Scenic view of Round Island in Southwest Alaska
Round Island, Southwest Alaska


Archeology of Southwest Alaska and the Gulf of Alaska

This diverse and complex culturally region stretches from just west of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula; north past the Kodiak Archipelago and Katmai National Park and Preserve and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve on the Peninsula to Kamishak Bay and Cook Inlet; and then east and south to Prince William Sound, including Kenai Fjords National Park, as far as the delta of the Copper River. As conceived here, there appears to have been three relatively distinct subareas within the overall region:

1. The Gulf of Alaska coast; culturally oriented towards maritime-based groups, such as the Aleuts and the Pacific Eskimo
2. The northwest side of the Alaska Peninsula; facing Bristol Bay (of the Bering Sea); culturally host to Paleoarctic tradition, Arctic Small Tool tradition, and Norton tradition groups showing influences from the Bering Sea coast and north Alaska.
3. The interior lands west of Cook Inlet and east to Prince William Sound and the Copper River delta; culturally home to inland and forest dominated cultures such as the Dena’ina and, on the coast, by Pacific Eskimo groups.
It seems that in prehistoric times, the population of this extensive region fell into two major linguistic divisions, Aleut and Eskimoan, with the dividing line between them falling on the Alaska Peninsula just west of Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve and east of Port Heiden (near 159 degrees west longitude). Both groups shared many traits, derived probably from their common existence as marine hunters and their common roots. Both the Eskimoan and Aleut languages were derived from a common Eskaleutian language (Dumond 2005). Other influences were regularly felt on the Alaska Peninsula. Over the millennia, both migration and diffusion came from the Bering Sea coast to the north, from the interior areas to the east, and the Pacific coast areas around the Kodiak Archipelago. In addition, the relatively frequent volcanic eruptions (this area is part of the Pacific Coast Ring of Fire) certainly periodically affected all life on the Alaska Peninsula and surrounding areas (Dumond 2004; VanderHoek 2004; VanderHoek and Nelson 2003). Volcanic activity disrupted the environment near each eruption site and also for some distance away (mainly from the ashfall). So did the rising sea levels and tsunamis in this tectonically active region (Crowell and Mann 1996, 1998).

Cultural influences from the Bering Sea coast on the northwest side of the Peninsula can be seen on the Peninsula in the presence of Paleoarctic tradition archeological sites in Katmai National Park and Preserve at the Ugashik Narrows and at Naknek at the mouth of the Kvichak River on the coast of Bristol Bay. The Anangula archeological site out in the Aleutians also represents an early presence of a Paleoarctic or Paleomarine-type culture but it doesn't seem to have had much influence on later developments in the Peninsula area. The Northern Archaic tradition appeared in the area about 5000 BP, with sites in Katmai National Park and Preserve in the middle and on the north side of the Peninsula (Dumond 2005, 2009).  Northern Archaic tradition sites are also likely present in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve (Rasic 2008; Vinson personal communication 2007).

In contrast, by about 7500 BP (radiocarbon years Before Present), maritime hunters were living on Kodiak Island and throughout the Archipelago, as well as on the adjacent southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula and the surrounding area (Dumond 1998).  This culture has been called the Ocean Bay I tradition on Kodiak, and the closely related Takli Alder phase on the Pacific Coast of Katmai National Park and Preserveon the Alaska Peninsula (Dixon 2007).  Ground slate lithic technology began to appear in the tool inventory at this time, although chipped stone technology remained predominant.

During the same time period, on the Pacific coast area of the south side of the Alaska Peninsula, a closely related cultural development was taking place. The Mink Island archeolgical site near Takli Island (Dixon 2007; Schaaf 2008, 2009), which is part of Katmai National Park and Preserve, contains a sequence of occupation layers beginning about 7600 BP. The discovery and excavation of the Mink Island site led to the designation of the Amalik Bay Archeological District National Historic Landmark. The Takli Island Archeological District, which is on the National Register of Historic Properties, became part of the Historic Landmark. These earliest levels at Mink Island contain a technology that seems to reflect the Paleoarctic tradition from the north and the Ocean Bay I tradition of the Pacific coast. As time went on, however, the Kodiak maritime cultures’ influence became stronger. By 4500 BP, the Ocean Bay I culture in the Kodiak Archipelago had morphed into the Ocean Bay II tradition, as marked by the predominance of ground slate lithic technology over flaked lithic tools. On the Pacific coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve the Takli Birch phase culture seems to have changed more slowly. There is even evidence that some groups from the southern Pacific coast ventured inland, sometimes even using the same camp sites as the people of the roughly contemporaneous Northern Archaic tradition (circa 5200 BP). Unfortunately, there is no evidence that these two very different groups actually met each other, since the use of these sites by both groups was only intermittent. The Takli Birch culture continued interacting with and coexisting with the Ocean Bay II cultures in the Archipelago, which developed into the Kachemak tradition, which spread northward and became widespread. The Takli Birch tradition also spread to its north, appearing in an archeological site on Pedro Bay, part of Lake Illiamna which is just southwest of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. By about 4000 BP, The Takli culture showed substantive influence from the Kachemak tradition, indicative of an increased interaction sphere involving the whole region (Dumond 2005).

