Pre-Contact Period (pre-1741)
The Living World of Aniakchak
Over the eons, volcanic activity has shaped much of the Alaska Peninsula's physical history, but, as visitors to the region may not have understood, the massive, sky-reaching peaks of the Aleutian Range affected the peninsula's ecological and cultural history, too. Early explorers expressed astonishment at the region's many active volcanoes. In journals and reports, they prolifically described the peninsula's geology, but paid relatively little attention to the impact of volcanism on the area's living world. 
The Alaska Peninsula's first visitors, the Russians, knew that Aniakchak existed, but they believed the volcano to be extinct. After visiting villages along the Bering Sea Coast in 1895, Russian priest Father Aleksandr Kedrovskii, made note of Aniakchak, but he seemed more concerned with other forces of nature. "Between Ugashek and Inangashek is Mashkhik Bay, located at the foot of an extinct volcano" wrote Kedrovskii. About the body of water that fronted Meshik, the priest wrote:
Unlike the Russian cleric, another visiting priest, Father Bernard Hubbard, knew that Aniakchak was, indeed, a very active volcano. In fact, Hubbard captured one of the few personal accounts of an erupting Aniakchak. The year following the 1931 eruption, the Glacier Priest published a first-hand narrative of his dramatic return to "the Moon Crater of Alaska" in a book called Mush, You Malamutes!  Although at times Malamutes colorfully exaggerates for a popular audience, the book does provide a description of the 1931 eruption as told to Hubbard by a non-Native man named Frank Wilson, a commercial fisherman, who was living in the village of Meshik at the time. As Hubbard retells it, Wilson's daughter, Mabel, first noticed a steaming Aniakchak on a clear May morning. At noon, on May 1, came a "terrific explosion." Then, as reported by Father Hubbard:
Hubbard, however, was not on the Alaska Peninsula at the time, for he had been dogsledding the length of the Yukon, racing the spring thaws. When the Glacier Priest heard the news that Aniakchak erupted, he immediately chartered a flight with Pacific International Airways pilot, Harry Blunt, and co-pilot, Al Monsen, who flew him down the length of the Alaska Peninsula to Chignik, where his exploration team awaited his arrival. While en route, Hubbard observed the environmental impacts of Aniakchak on the surrounding landscape. "As is usual in the volcanic cataclysms of the Alaska Peninsula," wrote Hubbard, "great loss of animal life resulted from the explosion of Aniakchak."
Still, Hubbard took only a lukewarm interest in the ecological or cultural affects of Aniakchak, for adventuring into a live volcano was, as the Glacier Priest wrote, "the main objective of our flight."  In a telling episode, Hubbard recalls stopping briefly at the village of Meshik. There, the men encountered the Native inhabitants, whom Hubbard described as justifiably "terrified."  With Aniakchak erupting only fifteen miles away, one would think the villagers feared ash clouds, fallout, or ballistics, but Hubbard assumed their agitation stemmed from the noise of his airplane, not from the volcano.
Based on his publications, it appears that Hubbard never spoke to the Native residents about Aniakchak, even though it "rose, dark and forbidding, from Meshik."  He seemed disinterested in the effects that eruption had on the people who lived on the Alaska Peninsula, one of the most tectonically active regions in the world. He failed to take note of activities on Native residents that might have been seen as being adaptive, such as how they preserved fresh water, or if they protected their boats from falling ash. Nor, did he inquire about stories or ancient knowledge of past eruptions.  In Hubbard's mind, Aniakchak Caldera was a foreign, exotic, empty landscapelike the surface of the moon. He saw Aniakchak Caldera as a world within itself, an unlivable world, in fact, bordered by precipitous cliffs, tilted rock strata, ash flows, vents and craters. To Hubbard, Aniakchak stood alone on the peninsula, as it sheltered a unique assemblage of vegetation and created its own weather. 
But through the eyes of the humans, who, for centuries had called the area encompassing the crater home, Aniakchak was neither foreign not empty. To them, the land and surrounding bays of the Aniakchak region teemed with lifecaribou, fish, berries, and birds. The volcano was, and remains to this day, integrated into the cultural and physical landscape of the Alaska Peninsula, rather than existing as the separate, discontinuous entity that Hubbard described. Virtually ignoring the people who lived in the shadow of the volcano, it probably never occurred to the Glacier Priest that, in addition to tectonic forces, humans and their relationship to the natural environment played a central part in the story of the place that is now Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve.
A Land of Fire and Ice
Archeologists contend that the human history of the Alaska Peninsula is long and varied, which is fitting since the land itself has been shaped and reshaped by natural forces over centuries, making it one of the most topographically and climatically diverse areas in Alaska.  In the 1820s, the Russian Orthodox priest, Ivan Veniaminay, noted that the local region "suffered excessively from subterranean fire," for everywhere Veniaminov went, the priest observed "traces of terrible upheavals which happened sometime in the past."  In journals from his stay in the Unalashka [Unalaska] District, Veniaminov described how "the power of subterranean fire" shaped the stark Aleutian landscape:
When Father Veniaminov described the Alaska Peninsula, the Russian, of course, was unaware of the ongoing mechanisms shaping our planet. It wasn't until the early 1960s that geologists accepted the plate tectonic theory, first set forth in the late 1800s. The theory explained many geological processes, and its re-emergence revolutionized the field of earth sciences. This path-breaking theory suggests that the same geological forces that created Aniakchak shaped much of the earth that we currently know.
