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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Aron L. Crowell

Living on the Edge: People in the Gulf of Alaska Environment

The Gulf of Alaska is one of the world's most productive oceanic regions. Abundant marine mammals, fish, and birds have supported human settlement for 10,000 years, one of the longest sequences of maritime cultures in the Americas.

Unangan, Kodiak Alutiiq, and Tlingit men, painted

Unangan, Kodiak Alutiiq, and Tlingit men (Painted by A. Postels, 1827).
Click image for a larger view.

At the same time, the Gulf of Alaska is decidedly "on the edge." It occupies an unstable subarctic margin of the North American continent where glaciers, earthquakes, volcanoes, climatic shifts, and ecosystem changes pose severe challenges to human occupation. Archaeology and paleoenvironmental science provide a long-term view of how people have learned to live and flourish in this dynamic region.

Coastal cultures of the Gulf of Alaska include the Tlingit, Eyak, Alutiiq, Dena'ina, and Unangan. In traditional times all depended on agile watercraft as well as waterproof clothing and specialized tools and techniques for hunting and fishing. They built earthen-walled winter houses in the western Gulf and dwellings of spruce and cedar planks along the forested eastern coast. The entire region was linked by long-distance trade and warfare.

Gulf societies were strikingly similar to each other in structure and organization. Family groups of 15-40 people owned and harvested subsistence resources. Total community size could exceed 1000 people. Political systems were small in scale -- chiefs seldom led more than a single village -- but social rank was inherited and wealth was unevenly distributed among elites, commoners, and slaves. In anthropological terms, populations of the Gulf of Alaska were "complex" hunter-gatherers.

These characteristics may have developed in response to both the richness and instability of the Gulf of Alaska environment. Clans and families that controlled the best hunting and fishing sites were more affluent and powerful than others. Warfare, which become more widespread after A. D. 1000, may have been provoked by population growth and increasing competition for resources.

Archaeological excavations at the Malina Creek

Archaeological excavations at the Malina Creek village site on Afognak Island in the Kodiak archipelago. The lowest levels are 5000 years old. Layers of shell and animal bones at archaeological sites record the diets of people in the past, and changes may be linked to regime shifts in the marine ecosystem. (Photo by Richard Knecht, 1993).
Click image for a larger view.

But if control of resources was important, what were the implications of environmental change? For example, we know that dramatic shifts in the abundance of fish, seabirds, and sea mammals occur in 10-30 year cycles that correspond to fluctuations in North Pacific sea temperatures. When a "regime shift" occurs there are large increases or decreases in salmon productivity and opposite changes in sea lion and harbor seal abundance. When regime shifts occurred in the past, salmon streams and other key resource locales would have lost or gained in value to the families that owned them.

One strategy for evening out these cycles was to avoid specialization. Gulf coast peoples have always utilized a very broad range of subsistence resources, and areas of high diversity provided the most stable territories. Such locations also have the greatest numbers of archaeological sites from all time periods.

Cataclysmic geological events must also be considered. Large earthquakes, tidal waves, and coastal sinking have periodically destroyed village sites and forced local populations to evacuate. Glacial advances during the Little Ice Age destroyed settlements in coastal fjords and caused sinking of the shoreline. In Glacier Bay and Icy Strait, ice advances, flooding, and the loss of coastal habitat appear to have pushed Tlingit groups north to Yakutat Bay, an area that belonged formerly to the Chugach and Eyak. In addition, volcanic eruptions have forced the abandonment of entire regions. This occurred most recently in 1912, when the Katmai/Novarupta explosion destroyed villages on the Alaska Peninsula. The eruption of Aniakchak 3,400 years ago was followed by a 1500 year period when few people lived in the vicinity of the volcano.

It is evident from such archaeological and historical data that migration was a frequent result of natural disasters. Movement away from affected areas was made easier by the seafaring ability of Gulf peoples, who could travel across hundreds of miles of ocean in kayaks, large skin-covered boats, and wooden canoes.

One of the most important human adaptations to change and unpredictability appears to have been political. Gulf headmen maintained alliances with other villages by exchanging trade goods, hostages, feasts, and marriage partners. Such relationships could operate over long distances and across cultural-linguistic boundaries. According to Russian reports, for example, the Alutiiq chief of Shuyak Island in the Kodiak archipelago summoned 1000 Dena'ina allies from the Kenai Peninsula to fight Russian fur traders who invaded Kodiak Island in the 1780s. When disasters struck, political networks made it possible to seek help or migrate into allied territories.

This model might also explain why systems of social ranking and ceremonial exchange operated across the entire Gulf of Alaska despite great variations in local population density. No matter how large a village was or where it was located it was necessarily part of a regional network of relationships that cushioned the risks of "living on the edge."


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