Our Rat Islands Research Project focuses on understanding long-term human and environmental histories. We are a team of bio-, geo- and social scientists who work together in the Rat Islands group of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Each of us specializes in a different aspect of the terrestrial, marine, or human environment. We share a common research goal among our diverse approaches.

Rat Islands: Aleutian Islands, Alaska

What we do 

The archaeologists in our group work to understand the history of Aleut lives in the Rat Islands. We do archaeological survey, identifying places where people lived for the past 6,000 years. These places include villages of five to thirty houses and smaller places with only one or two dwellings. Many of the village sites are located along the coasts and many are built in middens, heaps of shellfish, animal bone, and old tools that form when people have lived in one place for generations. Aleut midden villages can be high mounds that look a lot like the ancient tell mounds in the Near East.

Site KIS-010 was a village on Kiska Island. It was most recently lived in c. AD 1600. The lowest levels 3 meters deep remain undated. (photo by C. Funk, 2009.)
Site KIS-010 was a village on Kiska Island. It was most recently lived in c. AD 1600. The lowest levels 3 meters deep remain undated. (photo by C. Funk, 2009.)

We excavate in the mounds to gather data about past Aleut lifeways and environmental history. The presence of shellfish and the cold, damp climate create a soil environment conducive to the preservation of organic materials. Few places on earth allow such a complete record of past cultural practices. Cultural materials tell us about how people lived in this place over time and faunal remains provide information about prehistoric animal populations and how humans exploited them.

Our pollen/plant macrofossil specialist takes observations of modern plant communities and takes subsurface cores. The subsurface cores provide a record of prehistoric plant sequences which are used to understand climate change, impact from volcanic eruptions, and potential human impact on natural plant distributions. The cores also give our geologist data about the history and composition of tephras. The Rat Islands are part of the North Pacific Ring of fire and three of the volcanoes in this small part of the Aleutians are now or were historically active.

The team biologists work together to create an understanding of intertidal and marine ecologies in the area over time. Our marine biologist surveys the intertidal zone, sampling species and quantifying their proportions and size. His data are used to develop a marine foodweb model for this region, which is linked to larger North Pacific models. Our archaeologist/biologist performs isotope (δ13C and δ15N of organic fraction) analysis of modern marine specimens and of animal remains from archaeological sites. Her work places organisms relative to one another in a trophic system and provides data about possible fluctuations in primary productivity and/or foraging location of species represented in middens, and changes in human hunting grounds through time and shifting climatic regimes.

People, plants, and animals impacted one another in the Rat Islands over the past 6,000 years. All of them were impacted by large-scale geological events and climate change. The data we collect as a team allow us to begin to understand nodes of impact, times, places, or variables when change can be identified.

Why we do the research

Policies are being developed to mitigate and adapt to the perceived effects of climate and ecosystem change around the world. We hypothesize that environmental models used in resource and industry policy-making do not account for the potentially transformative, long-term history of human impact on ecosystems in the North. They assume that human impacts in general are a relatively recent global development and that they are only three centuries old in the Aleutians. Recent developments in multidisciplinary prehistory projects indicate that small-scale societies also can cause notable and permanent change in ecosystems.

We are testing the hypothesis that people and the environment impacted each other enough that the modern North Pacific/southern Bering Sea ecosystems are built environments rather than natural systems. The test could go either way, but evidence demonstrating that hunter-gatherer-fishers and small scale gardeners detectably impacted ecosystems could profoundly change global models for climate/environmental shifts because humans have lived in these kinds of cultures for hundreds of thousands of years.

Our research is supported by
National Science Foundation. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number NSF PLR-1303566.

University at Buffalo.



Researching human and environmental intersections in the Aleutian Islands.