By applying the theory of plate tectonics, scientists now know that the earth's outermost layer is fragmented into a dozen or more large and small plates or slabs. Volcanoes are created in an energetic cycle of tectonic activity. In essence, they are products of what scientists call the "subduction factory." Immense crustal plates are pulled apart in the ocean basins and move away from the mid-ocean ridges and other rift zones in a conveyor belt-like fashion, approximately two to three centimeters a yearabout the same rate as a fingernail grows. As the plates separate, the solid but mobile earth's mantle below the rift responds to the decrease in overburden and rises upward to fill in the rift.  Progression of the plates may seem slow by human standards, but because this process has been going on for hundreds of millions of years, it has resulted in cumulative plate movement of thousands of miles. Seafloor spreading over the past 100 to 200 million years has caused inlets to grow into oceans and continents to rip apart. 
As the plates travel, they inevitably collide into each other. When this occurs, the heavier, oceanic plate descends beneath the lighter, less dense continental plate, creating what geophysicists call a subduction zone. Subduction is a Latin-based word meaning "carried under." Where the oceanic plate begins its plunge, some of the continental plate is dragged down with it. This makes a deep trench in the bed of the sea. At any given moment, these trenches, which pattern the edges of subducting ocean plates like jigsaw puzzle pieces, consume approximately one million square miles of ocean crusta land mass the size of Greenland. Trenches are usually very long and very narrow. If one were to link all the trenches of the world together, the line would extend for about nineteen thousand miles, but the width would rarely exceed sixty miles.  Parallel to this stretch of colliding land and sea stand approximately fourteen hundred of the world's fifteen hundred historically active volcanoes. 
Some of the most recognizable subduction zones are those that enfold the Pacific Ocean. Collectively, they are called the "Ring of Fire." A belt of volcanic activity known as the Aleutian Arc curves along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands and comprises the northern section of the Pacific Ocean subduction zone. Geologists estimate that the Aleutian Arc first formed between 155 million to 195 million years ago, as the subducting Pacific Plate slowly collided with the North American Plate. The 1,560 mile-long Aleutian Trench that extends from the north end of the Kamchatka Trench to the Gulf of Alaska marks the boundary between the two plates.  The Aleutian Chain, the narrow neck of land that splits the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean, is a classic example of a subduction zone; it is essentially made up of volcanoes and precious little else.
In the Aleutian Mountain Range, Aniakchak is one of twelve young volcanoes that, together with other layers of uplifted rock, form the backbone of the Alaska Peninsula.  This chain of tectonic activity is in constant motion, as the downward-moving Pacific slab drives beneath the Alaska Peninsula, dragging with it billions of tons of saturated sediment and rock. Intense pressure forces the release of water in the mineral structure of the sediment. When the waterlogged material reaches a depth of sixty miles, melting begins to occur, producing molten rock, or magma. Magma is less dense than the rocks around it, and rises towards the surface through conduits and fractures, re-collecting within pods, or small chambers, located a few miles beneath the surface.
There, gas-charged, red-hot magma forms clusters and approximately eighty-five percent of it crystallizes. The ten to fifteen percent of the hot material that has melted, however, constantly seeks weak crevices and pathways to the surface in response to mounting pressure. Before long, the accumulating pressure becomes too great and it explodes out into the open air as lava. If the lava is very fluid, the gases escape easily, causing a nonexplosive eruption that result in lava flows. But if the lava is sticky, the gases are more tightly bound, and will build tremendous pressure. Similar to a soda pop bottle that has been vigorously shaken, when the volcanic "cap" is removed abruptly, a mixture of gas and liquid explodes through a vent with remarkable force, erupting in a vicious cannonade of destruction.
Volcanoes are built by the accumulation of their own eruptive productslava, ashflows, and airborne ash, or what scientists collectively call tephra. Tephra is a general term for fragments of volcanic rock and lava that are blasted into the air by explosions or carried upward by hot gasses in eruption columns or lava fountains.  When magma erupts at the earth's surface, it either pours from the vent in non-explosive lava flows, or it shoots violently into the air as dense clouds of pulverized rock fragments. Over the centuries, combinations of these two types of eruptions formed the composite volcanoes of the Aleutian Range.
Composite volcanoes, or, as they are sometimes called, stratovolcanoes, are some of the earth's grandest mountains. They are typically steep-sided, large, symmetrical cones built of alternating layers of lava flows, volcanic ash, cinders, blocks, and lava bombs, and may rise as much as 8,000 feet above their bases.  The straravolcanoes of the Aleutian Range create one of the most conspicuously beautiful landscapes in the world. But Mounts Spurr, Redoubt, Iliamna, Augustine, Katmai, Peulik, Veniaminof, and Aniakchak are more than picturesque, for they contain the power to significantly alter ecosystems for centuries. Often, these cone-shaped volcanoes erupt with extraordinarily violent, explosive blasts that produce far-reaching ash clouds, launch boulder-sized ballistics, and send slurries of water, mud, and sand down to the river valleys below. 
As important as volcanoes have been to the geological construction of the Alaska Peninsula, Father Veniaminov failed to recognize another architect at workice. During the Pleistocene era, the period of time known for its ice ages, most of the free-flowing water of the northern hemisphere froze into massive glaciers, which exponentially lowered water levels in the polar region. Alaska, known as the northwest corner of the "New World," was once geographically connected to Asia. This landmass formed as various stages of advancing and retreating glaciers caused water levels to fluctuate, periodically exposing the ocean floor, and thus creating an ice-free corridor of land that scientists named Beringia. A thin strip of the Alaska Peninsula marked the southern boundary of this 1,000-mile wide landform.  The rest of the peninsula, specifically the mountains of the Aleutian Range, was encased in ice caps that held most of North America in its frozen grasp. 
