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Temporal Period(s) Paleo-Indian

Summary Details

  • Location: Ananiuliak Island (Anangula Island), Aleutian Islands, Alaska, USA (Approx. 53° 0' 2" N, 168° 54' 26" W)
  • Period: Paleo-Indian
  • Culture: Aleut
  • Date Range: circa 9000 BC to 1000 BC


To refer to the words of Don Dumond, to understand the peopling of the Americas, one must understand the prehistory of Alaska, for Alaska was the gateway into the American continents ( Saleeby, 2010). The Anangula Village Site is then especially significant as its location in the Pacific provides insight on the routes that the earliest migrants took in their journey into North America and the extent that theses early migrants were adapted to a maritime subsistence pattern (Ackerman, 1992, pp. 18; Saleeby, 2010, pp. 116). In addition to being one of the oldest sites in the Arctic, what is interesting about the Village and Blade sites on Anangula Island is the similarities to Siberian tool types, making a very strong case for what Laughlin calls the Land Bridge Theory. Many see Anangula, specifically the lithic assemblage found on the island, as key in understanding the peopling of the Americas and the exchange of populations Asia and North America (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 2-7; Del Benne, 1982, pp. 70; Black, 1974b, pp. 127). Laughlin believes that the Aleuts who settled in Anangula represent a population that lived on the southern coast of the land bridge, who possessed a maritime adapted culture prior to migrating out of Siberia (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 75). This is represented in the archaeological assemblage by the predominance of unifacial tools, which are more similar to those found across the pacific in Siberia than those found in inland cultures (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 71). This belief is echoed by Aigner, who also argues that ancestral Aleuts came to the new world by following the southern coast of Beringia, and not the interior. With this route, Aigner suggests that the maritime cultural and economic adaptions we see in the archaeological record at Anangula had already been developed anywhere from 10,000 to 14,000 years ago, whether on the coasts of Beringia or in the old world (Aigner, 1977, pp.70; Laughlin, 1980, pp. 78). Laughlin argues that the sites on Anangula Island support the multiple migration hypothesis from Beringia, which he states is additionally supported by morphological and DNA evidence (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 7). This is significant because it challenges previously accepted theories of the peopling of the Americas as one migration of terrestrial hunter- gatherers who dispersed into the new world by following herds of migrating land mammals. While it is certainly possible that this may have been the case for some populations, the new evidence suggests that this migration was not one event, but multiple events as groups split from the original Beringian population to become the different native populations we see today (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 75, 94).

Research History

Site Discovery

The Anangula Village Site was discovered after excavation had begun at Blade Site by William Laughlin and his crew. The Village Site is located half a kilometer from the Blade Site, at the “head of the island” (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 72). Knowledge of an archaeological site on the island dates back to as early as 1938, when Laughlin and May, then part of Hrdlicka's Smithsonian Field Expedition, recovered a number of artifacts from the grounds surface. However, excavation of the Blade Site did not get underway until 1963. The project was a joint venture with American and Soviet archaeologists, which lasted for 5 excavation seasons, with Sara Laughlin, as the field director (Frohlich et al, 2002, pp. 10).

Major Finds/Insights

The Anangula assemblage is one of the major finds of the two excavations, with roughly 30 000 lithics recovered from the two pre-contact sites on the island (Frohlich et al., 2002, pp. 10). Since at the time of its discovery, Anangula represented one of the oldest Paleo-Indian Sites in Alaska, the Anangula tool assemblage became the “type assemblage” for other similar sites that were discovered later (Davis & Knencht, 2003, pp. 11). Examples of others sites include Russian Spruce and Oiled Blade found on Hog Island. Hatfield notes that like Anangula, these sites are also found on small islands, within the protective bays of larger islands (Hatfield, 2010, pp. 526). Based on the work of David and Knencht, the sites are often divided into two related phases, the Early and the Late Anangula. The Blade Site on Anangula belongs to the early phase, while the Village Site belongs to the late phase (Davis & Knencht, 2010; Hatfield, 2010, pp. 526).

The volcanic eruptions in the area have allowed Black to create a chronology for Anangula and the surrounding islands. The layers, labelled I-IV and “Key” provide confident ranges for the twos sites on the island. The Blade Site is sandwiched between Layer II, which dates to 9000 years ago, and Layer III which dates to 7000 years ago. While the cultural deposits belonging to the Village Site are located between Layers III and IV which date to 7000 and 3000 years ago respectively (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 70,72; Black, 1974a). Based on his analysis of the geography and sea levels of the island, Black too concludes that the ancient Aleuts very likely arrived on Anangula via boat, aligning with Laughlin’s theory of a coastal migration and a pre-existing maritime adaption (Black, 1974b, pp. 126, 139).

