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The Aleutian Islands run from the Peninsula of Kamchatka in the Asiatic portion of Russia to Alaska. All the islands are bare and mountainous and the coasts rocky and surrounded by crashing waves and enormous breakers. (Larkin, unpaged) Some believe the Aleutians offer the worst weather in the world: Weather fronts originating in the South Pacific create storms hundreds of miles long and many weeks in duration (Sipes, unpaged) that pick up the frigid moisture of the waters and air as they move northward. It would seem that anyone desirous of living there would need some overwhelming reasons to do so. The Russians and Scandinavians who first 'discovered' the area for non-natives, and later the Americans, did have good reasons to be there. As for the Aleuts and Alutiiq, an abundance of fish and sea mammals might have been the attraction if, as some theories surmise, they arrived across a land bridge from what we now call Siberia.
Several researchers have advanced the theory that the peopling of the New World involved a northeasterly trending Siberial coastal drift along the continental shelf coast of the Seal of Okhotsk, the Kamchatka Peninsula and along the southern coast of the Bering land-bridge. Those same researchers, Laughlin, Turner and Vasilievsky think that because of the glaciation still present in the area of the Aleutian chain, the settlement happened via interior settlement. In other words, those who migrated into the interior later trekked, clambered or boated amidst the pack ice to populate, eventually, the archipelagos, including the Aleutians. This same second migratory wave of Siberian peoples also settled the British Columbia coast, and later drifted further south toe southern California. The same researchers say that the dental morphology of the prehistoric California Indians is much like that of all other Indians of North and South America, and very unlike that of the Aleuts and Alutiiq, which is in opposition to earlier theories. (Turner, 391+)
Turner also mentions that there have been stories of non-terrestrial migration, and then refutes that statement by saying "There are no known individuals or groups (or even stories of anyone) who boated in either direction between Siberia and Alaska along today's southern edge of the Bering Sea pack ice or the Davis Strait pack ice between Greenland and Canada." (291+) On the other hand, he also mentions those who have advocated various trans-Pacific drift theories because of the some Jomon boatmen who introduced pottery from Japan to Ecuador, citing the work of Meggers in 1965. (Turner, 291+)
By whatever route the Aleut and Alutiiq arrived, they are thought to have been there at least 11,000 to 14,000 years ago, according to artifacts found in archaeological excavations. On the other hand, linguistic analyses have set the date at between 12,000 and 35,000 years ago. Nuclear mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) studies suggest an arrival time of about 30,000 years ago; they also suggest that migration is much more complex than previously thought, and that multiple migrations and expansion of ancient peoples contributed to genetic diversity in all Siberian and Amerindian peoples, including the Aleut and Alutiiq. Research on dental variation suggests an arrival time of between 18,000 and 20,000 years ago. (Schurr, 246) Obviously there is wide latitude on timing. But the dental morphology does, at least, pinpoint what group the Aleut and Alutiiq might be part of.
The mtDNA reveals that of the original migrations to the Americas, the majority of modern Native American haplotypes belong to a mere four mtDNA lineages, designated A, B, C and D. A comparison of Native Americans, Siberians and Asians reveals that the same mtDNA lineages in all groups share the same sorts of mutations; the explanation most often offered is that the mutations arose in Asia in the founding lineages and were carried to the New World by ancestral Native Americans. These mutations are, moreover, of considerable age, suggesting that the lings between Siberian and Native American peoples are quite ancient. And, it appears that the ancient Beringian populations -- that is, those in the vicinity of the Bering Strait -- gave rise to the Chukchi, the Eskimo-Aleuts and the Na-Dene Indians about 7,000 to 13,000 years ago.