From the volcanic massif of the Aleutian Range, Pleistocene glaciers repeatedly flowed outward, carving Naknek, Becharof, Ugashik, Mother Goose, Black and Chignik Lakes, as well as the peninsula's many coastal bays, such as Bristol Bay, Ugashik Bay, Wide Bay, Port Heiden, and Chignik Lagoon.  The Pleistocene glaciers were essentially rivers of ice that moved from places where snow accumulated faster than it melted to places where snow melted faster than it accumulated.  As glaciers crept down towards the low-lying valleys, they negotiated bends and bumps, literally moving mountains along the way. Side restraints, called lateral moraines, squeezed and stretched the ice until the glacial pulse began to wane. Like retreating bulldozers, glaciers left behind assorted stones, boulders, and other debris at their farthest extension, the terminal moraine. After their final advance about 12,000 years ago, the glaciers released their cold grip, and in doing so, they permitted the formerly icebound earth to rebound. Figuratively, it was as if the entire Alaska Peninsula sighed deeply and exhaled in relief.
The combination of melting ice and rising seas, however, quickly outpaced the rebounding land, producing a complex history of change in the relative levels of land and water. As temperatures rose, so did the earth's oceans. Nearly 15,000 years ago, the Bering Sea began to cover the tundralands of Beringia, creating the Bering Strait and Bristol Bay, while the waters of the Pacific Ocean rose to consume much of the peninsula's southern coastline.  Runoff from melting glaciers formed numerous streams, especially the dominant river systems of the Naknek, Egegik, Ugashik and Chignik rivers. As these meltwater rivers drained the peninsula's barren landscape, refuge salmon populations made their way up the watersheds, risking periods of heavy glacial outwash. After these persistent salmon spawned, they died. With death, came life, as their decomposing carcasses fertilized the raw waters, returning necessary nutrients to the land. Consequently, plant communities, migrating from the unglaciated interior, began to revegetate the glacial wake. Today, while spruce forests have yet to spread south of the Katmai region, sedges, heaths, grasses, as well as willows and alders, cover the peninsula's lowlands. 
As the glaciers slowly retreated, the Alaska Peninsula's evolving environment attracted brown bears, which thrived in the mountainous regions and along the Bristol Bay coastal plain. The bruin migrated to the peninsula following the caribou, which traveled seasonally in vast herds down the Alaska Peninsula to consume lichen and moss that grew in the unglaciated portions of the peninsula. Wetlands, created by the rising tides, became choked with millions of waterfowl, inundating the once silent and frozen landscape with a plethora of noisy life. Nearly two million seabirds came to nest in the bluffs that lined the shores of Bristol Bay and Pacific Ocean, while the peninsula's glacially carved, protected bays served as haulouts for harbor seals, sea otters, and on the Pacific side, Steller sea lions. Various whales fed in the waters off the Alaska Peninsula, too. Orcas and belugas pursued migrating smelt and salmon up the major rivers in spring and summer, while baleen whales such as the gray, fin and the bowhead, flourished in the plankton-rich waters of Bristol Bay. Herring, halibut and Pacific cod all swam offshore, various kinds of clams buried themselves deep in the peninsula's sandy beaches, and mussels attached to nearly every rocky outcrop in the intertidal zone. One animal that was not found on the peninsula's post-glacial landscape, however, was the moose. Though fairly common today, the ungulate migrated into the region only within the last hundred years or so. 
This was the transitioning environment that the first humans entered by 9,000 years ago, in likely pursuit of caribou that were moving into places simultaneously vacated by retreating glaciers. Although it is not entirely clear where these bands of hunters came from, some archeologists believe they traveled from the northern Bering Sea coast, where their Siberian ancestors had crossed into Alaska 1,500 years earlier.  These hunters left behind traces of their chipped tools on a knoll overlooking a migratory game trail in the Ugashik narrows region off the coast of Bristol Bay.  On a clear day from this site, they could scan the terrain for animals. If they looked to the south, they could see the cone-shaped, glaciated volcanoes glistening, and perhaps even steaming, on the horizon. Quite possibly, this nomadic band of hunters were the ancestors of Alaska Peninsula Alutiit.
Changing Land, Changing People: 9,000-3,500 years ago
Archeologist Don Dumond has studied the human history of the Alaska Peninsula for nearly five decades. Drawing upon linguistic evidence, Dumond and others from the anthropological community believe that, by 7,000 years ago, maritime hunters from the north spread onto the Alaska Peninsula and the adjacent Kodiak Island.  Although rugged even by Alaskan standards, the peninsula's travel corridors accommodated the movement of people and ideas, and genes throughout southern Alaska.  Bristol Bay, Katmai, Kodiak, Port Moller, and the Shumagin Islands all became important cultural hubs on or near the Alaska Peninsula. Wars, trade, and the ceaseless search for predictable food sources brought people to these cultural and ecological centers, as they walked or paddled their way down this narrow neck of land. 
As humans arrived over the centuries, they learned to exploit the seasonal diversity of a warming, post-glacial environment. Food sources, especially on the northern and southern ends of the peninsula, stabilized so much so that fishermen and hunters could hone their skills for catching a specific prey. But predictability did not necessarily mean that resources were static. Over ten thousand years, the resource-rich ecosystems of the Alaska Peninsula became deeply tied to overlapping cycles of light and dark, the ebbing and flooding tides, waxing and waning moons, and especially the warming and the cooling of the seasons. Each plant and animal species made its adjustments to these various cycles, so that the migration of birds, the spawning of fish, the movement of caribou, and the fruiting of berries all occur at specific times of the year. Because humans feed on plants and other animals, these first human predators learned to obtain their foodeven organized their social liveslargely according to the cycles by which other species of the Alaska Peninsula lived. Thus, a seasonal pattern of mobility began to dominate the lives of semi-nomadic peoples moving onto the Alaska Peninsula. Just as a bear's spring diet of clams and the occasional caribou shifts to salmon and berries during the summer and fall, these hunter-gatherers sought their food wherever it was seasonally most concentrated in the ecosystem. Wherever humans expected to find the greatest natural food supplies, there they went.
