by Carl Strang
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I got to spend some time in the Aleutian Islands as a graduate student. I heard a few things about the Aleut people at the time, but a news review in Science last year provided the opportunity to learn more about this interesting chapter in the human story of our continent.
Balter, Michael. 2012. The peopling of the Aleutians. Science 335:158-161. This article reviewed recent and current research into Aleut archeology. Archeologists have found that the Aleuts spread into the islands from the Alaska Peninsula rather than from Siberia, and they did so in two waves. The Paleo-Aleuts had skeletal features with some European influence, a simpler social structure (for instance, houses had only one room), and a simpler economy (they ate mainly fish, seabirds and sea otters). They reached Adak Island in the middle of the chain by 7000 years ago (glacial remnants made living in the Aleutians impossible until 9000 years ago), and the western islands around 3500 years ago.
The Neo-Aleuts began to arrive 1000 years ago, and blended with rather than replaced the Paleo-Aleuts, with today’s people showing a ratio of about 2/3 to 1/3 Neo-Aleut to Paleo-Aleut genetics. The Neo-Aleuts brought innovations of multi-room houses, and preyed on larger sea mammals including seals, sea lions and Steller’s sea cows. The population was estimated at 16,000 in 1740, but Russian enslavement for fur harvesting knocked them down to about 1600. They increased after American acquisition of Alaska, but were removed from the Aleutians during WWII as it appeared that the war would endanger them. The naval base on Adak closed in the late 1990’s, some Aleuts have moved back there and to other islands in the chain, and culturally they have conserved some of the distinctions of different island populations despite the mixing imposed by the Russians.
Aleuts are closer to Siberians than to Yupiks (the nearest “Eskimos”) genetically, apparently having crossed the Bering Sea independently and remaining culturally distinct through their spread into the Aleutians. Though their facility with sea travel has been cited by some as evidence for a coastal spread southward of Native Americans in glacial times, others point out that the Aleuts came along much later.