Anangula Island, Bering Sea

Anangula Island, Bering Sea

by | Oct 20, 2021

Ananiuliak Island, also known as Anangula Island, is 1.4 miles (2.3 km) long situated in the Bering Sea and is one of the Fox Islands in the eastern Aleutian Islands, separated from Umnak Island by a channel about 0.93 miles (1.50 km) wide, about 116 miles (187 km) southwest of Dutch Harbor and 4.6 miles (7.4 km) north-northwest of Nikolski, Alaska. The name is so old that the Unangan Aleut no longer understand its meaning. The island name was first reported in 1836 by Captain Friedrich Benjamin von Lütke and charted in 1852 by Captain Mikhail Tebenkov of the Imperial Russian Navy. The island consists mostly of barren tundra on volcanic ash. The Aleutian Islands face the Bering Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The archipelago follows the arc of the Aleutian Trench, where the Pacific Plate is subducted underneath the North American Plate. The subduction zone created the island arc that consists of 52 volcanos with 27 still active. Ananiuliak Island is within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Migratory seabirds nest in the island’s rocky cliffs while rabbits roam the island’s grassy slopes. During the early 20th century, Ananiuliak was one of many islands used as an Arctic fox farm to supply the fur trade, mostly by the residents of Nikolski. In the 1930s, a population of rabbits was established on the island to serve as food for the foxes. In the late 1940s, the foxes were removed because they damaged the habitat of native marine bird populations, however, the rabbits still remain. In 1938, the island gained some prominence in the archaeological community with the discovery by William S. Laughlin of ancient core and blade artifacts. The site is now the Anangula Archeological District that documents one of the earliest known human settlements in the Aleutian Islands. The inhabitants of Anangula are thought to be a remnant of people that migrated across the Bering Land Bridge from Asia. The Unangan Aleut residents of Nikolski trace their ancestry back to the Anangula Village site, and this is extraordinary because cultural practices, technology, and artistic style have been transferred from generation to generation for thousands of years.

During the Last Glacial Maximum in the late Pleistocene period, sea level was lower by about 330 feet (100 m) and Ananiuliak Island was joined to Umnak Island forming a peninsula along the northern shoreline of Nikolski Bay. But this region was covered by the Cordilleran ice sheet that dominated the northwestern portion of North America and made the area unsuitable for both animal and human habitation until the ice sheet began to recede about 10,000-12,000 years ago. As the ice sheet retreated, the Bering Land Bridge was exposed allowing animal and human migration between Asia and North America. Geological studies suggest that Early Holocene deglaciation in the region occurred about 10,000 years ago and ancient settlers reached this area bringing their maritime culture and technology with them. Anangula was settled about 8,400 years ago when the shoreline on Umnak Island and on Ananiuliak Island was essentially the same as today. It seems clear that the ancient Unangan Aleuts must have used boats to reach the island. The wide deep ocean passes eastward to mainland Alaska were flooded and did not freeze in the winter to allow passage for larger animals and humans. Proof of this is the failure of caribou, bears, and other large vertebrates to migrate west of Unimak Island in spite of suitable habitat. Expanding alpine glaciers reached the sea on both the north and south sides of Umnak Island about 3,000 years ago, but with their boats, the Unangan Aleuts could easily travel around the alpine glacier fronts and along the coast. Deglaciation of southwest Umnak Island left many basins to become filled with fresh water and provide spawning areas for anadromous fish. The Unangan Aleuts on Umnak Island had available an enormous base of food resources that could be used throughout the year, in marked contrast to the case in other parts of Beringia. This made possible a considerable increase in population, especially around the southwest part of the island. However, a catastrophic volcanic eruption of Okmok Volcano at the northeast end of Umnak Island ended the earliest occupation of Ananiuliak Island when over 6.5 feet (2 m) of ash accumulated on the island and may have initiated a westward migration.

The Anangula Archaeological District is made up of two sites, the Anangula Village site, and the Anangula Core and Blade manufacturing site. The Core and Blade site is around 9,000 years old and covers an extensive horizontal area. This site was used to make long narrow laminar blades, leaving remnant polyhedral-shaped cores. Many of the blades were retouched by finer flaking perpendicular to the edges to create a sharper blade. Other stone tools made at the site include scrapers and abraders. The tools are fashioned from chert, shale, basalt-andesite, and obsidian, none of which are available in the immediate area. The stone tools bear little resemblance to contemporaneous sites in interior Alaska. Instead, they resemble tools found in Hokkaido, Japan, and eastern Siberia. The large ancestral Anangula Village site is younger than the Core and Blade site and archaeologists have recorded up to 24 depressions in the ground that indicate the location of house ruins and many more smaller depressions revealing the locations of storage pits. The houses are arranged in three rows along the edge of the bluff. A small stream, supplying freshwater, runs down the cliff face to a narrow beach below. Only six of the houses have been excavated but each is semi-subterranean and roughly rectangular in shape. The ruins range in size from 13 to 20 feet (4-6 m) across and 20 to 30 feet (6-9 m) wide. On a slope at the edge of the village are a handful of additional archaeological ruins. These ruins have stone-paved floors and narrow trenches on two sides that meet to form a V-shape and are thought to have drained moisture from the floors. Archaeologists estimate around 200 people at a time lived in this village over a period of about 500 years. Anangula Village was buried beneath deep layers of volcanic ash that have grown over with ryegrass and monkshood. The ash layers protected the site from wind erosion. Archaeologists found hammerstones, anvil blades, scrapers, retouched blades, and even tools made for right-handed or left-handed use. Seemingly, these artifacts were preserved in their original positions at the time of the ashfall. Outside the houses are several intact stone tool workshops where thousands of stone flakes had been left behind by these ancient craftspeople. Read more here and here. Explore more Ananiuliak Island here:

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