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Doctoral Dissertation Research: Technological Choice and Human-Animal Relationships: A Bird's Eye View from the Rat Islands, Alaska


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

Project details

Science / project summary

In the past few decades, questions regarding human impacts on the environment have been at the forefront of scientific research. Archaeology is well-placed to answer these questions due to its deep temporal view, allowing researchers to trace long-term changes in both human society and the environment. This project will explore the ways in which humans interact with their environments by examining the varied usages of birds by prehistoric peoples in the Aleutian Islands. Throughout history, humans have used birds in a variety of ways, from food, to raw materials for tools, to clothing. In addition to their more practical usages, birds often play a significant role in Indigenous cultural systems, making them valuable indicators of the ways in which human society is shaped by the environment in which they live. However, due to poor preservation and excavation bias bird remains have only recently begun to be studied in depth. The archaeological sites of the Aleutian Islands have very large avian bone assemblages due to excellent taphonomic conditions. The large size and excellent preservation of these assemblages allows rigorous study from which we can study not only local relationships with birds but also develop models for other times and places. This project will compare the patterns of skeletal bird remains found at archaeological sites in the Rat Islands to oral histories and ethnographies to reveal the interplay of the symbolic and 'material' aspects of the relationship between birds and the residents of the Aleutian Islands. The relationship between the prehistoric inhabitants of the Rat Islands, the Unangan, and birds was maintained by a suite of continual and often daily practices, from hunting, to storytelling, to subsistence. The resulting artifacts of these day-to-day activities, in this case the avian bone assemblage, play a significant role in the reproduction of social and cultural values. By studying the technological choices that the Unangan made regarding birds we can begin to examine the more social and symbolic aspects of the Unangan-bird relationship. Patterns will be examined over a 4000-year time span allowing for an examination of the impact of climatic events on bird exploitation by the Unangan. This project will examine how material practices are shaped by the culture in which they developed and, in turn, by the environment in which they were created. The project team will generate new methodologies for examining how bird remains are deposited by humans within archaeological sites which will allow for not only a better understanding of the interplay between humans and environment in the Aleutians, but which will be applicable to archaeological sites globally.