Rat Island


In 2003, U. S. Fish and Wildlife archaeologists, headed by Debra Corbett spent two weeks in a small, unnamed cove on the north side of Rat Island in the west central Aleutian Islands. Refuge biologists initiated the study, hoping the archaeologists could shed light on the impact of rat introduction on the bird species and abundance on the island. Here is their report.

Rats Jump Ship

Rat Island was targeted because it was possibly the first island to be invaded by alien rats from a Japanese or Russian ship in the mid 1700s.

Little Known Culture

The culture of the western Aleutians (the Rat and Near island groups) is less well known than that of the eastern Aleutian islands. All Aleuts shared an orientation toward the sea and similar technologies, but the Aleuts who lived in the western Aleutians had different political, social and religious institutions.

The Good Life

Rat Island has 11 reported or potential prehistoric village sites. The site studied in 2003 is in a small cove with a rocky reef system rich in intertidal resources. While there, we saw seals, killer whales, and a single sea otter, suggesting that even with today’s troubled sea mammal populations, the small cove was a good source of life’s needs for local Aleuts.

Trade Beads Give Evidence

We tested a house pit that had been built in a Russian house design using a door in the wall and two rooms. This house had clear historic and prehistoric cultural levels. The house form indicated European influence but the only artifacts found were Aleut stone and bone tools . . . until we found trade beads. We think this was a Russian-designed barracks for use by Aleut sea otter hunters.

On the Midden Heap

Below this barracks we found a well-defined midden with caches of whole bird skeletons, sea urchin shell, occasional bone tools, and an upside down lamp. On the right side was a series of trampled house floors. And to the far left was the side trench expected in traditional Aleut house construction.

Complicated Changes

When looking at changes in bird populations and use through time, the findings in this site add an interesting complication. The deeper and earlier levels had more bird elements than the more historic levels. It would appear that the bird population plummeted between the prehistoric and historic eras.

CONTINUING QUESTION

While a decline in the bird population certainly could have occurred, and seems likely, it is also possible the people were focusing on different goals. Prehistoric folks would have been gathering all kinds of resources. Later Aleuts, hunting sea otters for the Russians, may have had less time or interest in hunting birds. This is a question that will have to be answered through more complete analysis.

Principal Investigators:
Debra Corbett, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Caroline Funk, Richard Stockton University, New Jersey.