Spring arrived upon the Alaska Peninsula when the ice in the Bering Sea melted. As water flowed freely, thousands of geese returned to the tundra. By March, the smelt arrived in streams. This arrival was quite welcomed, since well over half the yearly food supply came from the rivers and seashore. Most significantly, summer brought the return of salmon. Between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, rivers stabilized and salmon began to spawn in large numbers. To many of the peninsula's inhabitants, salmon was the axis of their economy and the hub of their culture. It is likely that when the fish were spawning, many families or bands gathered at the headwaters of Naknek, Becharof, Ugashik or Chignik lakes to set their nets. To supplement their diets, individuals engaged in other subsistence pursuits during the long, arctic-lit days of summer. On the ocean beaches, women and children dug for clams and mussels buried in the intertidal zone. Offshore, skilled fishermen caught cod with hook and line. From skin boats, called bidarkas by the Russians, men hunted seals, otters, sea lions, and whales.
As fall arrived, women and children picked roots and berries. Autumn also brought the caribou herds, which moved along the peninsula. Hunters largely depended on caribou meat to feed their families, but they also used the fat for light and cooking; hides for tents, boat covers, sleeping robes, and footwear; and bone for needles, scrapers, fish hooks, and a variety of weapons.  The caribou's seasonal migration marked an end to the summer gatherings. When it was time to hunt in the fall, the communities who assembled around salmon streams disbanded and followed the herds across the Bristol Bay flats. Clearly, all aspects of life on the Alaska Peninsula hinged on seasonal mobility. 
Initially, the Aleutian Mountain Range acted as a natural barrier and periodically isolated people on the Bering Sea from the people on the Pacific coast. But whether to hunt, trade, or engage in battle, people began to traverse the peninsula across several corridors. From the Egegik River, these first people could paddle all the way to Becherof Lake and then portage over Kanatak Pass to reach the Pacific. From Chignik Lake, people could follow the salmon up the Chignik River, which flowed from the centrally located Black Lake. Then as fall came, they could move easily toward Bristol Bay to access the caribou herds that grazed on the tundra flats. Similarly, people could cross the peninsula from Ugashik Bay or from Port Heiden to reach the Pacific shores.
Adaptation to their environment meant that the early peoples of the Alaska Peninsula also had to develop technology that suited their needs. Some of their first tools were distinctive artifacts called microblades, which consisted of thin, extremely sharp slivers of flint-like rock proficiently struck from a carefully prepared core. Although the exact ways these microblades were used is unknown, the people who used them were able to efficiently and successfully hunt the peninsula's caribou herds. 
These hunters were also expert fisherman and invented or appropriated fishing gear such as drift and seine nets and hook and line technology to exploit salmon, cod and the many other fish species found in the waters of the Alaska Peninsula. But, it was the invention of the harpoon that gave humans access to the abundance of calories and nutrients available from sea mammals.  When a hunter impaled a sea mammal at close range, the head of the harpoon detached from its handle and foreshaft while the barbs prevented it from coming out. A seven- to ten-foot line tied the harpoon head to an inflated buoy made of seal intestines. When struck, an animal naturally dove to escape. Dragging even a small buoy through the water quickly tired a seal or sea otter. Exhausted, the animal surfaced, whereupon the hunter attacked. Anthropologists describe such innovation as ingeniousas one researcher notes, "This new technology was as important to their time as the automobile is to ours." 
Such technology also allowed hunters to expand their territory. Skin-covered flotillas from the Katmai region regularly traveled to the Sutwik and Semidi Islands, sometimes journeying even further west toward Unimak Island to hunt sea otters, seal, and sea lions.  With such significant progress made possible by subsistence technology, peoples started to dwell in larger, if only semi-permanent, seaside villages. Art and ceremonial practices became more sophisticated. Peopled dressed in intricate clothing and headgear, and traveled in skin-covered boats of elegant design.  As the exchange of ideas and trade increased, tools and other material items started to look similar on both sides of the Alaska Peninsula, as well as on Kodiak Island.
Still, while some groups living on the peninsula fused together, others drifted apart. With people migrating farther and farther away, cultural and linguistic traits began to separate and change. Archeologist Don Dumond believes that between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, speakers of the Eskimo family of languages split into two distinct ethnic groups on the Alaska Peninsula: the first group became the ancestors of today's Yupiit and Alutiit of the northern peninsula and Kodiak Island, while the second group, the Unangan, became the ancestors of the Aleuts of the southern peninsula and the Aleutian Islands. 
Today, archeologists identify a cultural boundary zone that divided the Alaska Peninsula into two territories, approximately at Port Moller on the Bering Sea side, and just south of Chignik Bay on the Pacific side.  Oral testimony concurs, as Alutiiq elder Iganatius Kosbruk of Perryville recalls:
A Cultural and Ecological Dead Zone: 3,500 to 2,000 years ago
Although evidence is sparse, archeologist Richard VanderHoek, while working on an Archaeological Overview and Assessment of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve for the National Park Service between 1997 and 2000, developed a theory as to how Alutiit and Aleuts separated into "different people."  Basing his theory on studies conducted by scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory and United States Geological Survey, VanderHoek postulates that Aniakchak Volcano, positioned at the center of the Alaska Peninsula, prevented people from permanently settling in this central region, and thus, directly shaped both it's environmental and cultural history. 
