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Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant: Detecting Epidemiologic Transitions in Pre-Contact Kodiak


Project start
Project end
Type of project
Project theme
Society, economy and culture
Project topic
Culture & history

Project details

Science / project summary

Research on the population growth dynamics of past hunter-gatherers has focused mainly on the influence of food availability and scarcity on hunter-gatherer health, fertility, and mortality. Over the last two decades, however, demographic research among contemporary hunter-gatherers has revealed that infectious diseases also influence their health and population growth. This project explores the possibility that the ancestral Alutiit inhabiting the Kodiak Archipelago in the Gulf of Alaska were vulnerable to fish-borne and other gastrointestinal parasites as a result of their heavy reliance on marine and freshwater fish as well as their food preparation and community sanitation practices. As the dietary importance of marine vs. freshwater fish changed over time, and as food preparation and sanitation practices likewise changed, the Alutiit would have been exposed to different parasitic diseases, entailing changes in health and population growth. To evaluate these claims, the co-PI will recover and quantify changes in the relative frequencies of parasite remains preserved in Kodiak archaeological deposits, then compare these results against previous research on changes in Alutiiq food-ways, settlement practices, and population growth records. This project will add to our growing knowledge about hunter-gatherer disease experiences by exploring behavioral and ecological influences on disease and its impact on population growth rates. The project will also illustrate the potential of parasitological analysis to uncover long-term changes in the prevalence of infectious diseases when pursued systematically. Because the lifecycles of these parasites involve many host species beside their human final hosts, this project will also shed further light on the ecology and biogeography of these parasite taxa and their nonhuman hosts. Returning to traditional foods is a major component of many indigenous efforts to revitalize ancestral culture across the northeastern Pacific Rim, including among contemporary Kodiak Alutiit. While the health benefits of this revitalization are proving effective in counteracting degenerative disease epidemics such as diabetes among these communities, traditional foods also pose their own health risks that must be understood so that these can be avoided. This project will provide valuable knowledge about the health importance of fish and food preparation practices in the contemporary Alutiiq diet.