Kodiak Was Center For Eskimo Society

Recent archaeological findings in the Kodiak Island area of Alaska add to its significance in North American prehistory and may help modify theories of how the continent was populated.

KODIAK, Alaska - It turns out that this island in the Gulf of Alaska was a sort of Manhattan for early humankind in the American far north.

"Kodiak and the Fox Island area had a population that exceeded all the rest of Alaska, arctic Canada, Greenland and the Siberian coast," says Philomena Knecht, an archaeologist who has worked at several sites in the area. "It was good money and good living. For sea-mammal hunters, this was heaven."

Her archaeologist husband, Rick Knecht, says his conservative estimate of the area's population during the Koniag period, which extended from about 1,000 years ago until the arrival of Russian explorers in 1783, is 20,000 - about what it is today.

This was a lot of people by the standards of aboriginal prehistory, particularly for a society of hunters and gatherers. But the wealth of the surrounding waters, including whales, seals, sea otters and enormous salmon runs, allowed large communities to flourish.

A survey Rick Knecht directed of one old village site turned up 150 house pits, or barabaras. Using early Russian estimates of about 20 people per house pit, Knecht thinks it's reasonable to conclude that at least 2,000 people lived there.

"We've always underestimated the population size and the

complexity of Koniag culture," he says. "Every time we dig a square hole in the ground we find something knew."

The growing comprehension of the Kodiak area's importance is gradually modifying the theories of how the far north was pioneered, say the Knechts, who work for the Kodiak Area Native Association and have lived in Kodiak for the past five years.

The traditional view held that Eskimo culture was centered on the Bering Sea coast and spread elsewhere from there. Kodiak was thought to be non-Eskimo or of marginal importance.

However, the Knechts say evidence that has accumulated rapidly in the last few decades is a forcing a reassessment. They believe that evidence indicates that Kodiak was not only densely populated, but that it may have been the ultimate expression of Eskimo society.

Not everyone believes this was the case. Professor Don Dumond of the University of Oregon, who has worked in other areas of Alaska for about 30 years, agrees that Kodiak was both densely populated and of major significance in the prehistoric development of the North Pacific.

"The question is what it was important to," Dumond says. "The argument has to do with Kodiak's relationship to the Eskimos to the north."

He said the evidence to date indicates that there were two major centers of Eskimo development, the Bering Sea area and Kodiak. He said it is unclear whether early residents of Kodiak were Eskimo and that the evidence suggests that close contact between the Kodiak and Bering Sea cultures came rather late, probably after 500 AD.

Regardless of how these divergent opinions are resolved - and Dumond and the Knechts agree that much additional work will be necessary to fill in the gaps in Eskimo prehistory - Kodiak's importance both to archeologists and to an updated picture of the history of the north seems clear.

Besides dense population and a complex culture before contact with European explorers, the Kodiak area also has archaeological sites that are older than any yet found in the areas traditionally thought of as central to the Eskimos.

The Ocean Bay site on Sitkalidak Island just off Kodiak dates back 6,500 years, while the oldest sites in the high arctic go back about 4,000.

Language provides additional clues, though the Knechts and Dumond differ on their meaning. The Aleut language of the Aleutian chain and those of the Tlingits and Haidas of the Southeast Alaska-British Columbia coast show some similar characteristics, said Philomena Knecht, who specializes in Eskimo archaeology and language.

But the Alutiiq tongue of the Kodiak area is clearly Eskimo-derived. As a result, she says, "it sticks out like a sore thumb" and suggests to her that the island was a major Eskimo site from very early times.

Dumond says, however, that the evidence suggests to him that the Eskimo language of the Kodiak area is "a late-comer" that evolved after a large migration to Kodiak from the Bering Sea area.

Rick Knecht believes much of the problem in assessing the Eskimos arose from historical happenstance. Western society's first accounts of them came from whalers operating in the Canadian arctic, who found small groups of hunters and the simpler social structure usually associated with a nomadic lifestyle.

By the time anthropology was systematized, the Koniag population had been decimated by the unfamiliar diseases brought by the Russians, along with their none-too-gentle brand of colonialism, and their culture had been lumped in with that of the Aleuts. As a result, while major ethnographic studies were done on the coastal tribes of Southeastern Alaska and British Columbia, Kodiak was overlooked.

Despite the discoveries of recent years, there are still major holes in the fabric of Eskimo history. Philomena Knecht says the relationships between the Ocean Bay period, the Kachemak Bay period from about 2,500 years to 1,000 years ago and the Koniag culture need to be more clearly defined.

As the exploration of Kodiak's past continues, the island is proving remarkably fertile to scientists because its large population left a lot behind.

"It's a gold mine," says Sven Haakanson Jr., an Alutiiq who works with the Knechts and is entering a Ph.D program in archaeology at Harvard this fall.

Ironically, the environmentally devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill proved a boon for archaeology in the area.

"We got a free survey, which would have cost $200,000 to $500,000," says Philomena Knecht. "About one-third of the sites on the Alaska historical registry were discovered during the oil spill."

One of those, a 620-year-old Koniag-era site on neighboring Afognak Island, has generated particular excitement because of its very high state of preservation.

Rick Knecht discovered the site in 1989 while working on an oil-spill impact assessment for Exxon. The first major excavation work was done this summer and turned up carved wooden artifacts, baskets, human hair, animal fur and house floor boards that still smelled of sea-mammal oil. In terms of quality, the Afognak site ranks with Karluk on Kodiak and Ozette on Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

The site, near a gravelly beach where a river runs down to the sea from a high valley, is particularly well preserved, Knecht says, because at some point water from the stream infiltrated the site, creating an oxygen-free environment that prevented the deterioration of materials that normally would have disappeared by now.

Such "wet" sites yield major surprises, he said, because about 80 percent of the Koniag people's possessions were wood, which usually rots away. The record from the time of Russian contact is incomplete because the early explorers were quite selective in what they took home - usually clothing, hunting gear, ritual masks and the like. The everyday objects that flesh out the picture of any society were ignored, and lost.

Knecht believes the new site was continuously occupied for nearly 1,000 years by a population of 100 to 200. He says it is especially valuable for the insight it provides into Koniag esthetics.

"Even the most utilitarian objects demonstrate sophisticated artistry," he said.

There is an 18-foot-thick layer of artifacts at the site, which extends for an as yet undetermined distance along the beach and stream. He said the site must be excavated within the next decade or it will be lost to sea erosion and decay.

In the meantime, despite its relative remoteness - on a large, virtually uninhabited island a 30-minute ride by float plane ride from Kodiak - the new site is threatened by the bane of professional archeologists, amateur pot hunters.

"To publicize any site is a tradeoff," says Philomena Knecht. "More attention is called to it, so there is more activity, but it also helps educate the public."