About 3,500 years ago, Aniakchak's ancient strarocone blew with an explosive force similar to 10,000 nuclear bombs, sending fifty to one hundred cubic kilometers of pulverized rock, ash, steam, and magmatic froth 82,000 feet into the atmosphere.  The initial blast sent a shockwave that pulsated across land and sea, leveling all in its path. Seconds later, the convulsed explosion generated an ominous mushroom cloud made up of hot ash. It enveloped the region and eventually reached landscapes as far away as the Seward Peninsula, six hundred miles to the north, with a blanket of coarse pumice and ash.  Lightning flashes cut through blackened skies and thunder boomed across the Aleutian Chain. Hot, glowing avalanches of volcanic gas, ash, and rock debriscalled pyroclastic flowssurged down the mountain flanks with hurricane force. The flows radiated as they traveled, reaching as far as Bristol Bay and the Pacific Ocean, thirty miles away.
On the Bering Sea coast, these flows suffocated lands lying between Port Heiden and the Cinder River, spilling deposits far into the sea. Strong evidence also suggests that a tsunami generated by the pyroclastic flow inundated low-lying areas of upper Bristol Bay.  The sea's strong currents carried the deposits north, and may have filled in what was once a much larger Ugashik Bay.  On the Pacific side, the flows, some as thick as seventy-five meters, rapidly slid down the river valleys, making foothills into isolated islands.  Following the natural forks of the Aniakchak River, the ashflows smothered the riverine ecosystem and filled parts of Aniakchak Bay, mirroring the destruction on the Bering Sea.  Accompanying the glowing pyroclastic flows was the hard pelting of ash and acid rains that together likely killed most of the surrounding flora and fauna. The peninsula's east bays, such as Kujulik Bay and Amber Bay, were protected from the effects of the pyroclastic flows by the foothills of the Aleutian Range, unlike the flat, unobstructed tundra that lies to the west of Aniakchak. 
During the eruption, the volcano expelled enormous volumes of hot volcanic ash that swept down the slopes in a torrent of avalanches, weakening the layers of solidified lava that had been acting as the mountain's support beams. Moreover, the intensity of the eruption drained Aniakchak's underground magma reservoirs. With its bowels sapped and infrastructure damaged, the existing cone began to crumble. It collapsed upon itself in an horrific implosion, leaving behind a thirty-square mile, 3,000-foot deep crater, and creating a sterile landscape equal to any on the moon. 
Other volcanic eruptions on the peninsula also contributed to the disruption of both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The caldera-forming eruption of Aniakchak, combined with the pyroclastic flows discharged from the Veniaminov and Black Peak eruptions that occurred about the same time, may have created what VanderHoek termed a biological "dead zone" that lasted for centuries.  This dead zone, according to VanderHoek, turned the central peninsula into an "ecological roadblock" separating the Alutiiq people from their kin, the Aleuts. 
It is unknown whether people lived in the region surrounding the Aniakchak Volcano prior to the caldera-forming eruption, for the pyroclastic flows that blanketed the entire width of the Alaska Peninsula would have annihilated anyone living within a fifty mile radius of the volcano, and covered up any possible trace of their existence. Archeological evidence from the Ugashik lakes areaover forty miles awaysuggests that about 3,500 years ago humans disappeared from the record, killed or driven our by Aniakchak ash.  The combination of ashfalls and flows significantly depressed the biological resources. The eruption altered the landscape beyond recognition, turning a once thriving environment into a sterile desert. As VanderHoek suggests, "Such hostility could have delayed human settlement on the central Alaska Peninsula for centuries." 
Archeologists can only guess if this eruption pushed people towards the peninsula's coastal fringes, or if more abundant and predictable resources, found in northern and southern portions of the peninsula, drew people to those places, making any kind of permanent settlement in the central portion of the peninsula undesirable.  In a sea of uncertainty, one thing is certain: the caldera-forming eruption of Aniakchak, and the many smaller eruptions that followed, affected most every living thing on the peninsula. Like the bears, birds, and fish, the people living at both ends of the Alaska Peninsula learned to adapt to their volcanic world.
Learning to Live in the Shadow of Disaster: 2,000 to 1600 years ago
As far as the archeological record shows, the first sign that the people living on the Alaska Peninsula began to move into the central peninsula appeared just over two thousand years ago, at least 1,500 years after the caldera-forming eruption. Researchers can only guess if they were Aleut or Alutiiq speakers, but they appear to have settled on a bluff overlooking a long crescent-shaped beach fronting Aniakchak Bay, to gather salmon entering the Aniakchak River.  Though little information exists about these humans, archeologists, with the help of geologists, speculate that they met a catastrophic end.
In the years after the caldera-forming eruption, rain water and seasonal runoff began to wash over, and eventually flood, the Aniakchak Caldera. Over the decades, the Caldera rim, acting as a circular dam, filled with water. This ancient lake was on average one hundred meters deep and covered about half of the Caldera floor.  At the time, it would have looked like a half-full Crater Lake in Oregon.
Beneath the waters of this deep blue lake, eruptions on a much smaller scale continued to spew lava from vents on the crater's surface. Consecutive explosive eruptions eventually produced a cluster of tuff cones and lava domes. These shallow, flat-floored craters formed, as magmatic gas or steam violently expanded and burst through the Caldera floor. Overtime, Aniakchak built two intra-caldera cones, known as Half Cone and the 2,200-foot Vent Mountain, which explorers would later accurately described as a "volcano inside a volcano!" 
Geologist Game McGimsey, who conceived the lake-draining theory only after flying over the Caldera and viewing the destruction in its entirety, surmises that about 1,800 years ago, when the Caldera lake was at its deepestapproximately five hundred feet above the current lake level earthquakes, linked to a minor eruption, rattled the Caldera like a giant swirling pot. With seismic activity intensifying, large waves, caused by possible pyroclastic flows and crashing debris from avalanches, rushed over the lowest point on the Caldera rim, causing weakened rock to burst at an area now known as The Gates.
