Paleobiology and Biogeography of the Kuril Archipelago

A Proposal Submitted to the National Science Foundation


J. Ben Fitzhugh
Department of Anthropology
University of Washington
Seattle, Washington


Proposed Research
Synthesis of Biology and Archaeology
Potential and Future Directions
Urgency of Research


This proposal addresses a unique opportunity to conduct paleobiological/paleoenvironmental research in the central and northern Kuril Archipelago. Taking advantage of an unparalleled opportunity to join ongoing biology research in the International Kuril Island Project (DEB-9505031) with the uniquely valuable logistical support developed by the biologists, this project will seek to better understand the historical processes that have shaped the contemporary biotic environment. This research will pursue information on changes in Kuril flora and fauna as recorded in archaeological deposits throughout the central and northern archipelago. Information on geological, climatic, and human impacts on the Kuril environment will be sought to explain the biogeographical and ecological evolution of this ecosystem.

To accomplish these goals, survey and inventory will be conducted throughout the central and northern Kuril Archipelago at three scales. The coarsest resolution survey will be generated by a team traveling between islands searching for archaeological deposits containing paleo-biological data. This team will also investigate the geological history of the archipelago as a means to identify geomorphologic processes that have altered the Kuril ecosystem and to generate predictions regarding the locations of preserved archaeological/paleo-biological deposits. A second team will spend the duration of the field season camped on the northern island of Onekotan. This team will spend the majority of the season excavating an archaeological site believed to be Ainu in origin. This team will also conduct a more thorough survey of Onekotan than can be accomplished in one season at the inter-island scale.

Data to be collected for analysis include archaeoflora and archaeofauna, sediments, artifacts, and dateable organic material. Detailed spatial data will also be collected on the distribution of archaeological settlements and their sizes and organizations, and geomorphologic data will be recorded on the volcanic, tectonic, eustatic, and erosional histories of the central and northern Kuril Islands. Collectively, these data will enable the first systematic interpretation of the evolution of the Kuril ecosystem. As an isolated string of small islands connecting two major land-masses (Japan and Kamchatka), the island biogeography of this region should be unique. Human impacts are particularly important if we are to understand the persistence and change of Kuril biota throughout the past 10,000 to 20,000 years.

Introduction.—This proposal seeks funds to support paleobiological and paleoenvironmental research on the central and northern Kuril Islands. With the extension Ted Pietsch’s ongoing Kuril Island Project (studying contemporary biodiversity) for another season (supplement to DEB-9505031), we have an unprecedented opportunity to explore the biotic history of the Kuril Islands. The current biological composition of the Kuril Archipelago is a product of a long history. Humans are expected to have played a significant role in this history as competitors and predators, especially given the relatively isolated nature of some of the islands in the chain. And the deposits left behind by prehistoric human inhabitants should preserve evidence of flora and fauna that have subsequently gone extinct or dramatically changed in distribution as a result of both human and non-human impacts. Unfortunately the Kuril Archipelago is poorly investigated archaeologically and any attempt to put the modern biological survey data into historical perspective requires an survey to identify human occupation sites with preserved flora and fauna remains. The central and northern Kuril Islands are particularly unknown.

Background.—In 1996, the Kuril Island biologists found a particularly interesting human occupation site (Appendix 1), which is believed to be Ainu in origin. This site is located in a short and deeply incised stream valley a few hundred meters from the current shoreline. Although the biologists did not investigate this site in the field, from the photographs we can identify at least 7 large circular rings between 10 and 25 meters in diameter. Each of these rings have door-like openings, and at least two sets of rings are overlapping, suggesting multiple construction events. An older or more muted series of rings or depressions are visible on the left side of this picture, closer to the current shore, and several smaller pit depressions look similar to storage pits found around the North Pacific Rim. Together these data indicate a residential site in which large tents or houses with earth walls were constructed and reconstructed at this location over a period of at least several years if not centuries.

The presence of such a large site with evidence of continuous or repeated occupation in this region deserves investigation because all indications suggest that there was a significant prehistoric human population residing in the northern Kurils. If this site is representative of a larger population throughout the Kurils at various times in prehistory, we anticipate that humans had a significant impact on indigenous flora and fauna.

