Aleutian Coastal Hunters Flourish

Hunter-gatherers from Siberia crossed the Bering Strait land bridge into Alaska, eventually establishing a culture that still thrives in what is now the Aleutian Island peninsula.

Summary of Event

Most archaeologists agree that between fifty thousand and thirteen thousand years ago, during the last ice age, people migrated from eastern Asia into North America via the Bering Strait land bridge. With the sea level as much as 350 feet (105 meters) lower than its current level, this causeway linked Siberia’s Chukchi Peninsula and Alaska’s Seward Peninsula into one massive land area now called Beringia. The earliest flow of Paleo-Siberian immigrants foraged eastward into Alaska in search of food sources such as mastodon and mammoth, eventually migrating southward into the Aleutian Islands and beyond. Alaska’s present-day Inuit and Aleuts are more closely descended from a second wave of hardier, more Arctic immigrants, who reached Alaska between 6000 and 4000 b.c.e.

The population of the Aleuts (an eighteenth century Russian term, readily adopted by the Aleut peoples) is often divided into eastern, central, and western island groups, based on language differences. Studies indicate a division between the Siberian-influenced Aleut language and the earliest Eskimo languages occurring approximately 5000-4000 b.c.e. Similarities between Siberian and early Alaskan peoples extend beyond linguistics; shared physical traits also support the theory of a prehistoric eastward transcontinental migration. Both groups exhibit similar facial features: high cheekbones, low-bridged noses, a somewhat flattened face, little male facial hair, and epicanthic eyelid folds. With their straight, dark hair and minimal body hair, short stature, stocky but muscular physique, and light skin color, these two groups more closely resemble one another than they do other neighboring populations. The decorative use of labrets (wooden or ivory discs) among the Aleuts and Siberians is another indicator of Siberian influence. No longer used today, labrets were typically inserted into slits in the skin between the mouth and chin, one at each corner of the mouth.

The Aleuts lived in in Siberian-style pit houses called barabaras dug 4 to 6 feet (1.2 by 1.8 meters) below ground level and measuring approximately 40 by 25 feet (12 by 8 meters), covered with whalebone-and-sod roofs. Special compartments were dug into the earthen walls for sleeping, storage, and sometimes burials.

Abundant fish and wildlife provided sustenance for this hardy maritime population. In approximately 11,000 b.c.e., Alaska’s minimal population was composed primarily of nomadic hunter-gatherers in search of caribou, bison, and other land animals. Distribution of archaeological artifacts suggests that these groups slowly moved deeper into Alaska for the next four thousand years until, between 7000 and 4000 b.c.e., certain changes became apparent: Hunting tools, for example, became noticeably more regional, suggesting a less nomadic existence. Within this same time period, a focus on seal, walrus, and whale emerged. Tools for hunting and processing these animals have been found in archaeological sites. Remnants of whaling harpoons with a prong at one end, unlike the toggle-head harpoons of earlier Eskimo groups, have been found in Aleutian Island sites. Essential domestic tools such as sewing needles and animal skin scrapers made of bone have also been found. One important food source was the Stellar sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), which provided not only food but also other essentials: skin for boats; sinew for line, cord, and thread; blubber for oil; bone and teeth for tools, jewelry, weapons, and fishhooks; flippers for soles of boots; and other innards for various articles of clothing and storage containers.

Following a regimen of superstition and ritual, Aleut whalers hunted from one- or two-man kayaks (baidarkas), poisoning their prey with a harpoon dipped in a derivative of the aconite plant. As the poisoned, harpooned whale gradually died over several days, the hunter secluded himself and feigned illness, believing that the whale would follow his example, growing ill and dying. Once dead, the whale would be hauled to shore, unless it died out at sea and was lost. From an early age, young boys were taught strengthening exercises to help develop the requisite skill and strength for harpooning whales and seals while seated in a baidarka. Along with seals, whales, and sea otters, the sea lion made up half of the Aleut diet. Other important food sources were caribou and fish, as well as bird eggs, sea urchins, plants, and berries, which were gathered by women and children.

Limited information regarding early Russian, Siberian, and Alaskan skin boats comes from prehistoric rock carvings depicting prototypes of the baidars and baidarkas used by the Paleo-Siberians, Aleuts, and other groups in the Bering Strait vicinity. These seal-, sea lion-, and walrus-skin boats were constructed with watertight seams stitched with animal sinews, making them sturdy enough to withstand the often violent storms of the Arctic waters.

An active belief in the supernatural underlay many of the Aleuts’ views on death. They treated illness with spiritualistic rituals in addition to medical methods. The deceased were handled in a number of ways, including burial in the pit-home wall compartment, mummification, interment in large wood or stone burial monuments, and elaborate burials in caves. According to this belief system, a person’s spirit continued to live after death, and sometimes the deceased’s body was dismembered to prevent his or her spirit from living on and doing harm to the living.


The eastward advance of Asian subarctic hunter-gatherers into the Aleutian Islands spawned a similar advance into other inland areas of the North American continent, particularly Alaska’s Yukon region. This systematic invasion peopled northern North America and left behind many prehistoric tools and artifacts for archaeologists to discover centuries later.

Further Reading

  • Coon, Carleton S. The Hunting Peoples. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1971. A study of ten thousand years of hunter-gatherers, including Eskimos, Aleuts, and other Alaskan peoples.
  • Jochelson, Waldemar. Archaeological Investigations in the Aleutian Islands. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002. A report from Jochelson’s 1909-1910 expedition to Alaska. Includes photographs and drawings.
  • Jochelson, Waldemar. History, Anthropology, and Ethnology of the Aleut. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002. The report of a 1933 anthropological expedition led by Jochelson. Provides an overview of Aleut prehistory and history, as well as their social and material culture.
  • Johnstone, Paul. The Sea-craft of Prehistory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. Discusses worldwide prehistoric vessels, ranging from simple log rafts, to skin boats of Russia and the Arctic, to other seacraft for travel and hunting.
  • Langdon, Steve J. The Native People of Alaska. 4th ed. Anchorage, Alaska: Greatland Graphics, 2002. Thorough treatment of Alaska’s five main native groups, including Aleut.
  • Levinson, David, ed. Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 10 vols. New York: Gale, 2002. This authoritative series overseen by cultural anthropologist Levinson includes a volume on North America that covers the Aleuts. Includes maps, bibliographical references, and indexes.