Uncovering the Past - Attu Island


 Austin Cove camp. Debra Corbett, USFWS. Click to EnlargeBeginning in 1998, the Western Aleutian Archaeological and Paleobiological Project archaeologists turned their efforts to Attu Island. The team spent two seasons on the north coast at Austin Cove and a third, the final year of the project, in Massacre Bay.

Looking for Early Settlements

The goal of the first season was to find as many sites as possible and select a site for intensive investigation. The team recorded 10 settlements in Massacre and Nevidiskov bays before settling on a camp in Austin Cove.

Uncovering the Past

In each of the 11 settlements found, the crew mapped all of the features, mostly round to rectangular depressions measuring from 1 meter long to more than 18 meters long by 6 meters wide. Settlements ranged in size from 3 to 4 features to villages with more than 200. Most represent houses, storage pits, and other buildings.

Role of Village Chiefs

The largest depressions may be the houses of chiefs, as described by the earliest Russian explorers. Village chiefs took care of widows and orphans and needed larger homes. Unique to the Near Islands, the chief’s house also served as a ceremonial structure for community feasts and dances.

Finding Patterns

Attu Site. Debra Corbett, USFWS. Click to EnlargeAfter detailed mapping by the team, a picture emerged of how each village was organized. Samples collected will verify the dates the villages were occupied. This information forms a very preliminary history of the island.

Population Boom

The oldest site found was 2,000 years old, about a thousand years younger than the oldest site on neighboring Shemya Island to the east. This may only mean that Attu’s north coast was a less desirable place to live than other parts of the Near Islands. The earliest villages were small, and all of the houses were small. Each community probably contained an extended family of 20-30 people. Then between 1000 and 500 years ago the villages grew larger, more than tripling in size with an average of 10 houses each. The larger chiefs’ houses also appear at this time.

Continuing Questions

Archaeologists are studying houses of different ages to compare social organization and economics between early and later periods. Something happened a thousand years ago to cause the Near Island Aleut population to increase dramatically from earlier times. At the same time, people crowded together in larger settlements and submitted to the authority of powerful men. What happened? And, perhaps even more interesting, why? The answers await the full analysis of all materials recovered in the two years of excavation.

Principal Investigators:

Debra Corbett, U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service
Christine Lefevre, Muséum National D’histoire Naturelle, Paris
Dixie West, Museum of Natural History and Biodiversity Research Center, University of Kansas, Lawrence