A wall of water, carrying house-sized boulders several miles, quickly drained the ancient lake, becoming a river of mud nearly a mile wide.  This massive wave, with a discharge equal to that of the Mississippi River, flooded the Aniakchak River valley. It surged across the alluvial plain to the Pacific Ocean, leaving behind spewed boulders and annihilating most intertidal life. 
The catastrophic draining of Aniakchak's Caldera drastically reshaped the land surrounding the Aniakchak River valley and Aniakchak Bay. The flood carried so much sediment that deposits displaced nearly a quarter of Aniakchak Bay with a complex of beach berms and sand dunes.  Riverine and marine fish, as well as intertidal invertebrates, were washed away or killed by the deluge of fresh water.  The flood left behind a mere puddle of the ancient caldera lake, a remnant known today as Surprise Lake.
Based on evidence gathered from core samples taken near the bluff where the prehistoric village site stood, archeologists agree with geologiststhat something catastrophic happened here around 1,800 years ago. By that date, humans had occupied Aniakchak Bay, as well as the adjacent Kujulik Bay.  No one really knows if people had actually witnessed, died, or abandoned their fishing site as a result of the draining of the caldera, but archeologists contend that sometime after the event, Aniakchak Bay was once again abandoned for several hundred years. 
* * *
Even if no one experienced Aniakchak's catastrophic flood, people were nonetheless affected by the eruption that caused it. For this eruption, and those that followed, altered the flora and fauna of the entire Alaska Peninsula, and ultimately affected the people whose lives were deeply connected to the cycles of those resources. After the caldera drained, at least four significant explosive Aniakchak eruptions subsequently occurred. Most of these eruptions sent coarse debris beyond the Caldera rim and at least one eruption produced pyroclastic flows that overtopped its the north rim. Non-explosive lava flows and domes also continued to erupt in the Caldera during this period.  One eruption in particular blasted out material equal to the explosive force of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. 
Beyond the reach of pyroclastic flows and destructive flooding, the principle hazard to the peninsula's ecosystems was, and remains, volcanic ash. Aniakchak's ash often blanketed regions as far as Katmai, allowing one researcher to remark that "ash is the one feature that ties the peninsula together."  A blizzard-like ashfall, although seemingly harmless, is composed of glass splinters fused into a stony dust during the explosion. Clouds of ash disperse very quickly with the prevailing winds, as evidenced by the fact that they can engulf a region fifty miles away from the blast within the hour. For the people living on the Alaska Peninsula, deep accumulations intensified erosion, landslides, and mudslides. Ashfall induced changes in the drainage patterns of soils and altered the local flora composition for years. An eruption that spread hot ash in winter might cause an "early spring" that increased flooding. Or, the fallout retarded the melting of underlying snow, preserving snow banks for several seasons. 
Ash fallout made travel extremely difficult, as acid rains that routinely accompany ashfalls were especially hard on the covers of skin boats. In addition, thick layers of floating pumice might choke local bays, making escape from the area in boats impossible.  Once on the ground, deposits restricted movement by sled or snowshoes. In summer, winds constantly stirred up the ash-laden terrain. Ash-filled streams created dangerous quicksand deposits and contaminated water sources. It did not take much ashfall to affect outlying regions, either. Just five centimeters of ash could smother fragile low-lying vegetation, which served as a significant food resource for animals and people.  For fishermen, who depended on fish resources to feed their families, the effect of volcanism on the peninsula's many rivers, lakes and streams was devastating. Ash-filled lakes starved sticklebacks and salmon fingerlings, while returning fish suffocated, or, at minimum, were prevented from reaching their spawning grounds. 
Besides terrestrial hunters and freshwater fishermen, those who subsisted from the sea were also greatly affected by ashfall. In other eruptions on the Alaska Peninsula, witnesses observed porpoises, seabirds, and fish floating on rafts of ash and pumice so deep that it choked the coastal bay.  It can be assumed that after each Aniakchak eruption, sea mammals that need to surface periodically to breathe likely withdrew from the vicinity. Seals deserted areas where the ash decimated salmon runs. Sea otters, with their special dependency on sea urchins and kelp beds, suffered greatly from factors adversely affecting those resources. 
Still, in spite of such catastrophic events, the Aniakchak region did not remain a biological dead zone, for the living world eventually adjusted, recovered, and endured. Without a doubt, explosive volcanoes caused severe damage to the environment and to those living in the immediate blast zone, but successive eruptions like those from Aniakchak also provided important, long-term benefits to those living on the mountain's margins. Overtime, the chemical compounds found in volcanic ashfalls added nutrients to the soils. For instance, the summer after the Katmai eruption, berries on Kodiak Island grew profusely.
The people of the peninsula learned to use hot springs that formed near the volcano to cook fish, sea mammals, and edible roots. To the south, Aleuts used sulfur as a fire starter, apparently collecting it at or near the vents of active volcanoes.  Hunters and fishermen made fairly extensive use of volcanic products, including pumice floats for fishing, or as an excellent abrasive to fashion other tools.  The most significant stone material, because it was rare and highly prized, was obsidian or volcanic glass. Violent wars between the Aleuts and Alutiit often broke out over a major obsidian source found in the eastern Aleutians. 