In a broader view, the archeological record from the period around 4000 BP showed some cultural diversity in the region with several related, but locally divergent cultures present. The Old Islanders of Chirikof Island (near ANIA) employed chipped and ground slate tool technology but in different styles from Takli and Ocean Bay II. This probably represents a regional phase on the central and western Alaska Peninsula and offshore islands of the 4200 BP period with influences from the Aleutian Islands.

At the Brooks River sites in Katmai National Park and Preserve, the arrival of Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt) people from the Bristol Bay region north of the Alaska Peninsula is evident by 3800 BP and was present until 3100 BP. This intrusive ASTt occupation of the Brooks River represents a unique phase in the prehistory of the interior of the Peninsula because it is a 700 year-long period when the influence of Pacific Coast cultures is not evident. This suggests that there was an actual migration of ASTt people from the north and not a diffusion of their technology and culture. The next wave of influence from the north shows up around 2300 BP in the Norton culture (Bundy 2007; Dixon 2007; Dumond 2005, 2009), which was resident until 1000 BP. The Norton tradition on the Alaska Peninsula was characterized by the presence of pottery and the use of ground slate, and marked a shift to an economy based on maritime and littoral resources; showing cultural influences from the Bering Sea coast. Norton culture appears to have shared this maritime orientation with the developing Kachemak or Kodiak tradition along the Pacific Coast. They shared many characteristics but Norton doesn't seem to have ever firmly established itself on Kodiak Island or the Pacific Coast (Dumond 1987, 1998, 2009).

As the Kachemak tradition evolved from North Pacific maritime hunters not very different from those of the Ocean Bay tradition, it was represented on the Alaska Peninsula in the Takli Cottonwood (on the Pacific coast) and the Kukak Beach phases (at Naknek) in Katmai National Park and Preserve, which do show some Norton influences. Sites also have been found in Prince William Sound (Palugvik), as well as in the middle and upper Cook Inlet area (Reger 1998) that show strong similarities to late Kachemak. Clark (1992) labels this development of Pacific Coast groups as a Pacific Eskimo co-tradition. Dumond (1987, 1998, 2009) sees it as a wide-spread Kodiak Archipelago-influenced cultural tradition.

The last centuries of the first millennium A.D. were ones of cultural fusion of Bering Sea and Pacific ideas and cultures. In most areas cultural continuity is evident although some immigration is probable (Clark 1984b). This period is seen as the time of the development of the historically known Pacific Eskimo (also known as Alutiiq). The triggering event for this growth was the fluorescence of the Thule Eskimo culture to the north and its rapid spread to the east and the south from its origins around the northern Bering Strait (Dixon 2007; Dumond 2005). By around 1100 AD, the ancestors of the historically-known Pacific Eskimo may have been present on the Alaska Peninsula coast, on Mink Island, in the Kukak Mound Phase at Naknek, and on the Kodiak Archipelago as the Koniag phase. According to Clark (1984b:146).

A long series of events and the ongoing operation of cultural processes tending to obliterate cultural differences is involved in the formation of the Pacific Eskimo and their neighbors. The Norton influences and possible migrations of the late first millennium of the Christian era, the subsequent Thule influences transformation on the Alaska Peninsula at the beginning of the second millennium, or the ongoing local development cannot explain fully the later prehistoric and ethnographic cultures of the region. Ethnographically and archeologically, there also is an impressive body of material and nonmaterial culture with a distinctive North Pacific cast variously shared by the Pacific Eskimo, Aleut, Eyak, and other Northwest Coast peoples.

By 1500 AD, the Koniag culture was well established on Kodiak Island, representing a well-developed Pacific Eskimo culture, probably speaking local dialects of the Yupik Eskimo language; reflecting Bering Sea Eskimo influence, but also reflecting in situ development and influences from many other directions. In Cook Inlet and on the upper Alaska Peninsula, Dena'ina Athabaskans were expanding from the east, establishing themselves as far south as Lake Iliamna and Lake Clark. In Prince William Sound and on the western coast of the Gulf of Alaska (Kenai Fjords National Park), Kachemak influences remained strong, although there was considerable contact with the expanding Dena’ina Athapaskans. By contact times, their descendants, the Chugach, inhabited the whole area and were expanding (Crowell 2004, 2009; Crowell et al. 2008; Reger and Mobley 2008; Romano-Lax 2004).

When Euroamerican influence arrived in this region, first by way of Russian colonization, the effect was profound, especially on the Gulf of Alaska coastal cultures (Crowell 2004, 2009; Crowell et al. 2008; Dumond 2005). After the Russians, the Euroamerican world continued to have major influences (Branson 2007; Cook and Norris 1998; Ellanna and Balluta 1992). All of these cultural changes have left their imprint which is reflected in the ethnographic and archeological record.



Last Updated: January 16, 2014