sarata, B., West, D. and Torii, M. In press. Holocene Tephra Layers on Northern Adak Island, West-central Aleutian Islands, Alaska.


The Aleut Corporation

US Fish and Wildlife

Alaska Volcano Observatory