Re-settling Aniakchak: 400 B.P. to 1741
Despite its destructive potential, humans, like the bears, birds, salmon, and clams, eventually returned to the Aniakchak region. A period of greater geological stability provided a more sustainable environment, which may be responsible for what appears to be the evolution of a more sedentary way of life. About 1,600 years ago, people started living, albeit seasonally, in fairly permanent house sites along the Aniakchak Pacific coastline.  House sizes became bigger and more numerous and communities began to form, resembling the more organized village sites found in other Alutiiq regions such as Katmai and Kodiak. Large amounts of material deposited at these sites suggest that people stayed for longer periods throughout the year. Terrestrial mammal butchering patterns indicate that harvests took place away from the village. This evidence, coupled with the lack of fish heads in the middens, make archeologists think that most food stuffs were stored for later consumption, meaning that at least one site on Aniakchak Bay may have been a winter village, rather than merely a seasonal camp. 
Within four hundred years of their return, people occupied coastal sites throughout Aniakchak Bay, in Kujulik Bay, and on Kumlik Island. Archeologists have recently found several individual homes assembled within carefully chosen village sites. Middens, some ranging from an inch to three- and four-feet deep, contain the material story of the people who occupied these sites. Newly discovered artifacts show that people fished the rivers and bays that fronted their villages. They dug and ate clams, hunted sea mammals, birds, and possibly hunted whales.  The placement of these artifacts, shells, and bone material found in the numerous refuse heaps suggest that these ancient residents processed food, made stone and bone tools, and crafted other utility items, like oil lamps, inside the villages. Fish hooks, net, and line sinkers found at the sites tell us that fishermen caught salmon, herring and cod. Sculpin, halibut, and eulachon bones were also scattered throughout the middens. Some items made of ivory imply that villagers either traveled to the Bering Sea coast or they traded with the inhabitants there. 
Sometime within this period, humans also began to move inland, strategically positioning a village near the outlet of Meshik Lake. Using the navigable waters of Meshik River, people began to portage to Bristol Bay and back again to the Pacific coast regularly, linking people and resources across the central portion of the Alaska Peninsula, possibly for the first time since the caldera-forming eruption.  Over the next five hundred years, people remained in the area, living in small house sites near salmon steams that emptied into the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. Generation after generation existed in the shadow of the volcano without feeling so much as a bump.
Based on linguistic studies, oral histories, and Russian reports made at the time of contact, ethnographers suggest that during this time of geological stability, the seasonal pursuit of resources influenced and shaped people's spiritual view of the world. Indeed, the Alutiiq seasonal mobility continued well into historical times, as one Russian observer noted:
To ensure that the animals, berries, and birds they depended upon did not become scarce, these hunter-fisher-gatherers sought to uphold good relations with the resource's suas.  According to ethnographers, the Alutiit understood that in each plant, animal, river, or mountain resided a life force called a sua. In such a view of the world, it was important that hunters and fishermen attained a collaborative relationship with the surrounding resources, for they believed that all living things participated in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in which the souls of both animals and humans were connected.  This reciprocity was achieved through rituals of thanksgiving, conducted during the winter months, when villagers reunited.
Winter was a time to visit, sing, drum, and dance. The darkened days kept people inside and provided time to celebrate summer's bounty. Individual families living in semi-subterranean sod-covered houses, which the Russians would later call barabaras, held their social dances, ceremonies, and celebrations in a centrally located barabara called the qasgiq.  As the period of feasts came to a conclusion and villagers had exhausted summer food stocks, starvation often followed, making the first light of spring a welcome time. 
Frederica de Laguna reported that the way of life of the inhabitants of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island "seems to have been distinctive, as compared with that of other Eskimos . . . it is not simply a northern culture transplanted to the subarctic, but it has its own roots and history." Similarly, cultural anthropologist Patricia Partnow believes that when people began to successfully adapt to their maritime environment, an Alutiiq identity took shape.  By the time the Russian first appear on the shores of the Alaska Peninsula, this identity had clearly formed.
Fire or Ice?
The poet Robert Frost wondered if fire or ice would eventually destroy the world. When flames flew from Aniakchak, its inhabitants surely must have believed the end was near. When arctic winters lengthened the dark nights, perhaps they thought ice would do them in. But fear would have been fleeting and attention would have quickly returned to seasonal and daily tasks at hand. Whether it was the sun, wind, or any other elements of a region, we can assume that to the people of the Alaska Peninsula, Aniakchak Volcano maintained a sua, a life force. In their reciprocal relationship with the sua, hunter-fisher-gathers must certainly have respected the volcano, especially for what it might do to the world they valueda place of caribou, berries, fish, and fresh water sources.
There is no doubt that the caldera-forming eruption, and the others that followed, caused profound change to cultures living on the Alaska Peninsula. Aniakchak transformed the region's geological features. Numerous eruptions disrupted vegetation growth, which in turn, altered the movement of grazing animals. Migrating birds died, seals and otters swam away. From the rivers to the ocean, entire ecological communities were destroyed. Evidence even suggests that human populations became separated as a consequence of catastrophic eruptions. And still, the living world came back.
In fact, it is quite possible that the violent activity of Aniakchak positively shaped cultural evolution on the Alaska Peninsula. People learned to use volcanic rocks in tool-making and captured fire from volcanoes to light the realms of the dark and the cold. Volcanic ash eventually fertilized post glacial coastal plains, attracting abundant game to the region. Perceptions of volcanoes perhaps made people fearful, but it is probable that such views also made them strong. Bad weather was probably a far more immediate and real threat to people living along the dangerous body of water that separated the Alaska Peninsula from Kodiak Island or the shallow Bering Sea. Warring neighbors and the cyclical decline of fish and herd animals were also far more dangerous than the fear of a catastrophic eruption. Like Alaskans today who pay high prices for real estate with views of nearby volcanoes despite the potential danger, people living hundreds of years ago may have also enjoyed the beauty of the volcanoes, while respecting their power. According to Father Veniaminov, the people of the Aleutian Chain referred to these powers of destruction as "the high beauties of earth."  Certainly topping their list of things to worry about were finding predictable food sources, keeping their families sheltered from raging storms, and seeking fur-bearing animals to provide warm clothing and tools.