While the Onekotan site requires detailed investigation, its importance will be realized only in the context of a broader understanding of archaeological settlement and land use history throughout the Kuril Islands. This understanding will be gained only through a systematic and detailed survey and inventory of archaeological sites across the archipelago, and particularly in the central and northern Kuril Islands, where the least is known.

Proposed Research.—To realize maximum value out of a paleobiological/archaeological component of the Kuril Island Project, we hope to run two concurrent teams during the 2000 field season. The first team will systematically map and sample the Onekotan site in an attempt to document the human and paleoecological history of the site and surroundings, the spatial organization of structures, and the local geology and geomorphology. This team will attempt to locate and sample significant archaeozoological and archaeobotanical remains consistent with the paleobiological goals of the project. This team will also spend several days surveying the rest of Onekotan Island on foot, looking for additional archaeological sites and generating reasonably high-resolution data on the geomorphology of this island. This team will live in a base camp on Onekotan Island for approximately 4 weeks.

The second team will conduct a lower resolution archaeological and geomorphologic survey of the surrounding islands to generate contextual information about the broader settlement and land use of the Kurils. Archaeological site distributions, complete with age and size estimations is crucial for generating settlement pattern analyses and an understanding of the spatial and temporal significance of human occupation. Geomorphologic and geoarchaeological data collected by the survey team is needed to understand the landform evolution that would differentially effect archaeological site locations and preservation (e.g., tectonic activity effecting locations of old shorelines, volcano-clastic and lava flow deposition, and erosion).

The paleobiological/archaeological and geomorphologic components of the Kuril project in the year 2000 will seek the following paleoenvironmental data sets (listed in order of increasing resolution): 1) landform evolution of the central and northern Kurils including estimates of major geomorphologic changes throughout the late Quaternary: Focus on paleo-shoreline evolution, deposition, and erosion dynamics; 2) palynological samples from the central and northern Kurils to estimate general trends in paleoecological succession and climate change; 3) archaeological inventory of the central and northern Kurils including estimates of cultural affiliations, ages, sizes, and occupation durations, along with surface mapping and sampling of datable organics, artifacts, and archaeofauna and flora; 4) higher resolution geological, paleoecological, and archaeological inventory of Onekotan Island; 5) geomorphology and geoarchaeology of the Onekotan "Ainu" site, including history of the incised valley supporting the site and the surrounding terrain, as well as the sedimentological and erosional history of the site itself (cultural, volcanic, and tsunami deposition regimes, stream erosion, etc.); 6) scale maps of archaeological structures, features, and deposits of the Onekotan "Ainu" site (developed by surface mapping and subsurface sampling); 7) excavation data from at least one house, storage pit, and midden deposit, including mapped and collected artifacts, hearth charcoal, faunal and floral samples (middens and hearths will be screened in 1/8 inch mesh shaker screens and selectively bulk sampled for controlled collection of small items); 8) collections will be distributed to participating institutions for analysis according to the collective interests of the participating researchers and Russian codes, and data will be shared between researchers in support of a collaborative research product.

With these data in hand, we will be in a position to directly assess the historical processes that have shaped modern Kuril biological variability and to illuminate the history of human activities in this archipelago. Both goals are relevant to the broader human, biological and environmental history of the North Pacific in at least two ways: First, the Kurils form a migration route between Japan and Kamchatka that could have been involved in one or more maritime migrations into (or out of) the New World. One view of this colonization links similar artifacts in Japan, southern Kamchatka, and southern Alaska dating between 14,000 and 11,000 before present (Powers 1996). Another view argues for an early Holocene East Asian origin for Alaskan Aleuts via Kamchatka and the Commander Islands (Aigner 1976; Ainger et al. 1971). There is also tantalizing evidence that the Japanese Ainu may have had contact with the Aleuts in Alaska (Stephen Loring, pers. comm. 1999; Science 1999). Clearly a better understanding of Kuril archaeology is critical to resolving many of these questions.

Second, geological, oceanographic and ecological parallels between the Kurils and the Aleutians make them ideal for comparison in human and non-human island biogeography. Both chains separate biologically productive seas (Okhotsk and Bering) and the North Pacific. Both are characterized by a string of small, remote, storm-prone islands, and both would have imposed stringent selective constraints on colonizing populations.