Current Investigations

The Island has not been subjected archaeological excavation since the 1970’s, however, Anangula has not ceased to attract academic attention (Aigner, 1976, pp. 101). Research carried out by Rubciz et al. is attempting to understand the peopling of the Americas, specifically the Aleutian Islands via polymerase chain reaction amplification (Rubciz et al., 2003, pp. 809). The results show that Aleuts are genetically distinct from other Native American populations such as the Eskimos and other northern Amerindian groups (Rubciz et al., 2003, pp. 831). Their work also shows that Aleut and Eskimo populations are genetically different from Amerindian populations and that they belong to a group that represents a post-glacial expansion into the Americas, different from the migration that gave rise to the Amerindian population. The data also shows that Aleut DNA is more similar to the DNA of North Eastern populations than that of Amerindian populations, supporting the lithic evidence that suggests a Siberian origin to the Aleuts and their culture (Rubciz et al, 2003, pp. 832).

In addition, scholars, such as Yan Coutouly, have continued to analyze the Anangula core and blade assemblage, but have done so in light of new evidence and sites that have been discovered. Coutouly has compared the Anangula lithic assemblage to three others Microblade assemblages; Siberian, Alaskan, and Northwest Coast (Coutouly, 2015). He concludes that the Anangula assemblage is a distinctly Beringian Microblade assemblage, and attributes the difference between this and other sites belonging to the Denali or Nenana complex to different economic adaptions. He argues while different in some aspects, the fact that the Anangula assemblage is unifacial while the Denali or Nenana complexes are bifacial, doesn’t mean that they should be mutually exclusive (Coutouly, 2015, pp. 55). The sites have been National Historic Landmarks since June 2, 1978 (National Park Services, 2016).

Formation and Occupational History

To understand the importance of Anangula as a place of settlement for the ancient Aleuts, one must first understand its geological history. Located on what was once the tip of the Alaskan peninsula, Anangula provided a unique location for the exploitation of marine resources, which made it appealing to the already marine adapted ancestors of the Aleut (Ackerman, 1992, pp. 20; Laughlin, 1975; Aigner, 1977, pp. 69). Its small size and apparently barren environment would make anyone question why some of the first occupants chose this island as their settlement. The answer lies in the marine biodiversity that the island allows access too. The Aleutians are located in what can otherwise be called prime real-estate when it comes to marine resources. The waters in this area are some of the richest in the world, as currents cause nutrients to come to the surface where they serve as a base for a flourishing marine ecosystem (Aigner, 1977, pp. 69; Laughlin, 1980, pp. 20).

The Blade Site

The first occupation of the island dates to about 8750, and is located on the “tail” or southern end of the island when the sea levels were lower (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 71; Coutouly, 2015, pp. 24; Black, 1974a). The site, called the Blade Site, also contained a residential component in addition to the massive lithic assemblage that it yielded. The site is believed to have been occupied for about 500 years, before it was abandoned around 8250 years ago, with its inhabitants relocating to higher grounds to found the Anangula Village Site as sea level rose (Aigner, 1977, pp. 72). This range is a more conservative range which is supported by recent work, the original excavator, favours a much longer occupation of about 1000 years (Coutouly, 2015, pp. 25).

Anangula Village

The Village Site is located on the northern end of Ananiuliak Island, across a narrow bay from Umnak Island (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 69, 71). The site is that of a fairly sedentary village, consisting of 24 semi-subterranean houses which are arranged in three rows (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 73). Occupation of the village to span upwards of 2000 years as there are multiple radiocarbon dates suggesting occupation from 5920 ± 80 to 4510± 115 years ago (Hatfield, 2010, pp. 535l Laughlin, 1975, pp. 512).The longevity of the site Laughlin argues is due to the stability of the population, which consisted of long-living individuals, in turn resulting in less cultural and genetic wastage (Laughlin, 1975, pp. 515). Artifacts from the include seal oil lamps, carved stone dishes, grinding stones and pallets for grinding red ocher pigment, line weights for fish lines, arrows, obsidian scarpers, burins, and of course the countless blade and core chipped stone tools (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 70). The tools found on the site suggest activities such as fishing, sewing, wood, bone and skin working. Based on these activities, it might be suggested that there was gendered labour, assuming that the women processed the skins and sewed the clothes while the men made the unifacial tools (Aigner, 1977, pp. 72). The ground stone tools, for processing red ocher, provide ties to the site of Chaluka, on Umnak Island which is within eyesight of the Village Site. The presence of similar tool types in both the sites suggests that there is a continuity of culture spanning 8000 years in the bay (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 71; Aigner, 1977, pp. 72). While it was suspected that there was a degree of continuity between the Blade Site and Chaluka, the link between the two was cemented by the discovery of the Anangula Village Site (Aigner, 1977, pp. 101; Laughlin, 1980, pp.). While exacting the site, Okladnickov, the leader of the Soviet team, discovered two artifacts that would further support the theory of continuity in the Aleutian Islands. The first artifact found in the lower levels of the village, is similar to the unifacial tools found at the Blade Site. The second artifact, found in the higher levels is really astonishing as it resembles a specific biface industry found in on Lake Ushki on the Kamchatka peninsula (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 72). The Village Sites helped prove continuity in the Bay of Nikolski, as the period of its occupation, 7000-3000 years ago, was previously lacking in actual artifacts.

