Natural Disasters and Cultural Change

By Robin Torrence; John Grattan | Go to book overview

10

Earthquakes, subsidence, prehistoric site attrition and the archaeological record: a view from the Settlement Point site, Kodiak Archipelago, Alaska

PATRICK SALTONSTALL AND GARY A. CARVER


INTRODUCTION

This chapter focuses on the impact of great subduction earthquakes on both the archaeological record and the cultural history of the Kodiak Archipelago, Alaska. The Kodiak Islands are situated on the seismically active Aleutian-Alaskan subduction zone, the source of some of the largest earthquakes in the world. From 1994 to 1997 we undertook a detailed archaeological and geologic investigation at Settlement Point, a prehistoric village site on Afognak Island, to study the effects of subduction earthquakes on the archaeological record of the region. This chapter summarises our investigation of prehistoric occupation at Settlement Point and our inferences and conclusions about the relationship between Kodiak cultural history and great subduction earthquakes.

There have been three major earthquakes in the Gulf of Alaska in the last 1,000 years. The most recent event was in 1964. The earliest, which occurred c. AD 1150, is associated with a gap in the archaeological record on the Kodiak Archipelago. The second and somewhat smaller earthquake occurred c. AD 1550. This event seems to have had no marked effect on the archaeological record. Certainly both were major disasters, but while the AD 1150 event has been linked with major cultural changes, archaeologists have previously ignored the AD 1550 event.

It is our contention that these earthquakes did not have a long-term impact on the cultural trajectory of the Native people, the Alutiiq, because their society was geared to withstand such disasters. We have found no evidence indicating regional depopulation from the earthquakes. Excellent maritime skills, large societal territories and strong social relationships between villages created residential flexibility that allowed communities to disperse and coalesce in response to disasters. The Alutiiq also maintained trade networks that extended far beyond the Kodiak Archipelago - to the Aleutians, Alaska and Kenai Peninsulas and beyond. These networks expanded their social and economic universe, and mitigated the effects of local disasters.

Situated in the western Gulf of Alaska on the eastern part of the Aleutian- Alaskan subduction zone, the Kodiak Archipelago is one of the world’s most

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