Aniakchak Volcano may have erupted over forty times since the glaciers receded, but animals and people adjusted, and seasonal cycles continued throughout the Alaska Peninsula. At times, the region was abandoned, but people always came back. What many fleeting visitors to the area may not readily understand is that the tectonic forces that transformed a volcanic landscape shaped and remade a cultural landscape, too.
By 1741, fire and ice was replaced by another, even more foreboding agent of change. That year the Alutiiq people encountered the Russian promyshlenniki, hunters seeking the sea otters that lived off their coast. Though their numbers were few (only about eight hundred actually lived in Alaska at one time) the Russians brought with them enormous long-term and disruptive change. To a people whose world turned upside down after 1741, the Aniakchak Volcano probably stood as a reassuring reminder, for it was a fixed and unchangeable force, more powerful than any human being.
19Christina A. Neal, Robert G. McGimsey, Thomas P. Miller, James R. Riehle, and Christopher F. Waythomas, Preliminary Volcano-Hazard Assessment for Aniakchak Volcano, Alaska (Anchorage, AK: Alaska Volcano Observatory, US. Geological Survey, 2001), 3.
25Don Dumond, Prehistoric Human Occupation in Southwestern Alaska: A Study of Resource Distribution and Site Location, University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, No. 36, (Eugene: University of Oregon, 1987), 9.
34Dumond, "The Alaska Peninsula As Superhighway: A Comment," in Alaska Anthropological Association Monograph Series #4. eds. Robert Shaw, Roger K. Harritt and Don Dumond (Anchorage: Alaska Anthropological Association, 1988), 379-380.
37For more on mobility studies, see William B. Workman, "Some Implications of Mobility and Sedentarism in the Prehistoric and Traditional Cultures of Northern North America," (Reprinted from the proceedings of the 6th International Abashiri Symposium, 1992).
43Don Dumond, "Prehistoric Ethnic Boundaries on the Alaska Peninsula," in Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, 16-1 (Anchorage: University of Alaska, 1974), 1-7. His theory is more fully articulated in The Eskimos and Aleuts.
47Richard VanderHoek, "Ecological Roadblocks on a Constrained Landscape: The Cultural Effects of Catastrophic Holocene Volcanism on the Alaska Peninsula, Southwest Alaska." Paper presented at the Fifth World Archaeological Congress, (Washington D.C: June 23,2003), 1.
48Richard VanderHoek and Rachel Myron, Cultural Remains From a Catastrophic Landscape: An Archeological Overview and Assessment of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve (Anchorage, AK: National Park Service, 2004), 146.
49James R. Reihle, C.E. Meyer, T.A. Ager, D.S. Kaufman, and R.E. Ackerman, "The Aniakchak Tephra Deposit: A Late Holocene Marker Horizon in Western Alaska" Alaska Geologic Studies Circular 998 eds. T.D. Hamilton and J.P. Galloway (Washington D.C.: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 1987), 19-22.
50Christopher F. Waythomas and Christina A. Neal, "Tsunami Generation during the 3500 Year B.P. Caldera-Forming Eruption of Aniakchak Volcano," Alaska Bulletin of Volcanology, vol. 60 (Washington D.C.: USGS, 1998), 110-124.
57VanderHoek, "Ecological Roadblocks on a Constrained Landscape," 1; David Yesner, "Cultural Boundaries and Ecological Frontiers in Coastal Regions: An Example from the Alaska Peninsula," in The Archaeology of Frontiers and Boundaries eds., Stanton W. Green and Stephen M. Perlman (New York: Academic Press, 1985), 80.
62Robert G. McGimsey, Christopher F. Waytomas, and Christina A. Neal, "High Stand and Catastrophic Draining of Interacaldera Surprise Lake, Aniakchak Volcano, Alaska," Geological Studies in Alaska, USGS Bulletin 2107 (Washington D.C.: USGS, 1993), 65.
71Christina A. Neal, Robert G. McGimsey, Thomas P. Miller, James R. Riehle, and Christopher F. Waythomas, Preliminary Volcano-Hazard Assessment of Aniakchak Volcano, Alaska (Anchorage, AK: Alaska Volcano Observatory, U.S. Geological Survey, 2001), 7.
74William Workman, "The Significance of Volcanism in the Prehistory of Subarctic Northwest North America," in Volcanic Activity and Human Ecology eds. Payson D. Sheets and Donald K. Grayson (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 344-345.
77After a Katmai eruption in 1912, residents on Kodiak Island observed returning salmon ascending the polluted streams a short way, going back to sea, and then trying to ascend again. E.M. Ball, "Investigations of the effect of the eruption of Katmai Volcano upon the fisheries, fur animals and plant life in the Afognak Island reservation" Alaska Fishery and Furs Seal Investigations in 1913, ed. B.W. Evermann (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914), 61-64.
79Because most sea mammals haul-up on land to breed and give birth, a significant deposit of ash might encourage the animals to abandon their rookeries. Russians even noted that after the 1825 eruption on Unimak Island, the surrounding rich Aleutian waters became void of cod for nearly a year. Veniaminov, 69-70.
84Initial evidence shows that SUT-027 was a permanent site. However, artifacts and faunal remains still need to be analyzed before any solid interpretation can be made of the ancient people who lived in the Aniakchak region.
89For studies that examine the role of the sua in Alutiiq cosmology see Lydia Black, Glory Remembered: Wooden Headgear of Alaska Sea Hunters (Juneau: Alaska State Museums, 1977); Ann Finup-Rordan, Eskimo Essays (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990); or Partnow, Making History, 49-59.
Last Updated: 03-Aug-2009