Conservative estimates suggest that maybe 75-100 people lived at the at any given time, maybe occupying 2-3 houses, however the number may have been as high as 200 people taking into consideration historical evidence. The site was likely a base site, used to supply marine resources year round. Resources that were exploited include several kinds of fish, both deep sea and more shallow water species such as cod and halibut. Other resources include shellfish, and sea mammals such as different species of seals, otters, potentially walrus and stranded whales (Aigner, 1977, pp. 73; Laughlin, 1980, pp. 50, 67-68). The prehistoric population likely abandoned the site around 3000 years ago, following violent volcanic eruption that created ash layer IV (Black, 1974, pp. 126; Laughlin, 1980, pp. 70). Ethnographic evidence suggests that the island was never completely abandoned, but, in fact, visited for short periods of time to make use of the abundant marine resources (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 73). The village site also has a burial component, which is located behind the Village. The burials are interned in mound structures, which are in turn, enclosed in “V-shaped” trenches that served to drain water away from the mound and protect it (Laughlin, 1980, pp.73).

Material Culture

The Anangula Blade and Village Site assemblage is significant for a number of reasons, one of the main reasons being that it is a massive assemblage. Over 30,000 artifacts were recovered from the Blade Site, which included tools in all stages of manufacture. One of the most intriguing aspects of the assemblage is that it is entirely unifacial and is very much similar to tool industries found in the old world, particularly in the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia. The similarities of the tool types strongly suggests an Asiatic origin for the ancient Aleuts (Laughlin, 1975, pp. 515; Laughlin, 1980, pp. 77). Additionally, the similarity in tool types between the two cultures is reinforced by similar subsistence patterns, which further supports the theory that the ancient Aleuts had a culture that was already adapted to maritime subsistence, which allowed the migrants to successfully exploit and thrive in an otherwise barren landscape (Laughlin, 1980, pp. 20).

The sources for the tools vary, while most are local, for example, fishing weights are composed of local materials, there is also evidence of an interaction sphere of sorts, where the inhabitants are able to access Obsidian from the Northern end of Umnak Island. The other materials used for the tools include basalt for pounding tools and fishing weights, and different kinds of cherts, also locally available in Nikolski Bay for the chipped tools (Aigner, 1977, pp. 73).The desired outcome of the tool productions seems to have been blank blades, which could then be altered to suit the needs of the user. The blades were knapped from a previously shaped core to control the general shape and size of the intended flake (Aigner, 1977, pp. 73). The tools do contain retouch, however, Aigner notes that it is often marginal and always on one side of the tool (1977, pp. 75).

General Notes

As new information becomes available, discrepancies become apparent between the available data. There are now varying dates for the sites, specifically for the earlier Blade Site, which scholars are now claiming is possibly much older than previously believed, Hatfield, for example, places the site at about 9000 years old (Hatfield, 2010). The biggest contention revolves around the development of the tool industry seen on Anangula and its role in the prehistory of the Americas (Del Bene, 1982, pp. 70). Laughlin, Ackerman and Hatfield seem to be on more or less the same page in regards to the Siberian origin of the assemblage. Both Laughlin and Ackerman argue that the assemblage at Anangula bears certain similarities to Mesolithic and early Neolithic industries found in Siberia, reflecting a culture that pre-existed before the ancestors of the Aleuts settled in Anangula. Hatfield differs from Laughlin and Ackerman in one key aspect, as she argues that the Anangula blade assemblage originated from the American Paleo-arctic tradition which dates to about 11,500 – 8000 BC. While this tradition has ties to Asia, particularly the Puturka and Sunagan traditions which are both unifacial located near the Bering Sea, linking the assemblage to the Palaearctic tradition, Hatfield suggests that the Anangula complex is related to the Denali, and Nenana complexes as they too evolved from the Paleo-arctic tradition (Hatfield, 2010, pp. 534). .

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