Archaeologist gives author’s talk on recently released book on Aleutians

Archaeologist Debra Corbett gave an author’s talk on her recently released book “Culture and Archaeology of the Ancestral Unangax/Aleut of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.”

During the presentation, which took place Feb. 20 at the Islands and Ocean’s Visitors Center and was hosted by Friends of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, Corbett talked about her 30 years of experience working as an archaeologist doing excavations and exploring human history in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The book provides a detailed overview of the physical environment of the Aleutians, the living environment, features of the people and culture. These include house and settlement structures, petroglyphs and spirituality, warfare and weapons, food and hunting and fishing techniques.

The audience was full, attentive and there were several people attending by Zoom.

The book is co-authored by Diane Hanson, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, who accompanied Corbett on many research visits to the islands. Illustrations are provided by Mark Luttrell from Seward.

A 419-page textbook style manuscript with dense citations, Corbett’s book includes descriptive details of the landscape and geographic features of the islands as well as the excavation sites themselves.

Corbett began studies in archaeology at the University of Arizona and moved to Alaska in 1983 to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs exploring historic cemetery sites claimed by the regional corporations through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, established in 1971. She received an Masters of Arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and started work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and eventually took the position as the regional archaeologist. Corbett retired in 2013 and his been working to write the book since then.

When she began her lecture she told the audience, “you are in for a treat, because I am obsessed!”

Her initial introduction to the Aleutians was in high school when she read Hektor Chevigny’s work “Russian America: the Great Alaskan Venture 1741-1867.”

“He described the islands as greenly beautiful where the grass grows so long it over hangs the banks into the surf and I had to see that! I didn’t know then that it would lead me to a lifelong career,” she said.

The first BIA site exploration trip to Adak Islands was in 1983.

“It was their first foray into this kind of region and since I had actually been in a boat and knew the front from the back, I was picked for one of the crews. They told us we would be ‘dead’ in a week. One crew member asked BIA, “do we get hazard pay?” and we did,” she said.

Her crew spent three months in a “rat-infested shack” on the west side of Adak with a small inflatable zodiac boat, a few maps and some vague instructions to “find sites.”

“It was incredible; the most amazing summer of my life,” she said.

Hanson was with her on that crew, also. Corbett noted that at the time most the crew had very little knowledge of the islands but Hanson probably had the most. The best archaeological information for the region was probably related to World War II historical findings from the 1940s, she said.

”After that first summer, we had probably seen more archaeological sites than any other teams working in the Aleutians. By the time I worked on Amchitka in 1985, I was the BIA’s resident expert,” she said.

“We skiffed and walked over the Islands and became immersed in the cultural nuances of the area. We saw a full range of physical remains, both large and small villages,” she said while showing map images of house pits, burial sites and middens.

Other visitation sites included rock pits, shelters and caves, many used as “family crypts in the past,” she said. The crypts contained human skeletal remains and the only known umiaks (open skin boats) ever found. More than 300 sites were mapped.

Questions from the audience following the talk included permitting and consultation requirements with the tribes for conducting the excavations, observation/assumptions of diet from remains in the middens and sources of fuel for the early inhabitants.

In response to a query on how much salmon contributed to the diets of early island inhabitants, Corbett said the diet was 80% cod. “Cod was the big one, everything else was incidental.” Images accompanying the presentation showed cod skulls from the middens substantially larger than average size cod today.

Primary fuel sources were driftwood and whale bones.

One of the final questions from the audience was how the people were spread over the Islands.

Corbett’s response was that the islands were all densely populated. There were villages on every island, even the small ones. Those might have 10-15 house pits. Attu Island has 30 known sites; Amchitka Island has 66 known sites. Amchitka is the only island that has been thoroughly surveyed. That island is 35 miles long and 3-5 miles wide has 76 village sites on it. There were villages on Unalaska that had more than 1,000 people in them at the mouth of a bay and then the smaller nearby villages would be subordinate to the larger village.

“The traditional estimates for the number of people in the Aleutians was 25,000 people but that is ridiculously low. Now we think the number should be more like 40,000,” she said.

Corbett told the Homer News that the local talk was the first public presentation she has provided on the book. The book itself is very dense and full of substantial references to academic journals and archaeological texts. Corbett said the book has not been formally reviewed yet but she is looking for review assistance from the Anchorage Daily News, the Alaska Anthropological Association or possibly the American Anthropological Association.

After the Homer presentation, Corbett traveled to Fairbanks for the 51st annual Alaska Anthropological Association meeting where she co-organized the session on Kenai Peninsula Cultural and Archaeological Heritage with Tamara Holman.

Though now retired from her position as a regional historic preservation archaeologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Corbett still does contract work with Kenaitze tribe, particularly in relation to historic sites and the Sterling Highway improvement plans.

The title of her talk at the Fairbanks conference was “Susten Camp: 30 years of Kenaitze Archaeology on Yaghanen.”

“Yaghanen” is the Kenaitze word for the Kenai Peninsula.