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Collaborative Research: An examination of human social and cultural adaptation through archaeological and paleoclimate data from the Aleutian Islands


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Weather, climate & atmosphere
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Archaeologists have expended a lot of research effort trying to determine whether or not periods of past climate change had a significant effect on human populations. In the case of coastal Alaska over the past several thousand years, the available data indicate that for the most part, the answer has been "not much" - the marine ecosystem seems to have remained relatively stable, even though periods of climate change such as the Medieval Warm Period and the so-called "Little Ice Age". The one exception to this generalization is found on Unalaska Island, in the eastern Aleutians. At about 4000 years ago, ringed seals, which are an ice-adapted species, made up a significant portion of the subsistence base. This suggests that temperatures were substantially colder than they are today. However, many of the species that are common in the area today (in the absence of significant levels of sea ice) were also an important part of the subsistence economy 4000 years ago. This research aims to try to address this apparent contradiction; was it cold and icy? Or was it generally more temperate, much as it is today? To do so, the scientists will (a) study the growth patterns and shell chemistry of modern and archaeological butter clams, which will give us an indication of what the water conditions were like. They will also (b) conduct a detailed analysis of all of the species present in the archaeological midden sites, including the age composition of what was being harvested, as an indication of what the environmental conditions were like. And, finally, they will (c) conduct a detailed analysis of the artifacts associated with marine mammal hunting to determine the likelihood that hunters 4000 years ago developed a specialized toolkit for hunting in the sea ice. As coastal communities throughout the Arctic face important decisions regarding the possibility of major climate change, the research team believes that it will be important to have some "test cases" that provide information on how various communities have responded to climate change in the past. The archaeological sites on Unalaska Island provide nearly 4000 years worth of data of adaptation to past climate change; data that are directly relevant to understanding the challenges of future climate change. This project will investigate the effects of Late Holocene climate change on animal biodiversity and human foraging activity in Alaska's Aleutian Islands. This three-year, interdisciplinary study will use zooarchaeological, paleoenvironmental, biological, and oceanographic data to test the hypothesis that fluctuations in Late Holocene climate significantly affected local environments, ecosystems, and human hunting strategy in the eastern Aleutian Islands. This interdisciplinary project will apply models of human foraging behavior to research human-animal-environmental interactions in the context of climate change using three major lines of evidence: 1) growth patterns and stable oxygen isotopes in archaeological shellfish will be used to reconstruct the local paleoenvironment; 2) archaeological faunal material from several taxonomic groups will be used to test whether animal distribution and behavior have changed through time in response to changes in climate; 3) artifacts will be analyzed to look for adaptations to the marine mammal hunting toolkit in response to changes in climate and resource availability. More specifically, the research team will utilize a research program that will use multiple datasets from Unalaska Island to address whether sea ice and ice-loving ("pagophilic") fauna were present in this region during the Neoglacial phase, suggesting a dramatic change in prehistoric climate. The interdisciplinary nature of archaeology makes it uniquely positioned to accomplish two things: 1) to offer truly long term data about the ecological, climate, and resource histories for the Gulf of Alaska, data that are vital to understanding both ancient and contemporary human and environmental interaction in this region and 2) to collaborate with local Native Alaskan communities and students, resource managers, and cultural resource managers to collect, interpret, and disseminate the data and findings.