Whatever the process was all those eons ago, it is clear that there were correspondences between the Aleut and Alutiiq and people from Siberia long before the modern Russian arrived in the archipelago. The group considered to be the Aleut people today are found mainly from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula all along the arc of the Aleutian Islands, which extend for about 1,500 miles. The Alutiiq, however, are really more germane to the Kodiak Island area and its archipelago, known as the Kodiak area, and lying about four hundred miles east of the Aleutians. They are also found on the mainland coasts from Chugach Bay to an area farther east. Their culture is Pacific Rim with a Russian infusion. Their language is classified as Eskimoan because it is more closely related to Yup'ik and Inupiaq (Inuit) than to Aleut. Anthropologists also sometimes refer to the Kodiak area Alutiiqs as Koniaq, a term that was derived from 18th century Russian sources who had assimilated the world Kanaa'in for the Kodiak area people. (Mousalimas, 1) The language itself is very likely extinct, at least as spoken through the eons before the arrival of the modern Russians, and the Scandinavians and Americans. There were once 20 native Eskimo and Indian languages in Alaska. The Eyak language, once found on Alaska's south coast, died when the second of two living speakers died in the early 1990s. There was also a linguistic divide between NaDene language speakers (Tlingit, Dena'ina and Eyak) and Aleut-Eskimo speakers (including Unanagan and Alutiiq.) (Crowell, unpaged) Most of these languages, also, are moribund, or possibly already gone as they were endangered as long ago as 1993. The only two surviving languages are Siberian Yup'ik, which had 1,000 speakers in 1993, and Central Yup'ik, which had 10,000 speakers in 1993. Diamond, unpaged.) These languages, regarded as the Aleut-Eskimo type, might have been known to the ancient Aleut and Alutiiq peoples.
While the extinct or nearly extinct languages of a people are difficult to reconstruct, it is somewhat easier to find out how they lived. The first wave of migration is assumed to have foraged, mainly. Later, by about 3,500 BC, permanent winter villages of semi-subterranean or plank housing was in place. At that time, where was significant population growth, increased village and household size, and emergence of social ranking. There was also widespread warfare, and complex artistic, mortuary and ceremonial traditions. (Crowell, unpaged)
Relatively little research aimed specifically toward Aleut or Alutiiq peoples has been done, except as part of the major projects regarding the area from the eastern Aleutian Islands to the queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia. However, because the populations show a common descent from founding Paleoarctic populations, and a high level of continued interaction over time, it seems logical to infer information about the Aleut and Alutiiq lifestyles from shared characteristics. And, in fact, the area surrounding the Gulf of Alaska offers one of the longest archaeological records of maritime adaptation in the Americas, possibly because of its bountiful numbers of marine mammals, fish, bird and other necessities for supporting human life, even in an inhospitable climate. (Crowell, unpaged)
Crowell notes that geographic unity is a main reason to consider the Aleut (Unangan) and Alutiiq (Pacific Eskimo) cultures along with those of the other peoples that ring the Gulf, the subarctic Athapaskan Indian and the Northwest Coast Indian, despite the differences in language. As a basis for considering them all at once, Crowell says:
At the time of Russian and European contact in the late eighteenth century, all of the Gulf of Alaska peoples had maritime-focused subsistence economies, with universal reliance on salmon and sea mammals. Other fish species (e.g., halibut, herring, cod, rockfish, eulachon), intertidal invertebrates, birds, plant foods (berries, starchy roots, seaweed, spruce cambium), and land animals (caribou, elk, mountain goats, grizzly bear, black bear) were variously important in the diet, depending on location. (Crowell, unpaged)
This meant that all the peoples would need watercraft, and in fact, they all had highly developed sand specialized kayaks, open skin boats and wooden canoes; for hunting and fishing, they also developed specialized tools.
Winter houses were built either of driftwood timbers or earth. And, as well, "Functional and stylistic similarities in clothing, jewelry, containers, weapons, and other items of material culture reflected high levels of regional interaction and cultural exchange, sustained by local and long-distance trading, raiding, slave-taking, and intermarriage." (Crowell, unpaged)
In addition similarities in housing and provisioning, the Aleuts and Alutiiq also had similar sociopolitical organizations. Total community sizes could exceed 1,000 people. Within that community, resource ownership and exploitation was by co residential corporate kin groups of from 15 to 40 people. Social status of those people was based on a combination of wealth and birth, with division into at least free and slave classes, sometimes…[continue]
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