Aleuts: Ecosystem, Holocene Historys, and Siberian Origin

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Science  15 Aug 1975:
Vol. 189, Issue 4202, pp. 507-515
DOI: 10.1126/science.189.4202.507


An original objective of these multidisciplinary studies was to determine the position of the Aleuts in the Aleutian ecosystem with time depth. This has been done in a variety of ways (7, 14, 20, 21). One of the most useful approaches is the construction of life expectancy tables. The greater longevity of Aleuts compared with Eskimos represents an effective biological and cultural human adaptation within this ecosystem. The Aleuts defined their ecosystem by expanding to the limits of the area they could effectively exploit with their complex technology, population structure, and population deployment system. Their intellectual achievements played a tangible role in their longevity in the pre-Russian period, and their sophisticated knowledge of human anatomy is both a causal and a consequential correlate of their longevity. From the Aleut point of view, the food resources were diverse, abundant, and accessible, and they also provided fabricational materials necessary for their complex material culture. The Aleuts successfully hunted the world's largest range of sea mammals, from the sea otter to the whales. At the same time, extensive use of invertebrates easily available on the ice-free strandflats enabled disadvantaged sectors of the population to make important contributions to their own food supply and thus improve life expectancy.

The rich food and fabricational materials antedate the Holocene history of Nikolski Bay and the arrival of the ancestral Aleuts. The natural resources of this area are fundamentally related to the former peninsular extension of Beringia and the permanent upwelling system in Samalga Pass (22). Sea otters, seals, and sea lions were present when the first Aleuts came to the area. Nikolski Bay has been an ideal place to obtain samples representing the entire Holocene Epoch. The earliest Asiatic migrants came from Siberia and traversed the southern coastline of Beringia. They established a large and permanent village on the northern arm of Nikolski Bay and remained there while expanding to the far ends of the Aleutian domain in the sixth millennium of their residence.

The record of cultural change spans a lithic revolution. It begins with a conservative unifacial core and blade industry that preserves several Asiatic traits but includes stone lamps, dishes, an image of the deity, and the use of red ochre. Between 7000 and 6000 years ago bifacially flaked and stemmed points appear, with some continuing elements of the old unifacial industry. This transition culture continues to about 4500 years ago, when the standard sequence seen in the old midden of Chaluka takes form. This culture continues, adding and subtracting various elements but always maintaining a distinctive configuration through time, to the present Aleuts, whose connection with the first Anangula settlement includes having remembered an older Aleut designation, "the place of the blades," and collecting eggs on its flanks.

The dating of events inside Nikolski Bay and the identification of the Asiatic elements do throw light on human migration from Siberia into Alaska. The Aleuts and Eskimos may well have been a part of a single population system of Bering Sea Mongoloids who expanded along the Siberian coasts and across the southern Beringian coasts. The population that reached Nikolski Bay became Aleuts. Those closer to the old mouth of the Kuskokwim River and further north became Eskimos. The rise of sea level presented no problems to marine-adapted people. Instead it presented more opportunities in the form of more coastline to exploit. The ancestors of the American Indians migrated earlier through the interior of Beringia.

The double-thumb hypothesis of Hrdlička (23) is useful now for interpreting human migration into the New World. He suggested that if the Eskimos were physically related to the Indians as the thumb of one hand is to the fingers, then a second thumb is necessary to represent the Aleuts, who are also distinctive. The Bering Sea Mongoloids as a group (Aleuts, Eskimos, Chukchi, Koryaks, and probably Kamchadals) are distinguished from the Indians by both genetic traits such as the presence of blood group B, which is absent in the Indians, and morphological configurations such as the unusually broad, low ascending portions of the mandible. This magnitude of difference fits very well with a geographic difference in point of origin, separate route of entry into the New World across Beringia, and the maintenance of separation by many geographic, economic, and cultural barriers.

Earlier investigators in the Aleutians compiled invaluable bodies of information. The Russian W. J. Jochelson worked in the Aleutians and the American A. Hrdlička in Siberia. The problems common to both sides of the Bering Sea have now been studied by Soviet and American scholars at the same time, in the same place, and with the same specimens. It has been pleasant and informative to work directly with the Siberian authorities on Siberia in the Aleutians.

In summary, I submit the following eight conclusions:

1) Increased longevity, rather than rapid population turnover, served as a major form of population adaptation and resource management among the Aleuts. Because people lived longer, genetic and cultural wastage was minimized.

2) Cranial vault change, from narrow to broad, has been the result of evolution within the population.

3) The Aleuts have continuously occupied Nikolski Bay, Umnak Island, for 8700 years. During this time sea level has risen and the coastline configuration has changed.

4) Siberian characteristics of the Anangula core and blade industry have been identified, and a transition culture, which links the earliest Anangula tool tradition with the later Aleut culture of Chaluka, has been discovered.

5) Organic remains of human occupation have been used to precisely date geological events of the Holocene Epoch for 8700 of its 10,000 years. Major volcanic eruptions occurred, at exponentially increasing intervals, 10,000, 9000, 7000 and 3000 years ago.

6) The earliest Aleut culture has preserved its Asiatic template because of the coastal entry route from Siberia and subsequent isolation of the population. The abundant lithic remains indicate a complex and diverse material culture.

7) The known similarity of Aleuts to Asiatic populations plus our Holocene time scale suggest a slower rate of human evolution than was assumed when a later date of entry into the Aleutians was accepted.

8) In the broadest perspective, these findings are relevant to understanding the entry of man (Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indians) into the New World in that other migrant populations originating in Siberia may also have entered the New World with a sophisticated and complex culture.