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Island life Studying prehistoric fish and animal bones to help understand their roles in a food chain altered by climate change. by Beth Staples
Kodiak Landscape

Kodiak Island’s coastline features a productive marine environment that has provided rich biological resources for the island’s human occupants for more than 7,000 years. Photo courtesy of Patrick Saltonstall

Catherine West was a junior history major at Bryn Mawr when she jumped at the chance to be a field school student during a 1998 dig at a prehistoric Aleut site on Unalaska Island. As part of that summer adventure, she met welcoming locals, hiked lush green mountains, saw whales breach in the Bering Sea, attended a Russian Orthodox Church and explored remnants of World  War II bunkers.

And that rainy summer, when the fishing village was bathed in light 20 hours a day, she learned about excavation techniques, and cleaned and sorted bone and stone artifacts. And she became hooked on archeology.

“I was starstruck,” says West, now an assistant professor of anthropology and climate change at the University of Maine.

West has participated in a number of digs since that memorable trip 15 years ago. She’s seen breathtaking sights, including frolicking Kodiak bear cubs and rivers turned pink during salmon runs.

The digs are the basis for her research examining the effects of Holocene (the 11,700 years since the last ice age) climate change and subsequent resource availability on prehistoric subsistence in Arctic and subarctic ecosystems.

She applies the resulting data to enlighten modern environmental and conservation issues.

Late this spring and summer, she’ll participate in digs on two islands in the Kodiak Archipelago. For six weeks starting in mid-May, West will be part of a six-person team exploring remnants of 500- to 1,000-year-old structures near Kodiak Island’s Old Harbor, where Alutiiq people settled more than 7,000 years ago.

The island’s first Russian settlement is nearby, as is Port Hobron, which was a whaling station as late as the 1920s. Kodiak Island is the largest island in the Kodiak Archipelago, separated from the southern coast of Alaska by Shelikof Strait.

In these regions, where “the connection between humans and the environment is so immediate,” West examines how abrupt changes in climate affected Arctic hunter-gatherers 600 years ago, during a period of extreme cold known as the Little Ice Age.

Inhabitants, says West, seemed relatively resilient to change, perhaps because they were already so well-adapted to this harsh environment.

During the Little Ice Age in the Gulf of Alaska, West says winters were likely colder and lasted longer, and glaciers advanced. Storms were more severe. Some animals likely left the region.

The weather affected people’s ability to fish — as well as the fish available — and perhaps impacted how far underground Native people built their shelters.


Spring 2013

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