Comparative Biomass Estimates and Prehistoric Cultural Ecology of the Southwest Umnak Region, Aleutian Islands

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  • Comparative Biomass Estimates and Prehistoric Cultural Ecology of the Southwest UmnakRegion, Aleutian IslandsAuthor(s): David R. Yesner and Jean S. AignerSource: Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1976), pp. 91-112Published by: University of Wisconsin PressStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 10:00

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    While changes in faunal frequencies over time within archaeological sites can indicate the nature of changing regional settlement patterns, much may be learned about the nature of regional hunting adaptations from the pat- terning of faunal frequencies in sites as a whole. Adaptational information relates pri- marily to three areas: cultural selection of resources, dietary composition, and harvesting methods. Because of environmental stability, cultural continuity, high density and

    diversity of resources and excellent preser- vation of archaeological faunal remains, the Aleutian Islands offer an excellent model area for testing hypotheses relating to these three areas. To this end, biomass estimates are compared between the modern Aleutian ecosystem and archaeologically derived data; dietary analyses are performed; and means for deriving information on harvest- ing methods from faunal frequency data are presented.


    Archaeological faunal data can provide a good deal of information on exploitation pat- terns of hunter-gatherer populations. The "laundry list" approach of specifying which species are present in the archaeological materials indicates which species in the eco- system were being exploited, but given little or no information on hunting patterns per se. Potentially, however, a detailed quantitative approach using faunal frequency patterns can provide information on the following:

    1) Environmental change 2) Seasonality (span of occupation) and

    settlement pattern 3) Relative population change over time and

    distribution over space h) Intensity of resource exploitation 5) Cultural selection of resources 6) Dietary and nutritional patterns 7) Harvesting methods 8) Butchering patterns 9) Refuse deposition and accumulation pat-

    terns 10) Nature and spatial distribution of ac-

    tivities on discrete living floors.

    The midden sites of mari ne- adapted hunter- gatherers present a special opportunity for these ecologically-oriented archaeological studies, owing to the accumulation of vast amounts of organic materials and frequently to their excellent preservation in a highly cal- ciferous matrix. Often, however, these sites present special problems in archaeological interpretation. Because they consist primarily of refuse deposits, "microstructural" analy- sis of these sites, including reconstruction of human activities for different time periods, becomes a study of the formation of small lenses of refuse and the analysis of discrete living floors (Ambrose 1967). An ad- ditional problem is the partial intermixing of refuse deposits and living floor debris. Nevertheless, reconstruction of changing human ecological and demographic relationships based upon temporal shifts in faunal frequency pat- terns (numbers 1 through k) is possible with

    *The author wishes gratefully to acknow- ledge the opportunity provided by Drs. W. S. Laughlin and J. S. Aigner of the University of Connecticut to study Aleutian archaeological collections. A further note of thanks goes to Drs. J. S. Aigner and P. J. Pelto of the University of Connecticut for extensive review of the manuscript. Computer programs were prepared in conjunction with A. M. Bieber, Uni- versity of Connecticut, and computer facili- ties were generously made available by the University of Connecticut computer center. G. A. Sanger of the Marine Mammal Division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administra- tion, Seattle, kindly made available and al- losed replication of his data. This research was made possible by grants from the National Science Foundation (GB281+6, "Aleut Adaptation to the Bering Land Bridge Coastal Configura- tion" ) and the Connecticut Research Founda- tion. The author assumes responsibility for all errors contained herein.

    91 Arctic Anthropology XIII- 2, 1976

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  • 92 Arctic Anthropology XIII- 2

    careful attention to, and adequate sampling of, microstructural features within site com- ponents (these temporal trends have been out- lined in Lippold [1966] and Yesner [l9T^a, 1975]). However, certain problems (numbers 5 through 7) not only do not require this kind of detailed intrasite analysis for their illu- mination, but are more rationally tackled by dealing with whole sites within a regional framework. That is, in dealing with questions of cultural selection of resources, dietary and nutritional reconstruction, and harvesting methods, the major concerns of the present paper, the relevant data must be obtained from and analyzed in terms of regional population systems, so that confounding effects of site seasonality and mi cr environmental differentia- tion may be filtered out. An explicitly re- gional approach toward faunal analysis is often required when considering hunter- gatherers with the complex mosaic of shifting exploit at ional patterns characteristic of marine-adapted populations. While these popu- lations represent a special subset of hunter- gatherers in general, the same regional ap- proach is even more mandatory for other hunter- gatherers with even greater mobility.


    The Aleutian Islands (see Fig. 1 of Aigner this issue) serve as a good model area for the reconstruction of regional hunting adaptations from faunal analyses for several reasons. First, there is a virtual one-to-one corre- spodence between human population and environ- ment in the Aleutians. The Aleuts are found entirely within a sharply delimited ecosystem characterized by extensive reef areas support- ing large invertebrate populations, breeding grounds for sea mammals, extensive cliff areas for bird nesting, and fresh water streams and spawning lakes supporting anadromous fish populations as well as migratory waterfowl. With the exception of some roots, shoots, and berries, there are no significant terrestrial resources. To the east of the Aleutians are found Eskimo populations who have had little genetic interchange with their Aleut neighbors. In addition, the resource configuration avail- able to the Eskimos is substantially different from that available to the Aleuts; there is little in the way of invertebrate resources, but there is a substantial terrestrial mammal- ian fauna which the Eskimos exploit along with the maritime zone. The latter is within the winter ice zone, another distinction from the Aleutian ecosystem which contains virtu- ally no winter ice (Aigner 1970).

    Secondly, the high density and diversity of Aleutian resources, as well as the coastal settlement system, permitted the formation of

    high human population densities and conspicu- ous remains, and consequently high archaeolo- gical visibility. The high density of animal and human populations in the Aleutians is directly related to the presence of major up- welling systems generally concentrated in inter-island passes where cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Bering Sea mix with warmer, deeper Pacific waters bearing the strong Pacific current (Laughlin 1972:381; Aigner 1970). High densities of plankton in these areas in turn support a large biomass of birds and marine macrofauna.

    The diversity of resources in the Aleutians is the result of a combination of factors: the mixing of Nearctic and Palearctic faunas, combining seasonal, migratory species with

    year-round, sedentary forms, including the "Aleutican" avifauna native to the archipelago (Udvardy 1963) ; a central position with respect to both pinniped migration routes and the north to south Pacific flyway; the lack of winter ice; and a coastal configuration allow- ing the formation of reef systems and fresh water streams and lakes. Such a diversity of resources stimulated a variety of subsistence activities during all seasons of the year, reflected in changing frequencies of faunal remains. It also meant that when one resource was naturally depressed or over exploited, an- other could be substituted in its place. Cer- tain resources, such as invertebrates or birds , could be relied upon when more favored resources failed (Aigner 1970). In such a situation of resource density and diversity, it was unnecessary for the Aleuts to adopt such populati