Historic distribution of southwest Alaskan native groups (from Dumond 2005)
Aniakchak is very near to the historic boundary between Unangan (Aleut) and Supiaq or Alutiiq (Pacific Eskimo) peoples. One of our research goals is to determine in what ways this boundary may have changed in the past. What we want to know is who lived in Aniakchak Bay? Were they more closely related to the people of the Aleutian Islands or the Kodiak Archipelago, or was their culture an amalgamation of regional traditions. In what ways did they interact with their neighbors to the east and west? Was there a sharp boundary between peoples or was there a lot of trade and contact? Did these borderlands change throughout the occupation of the site, or did they remain relatively stable and permanent? To answer these questions we look at everything from houses and harpoons to carved ivory and even quartz crystals.
Quartz crystal from Koniag house
Our excavations indicate that the “Eskimo/Aleut” cultural boundary did shift over time. We are still piecing together the early part of the story, but by 300 years ago our site was definitely occupied by people from the east, people with a distinct material culture related to a Thule, or more likely a Koniag archaeological tradition (the ancestors of today’s Alutiiq people).
ANIA 4529 – Green slate endblade found in 2004
We had a glimpse of this Thule/Koniag occupation our first season of excavation when we found a ground slate harpoon endblade – a tool diagnostic of late prehistoric Eskimo culture. Our next season we excavated a large, “outdoor” hearth with associated slate tools, a copper bead, and activity areas belonging to the Thule/Koniag occupation. Two radiocarbon dates indicate this hearth was in use from approximately 250 to 350 years ago. The hearth and surrounding material remains were the first solid evidence of an actual Thule/Koniag occupation in this part of the Alaska Peninsula. For us a very exciting result for the 2005 field season.
This summer we found the clincher – a Thule/Koniag multi-room house. Writing that we “found” this house is a bit of a misstatement. We have known of this “house” or at least this housepit (a surface depression that marks where a semi-subterranean sod house once stood) from the original site survey. Unable to clearly see through the dense vegetation, however, the survey archaeologists recorded two depressions, one circular and one somewhat rectangular in shape (Features 18 and 19 on their map).
Original site map from VanderHoek and Myron (2004)
I have been suspicious of these features from my first visit to the site, but have always been too focused on other site areas to give them any serious attention. This year we finally cleared away the surrounding vegetation for a closer look.
Although difficult to see in photographs, my field notes give some sense of what we found. Instead of two separate depressions, this area contained a complex feature with a relatively large main room off of which radiated five smaller rooms (and an entryway) like spokes on a wheel.
These multi-room houses are widespread throughout the Kodiak Archipelago and upper Alaska Peninsula beginning as early as AD 1100 and continuing in use up into the 1800s (see Bundy et al. 2005; Dumond 1998, 2004; Knecht and Jordan 1985; Saltonstall et al. 2002). Historically these houses were used by two or more families. They would share the central room for cooking and other daily activities. The side rooms they used as bedrooms, store rooms, and even for saunas.
House style is often an important ethnic marker. We believe this observation is especially true for the last 2000 years of southwest Alaskan history. All cultural groups living in the region built semi-subterranean pit houses, but the style of their houses differed substantially. Aniakchak’s multi-room house was built in the Koniag style. I believe it is our best evidence that a community of Alutiiq ancestors (archaeological Koniag) lived in Aniakchak Bay around 300 years ago.
National Park Service archaeologists report of four other multi-room house pits (one on the north side of Aniakchak Bay and three on two sites in Kujulik Bay just west of Aniakchak) found during their 1997-2000 surveys in the park (VanderHoek and Myron 2004). Three radiocarbon dates from these features range between 300 and 500 years old, suggesting these three houses also belong to the Thule/Koniag archaeological tradition. It is worth noting, however, that the NPS archaeologists found no ground slate endblades and only one slate knife diagnostic of a Thule/Koniag occupation during their four seasons of survey and testing in Aniakchak park. From their perspective, the last 500 years of prehistory in the park remained relatively obscure and unknown.
So, Aniakchak and apparently Kujulik Bays have the westernmost Thule/Koniag houses on the Alaska Peninsula. Were these scattered four houses built by people living on the very edge of the Alutiiq world? It seems likely given what we know about the archaeology of the Chignik region further west (Dumond 1992; Maschner 2004). On-the-other-hand, if I could walk over a Koniag multi-room house for two summers without recognizing it, perhaps we just need to take a closer look at the Chignik sites.
For now, we have a large collection of artifacts and faunal remains from our Aniakchak excavations waiting for analyses. I’m very curious to see what these analyses will tell us about this Koniag community and what life was like for them living on the borderlands.
Bundy, B. E., D. M. Vinson and D. E. Dumond (2005) Brooks River Cutbank: An Archeological Data Recovery Project in Katmai National Park. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers no. 64. Dept. of Anthropology, University of Oregon, Eugene.
Dumond, D. E. (1992) Archaeological Reconnaissance in the Chignik-Port Heiden Region of the Alaska Peninsula. In Contributions to the Anthropology of Southcentral and Southwestern Alaska. R.H. Jordan, F. de Leguna, and A.F. Steffian, ed., Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska 24(1-2): 89-108: Fairbanks.
Dumond, D. E. (1998) The Archaeology of Migrations: Following the Fainter Footprints. Arctic Anthropology 35(2):59.
Dumond, D. E. (2003) Archaeology on the Alaska Peninsula: The Leader Creek Site and its Context. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers no. 60. Dept. of Anthropology and Museum of Natural History, University of Oregon, Eugene.
Dumond, D. E. (2005) A Naknek chronicle: Ten Thousand Years in a Land of Lakes and Rivers and Mountains of Fire. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Washington, DC.
Knecht, R. A., R. H. Jordan (1985) Nunakakhnak : An Historic Koniag Village in Karluk, Kodiak Island, Alaska. Arctic Anthropology 22(2):17-35
Maschner, H. D. G. (2004) Traditions Past and Present: Allen McCartney and the Izembek Phase of the Western Alaska Peninsula. Arctic Anthropology 41(2):98-111.
Saltonstall, Patrick G., Robert Kopperl, and Amy F. Steffian (2002) Smokehouses and Dwellings: Structures at an Interior Fish Camp, Kodiak Island Alaska. Paper presented at the 29th Annual Meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Anchorage, AK
VanderHoek, Richard and Rachel Myron (2004) Cultural Remains from a Catastrophic Landscape: An Archeological Overview and Assessment of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve. United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve.