UAA anthropologist's discoveries rewrite history of Aleutian society

Special to the Daily NewsNovember 9, 2011 

Diane Hanson can look back and laugh — now.

More than 25 years have passed since she, as a young anthropology graduate student, reported to the Alaska Anthropological Association about one Adak archaeological site that wasn’t in the usual place — along the Aleutian coastline. She and fellow workers had found it inland, well away from shore.

This was unusual. Anthropologists since the 1950s had been insisting that coastal communities were all that mattered in the Aleutians. Villagers needed access to wildlife for hunting, and with no mammals on most islands, there was just no reason to go inland to hunt. Island interiors were simply natural barriers between the marginal coastal communities. They were irrelevant.

The audience of anthropologists was not kind to the findings of the young graduate student. “Crucified,” was how Hanson remembers the experience.

But years later, Hanson, now a professor of anthropology at UAA, can hold her head up. As it turns out, the site she discovered in 1983 was independently verified by another anthropologist in 1993. And in 2005, with a $10,000 grant from UAA’s chancellor that helped her eventually win a $430,000 National Science Foundation grant, Hanson was back on Adak with graduate and undergraduate students, excavating a site near the one she had found in 1983.

And guess what? She was right.

She has been back every summer since, extending her surveys across Adak and confirming that there are many upland sites away from the coastline. This news raises questions that Hanson and her survey teams are anxious to answer and share.

Among them:

· Were waterfowl an important food source most accessible at inland lakes?

· What plants were essential and how were they used?

· What were the upland sites used for?

· What relationships existed between coastal dwellings and these newly discovered upland enclaves?

· What stories about daily life can be told from these new findings?

“We have a real simplistic view of what life was like way back then,” said collaborator Debbie Corbett, an archaeologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Scientists talk in terms of 'biological units walking around getting food with sharp objects,’ but these were people like us.

“They were raising kids, making choices, sometimes irrational ones, and getting into political squabbles. There are so many nuances to Aleut behavior and activities that we just don’t know.”

Whatever her research team finds will be public information, widely shared with Aleutian Island Native groups, land managers and educators. Already their Facebook page and You Tube channels have been conduits for sharing what they find, as they find it.

Thomas Mack, president of The Aleut Corporation, says Hanson’s work “helps us learn about our history and our culture. We like her thoroughness. She gives us full reports, and all the artifacts come back to us.”

Hanson will describe her latest research and show photos at a free public talk 5-7 p.m. Monday at the UAA Campus Bookstore. Parking is free in the lot outside the Bookstore for those attending.

CORRECTING THE DOGMA

As it turns out, science may be lucky that Diane Hanson has the stubborn gene.

When a boss once accused her of it, she looked at him and asked, “How do you think I got where I am?”

“When you’re a woman from a working-class family, the fact that you made it through school and continued on in your field is important. Especially in the field of anthropology, where they figure you are really looking to find a husband. You don’t get much attention because they don’t think you’ll amount to anything.

“So you put your head down and bull your way through to get your degree or do your research.”

It was that grit that gelled inside the young grad student castigated before the anthropology association. “You’re told you’re wrong at 25, you don’t forget it,” she said.

But more than achieving personal satisfaction, Hanson and her graduate and undergraduate student researchers will be making a significant contribution. They’re correcting the archaeological record, a fact confirmed by Corbett.

“For all we investigate, we archaeologists are a conservative bunch,” she said, “especially when you’re challenging the 'received wisdom.’ There’s not a lot of forgiveness.”

Corbett’s favorite Aleutian example? Despite the fact that every single home site excavated on Adak exhibits widespread charcoal use, hearth structures and fire-broken rock, the record still reflects that Aleuts did not use hearths in their homes. Supposedly, they heated only with lamps and ate only raw food. The evidence just doesn’t support that anymore, she said.

A LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE

The summer of 2010 was perhaps the toughest year. A tempest hit their research site, uprooting one Weatherport equipment tent and sending it briefly airborne. They lost their outhouse. Rain saturated electrical gear and filled their dig site with water. They had to use their satellite phone to tell the outside world they were still alive.

Last summer was much better, though fog in Adak sent their plane back to Anchorage once before they finally landed. From there they took a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vessel around to the west side of the island for their fieldwork. Once that vessel leaves, Hanson said, they are on their own for the duration of the fieldwork season, which can be four to eight weeks.

“By three weeks, you’re cranky,” Hanson said. “By six, you’re like a married couple that gets along with each other’s quirks. But eight? Eight weeks is really long.”

But the team needed that much time to finish excavating a single upland house thoroughly. It was chosen at random among a prospective 22 in the area.

They characterized the house as a “planned abandonment” because it was free of artifacts inside, a sign that residents likely had planned a move and taken everything with them. Most of what they found outside were broken lamps, broken points, things that had been discarded.

But inside, they did find some sloping vents built into the hearth that they hope to invite two UAA engineering students from the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program to help decipher. What was the purpose of the vents — to circulate heat back down to the floor? Yet another new puzzle for them to sort out.

SOCIAL MEDIA DEBUT

Erika Malo, a graduate student on the research team, introduced Facebook and You Tube as opportunities to develop and communicate with an audience.

Photos, weekly fieldwork updates and videos are a common staple. Both have been live for about a year, and Malo just completed a reader survey of the Facebook page to determine how her audience is using it.

Social media interactions in an educational topic area and environment are the subject of her master’s thesis currently in progress.

She’s still analyzing survey results; it closed Nov. 7. But she can offer these perspectives. Of a total audience of 156 followers, 32 took her survey.

She asked whether they knew where Adak was, what an “upland site” is, what an archaeological field school is.

The Facebook readers did well. Everyone knew where Adak was, and fully 86 percent understood what an “upland site” is, which seemed the toughest question for the audience to get right.

Hanson said she considers social media a way to push out information as soon as researchers have it, rather than hanging on to it for scientific publications.

“As soon as we get carbon dates on sites, they go up on Facebook,” she said.

Watch for more revelations on Central Aleutian life and culture going back as far as 2,600 years. Hanson has just applied for more national research funding to continue the project. She will hear next spring if it’s a go.

Created by graduate student Erika Malo to illustrate field work at an archaeological site.


Kathleen McCoy works for the University of Alaska Anchorage Office of University Advancement.

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