Finally, a paleobiological/archaeological component to the Kuril Island Project will help put the modern collections into historical perspective by revealing evidence of extinct flora and fauna and the role that human may have played in structuring the current island ecosystem.

Experienced and enthusiastic American and Russian archaeological teams have already been assembled. The American team includes Ben Fitzhugh (PI), UW Department of Anthropology, Carole Mandryk, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, and four UW students (two graduate students and two undergraduates). Burke Museum curators Karl Hutterer, Don Grayson, and Julie Stein are acting in advisory capacity. The Russian team is led by Valerii Shubin, Director of the Sakhalin Museum of Local Lore. Dr. Shubin is the single most experienced Kuril archaeologist, having excavated several sites in the southern Kurils over the past two decades. The University of Washington is also very excited about the potential of this project and has already contributed $11,000 towards a preliminary archaeological/paleo-ecological investigation during the 1999 field season.

Synthesis of Biology and Archaeology.—Bringing together biologists, archaeologists, and paleoenvironmental specialists to investigate the environmental history and biological diversity of the Kuril Islands will result in a more integrated and comprehensive set of data on Kuril biology and environmental history than could be possible through a series of independent projects. The value is enhanced further by the opportunity to take advantage of established logistic networks, a shared research vessel and scientific support. Indeed, independent projects would be considerably more difficult given the logistical constraints and cost involved in establishing research in this remote region of the Pacific. Bringing together an international team of scientists enables cross-fertilization of research ideas, goals and methods. It ensures the widest dissemination of research findings to relevant scientific and public audiences. And it facilitates access to research locations and facilities in the three northernmost Pacific Rim countries. In addition to a strong international team of scholars, we will include university undergraduate and graduate students in this research. In this way, the research will contribute to the scholarly education of young scientists.

Potential and Future directions.—This extension has all of the potential outlined above to expand scientific understanding of the North Pacific. It will also establish a baseline for future research. Based on what is learned in the 2000 Kuril Island Project, subsequent research is anticipated to expand the Kuril research to include excavations at a larger set of archaeological sites, more survey, and a broader range of remote sensing and paleoenvironmental research. At this point the biologists will be moving into an area of better archaeological coverage and ongoing archaeological research. Meanwhile further archaeological/paleoenvironmental research in the Kurils, retaining the logistical networks and infrastructure of the Kuril Island Project will dramatically expand our knowledge of this region and facilitate comparisons with the greater North Pacific.

Urgency of Research.—The urgency in this proposal stems from the unique and limited opportunity to join the biology team on their last year of research in this remote area. Through years of hard work, the Kuril Island Project has established a smoothly operating logistical network for accomplishing research in a remote and uninhabited region of Russia. Remote research is difficult enough; working through the impoverished and poorly functioning Russian bureaucracy, however, is quite frequently paralyzing, especially for foreign researchers. Initiating the research proposed here would not be possible independent of the Kuril Island Project.

It is extremely important that we act on this opportunity immediately. The Russian Academy of Sciences requires a commitment for the use of their research vessel at least one calendar year in advance of the proposed expedition. With the expedition planned for July and August 2000, we only have a few weeks left. Without this commitment, the ship could well be assigned to another project and we will lose this unique opportunity.

Additionally, the value of this opportunity is enhanced by the contribution it can make to the ongoing biological work by providing a historical dimension to the biodiversity and biogeography discovered in their investigation of contemporary species. At the same time, the biological research will enhance the historical research by providing a base-line of modern biological variation from which to assess change backward through time.

References Cited

Aigner, J. S. 1976. Asiatic New World continuum and the origin and development of Bering Sea Mongoloids, with special emphasis on the Aleuts. Anthropologie v. 14, no. 1-2, pp. 101-103.

Aigner, J. S., W. S. Laughlin, and R. F. Black. 1971. Technical comments: Early racial and cultural identification in Southwestern Alaska. Science v. 171, no. 3966, pp. 87-90.

Powers, W. R. 1996. Siberia in the late Glacial and early Postglacial. Pp. 229-242, In: L.G. Straus et al. (editors), Humans at the End of the Ice Age: the Archaeology of the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition., Plenum Press, New York.

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