Hi Team,

       My name is Laura Chavez and I am a student at Los Angeles Valley College. I have been following along by reading your journals. My question is what is the most important piece of information you have found out of the bones and shells recovered from excavations.

KBP Team

LauraThank-you for the interesting question!
Please be patient, I am going to ask Dr. Ben Fitzhugh, the chief American Archaeologist on the project, and I will get back to you soon with his reply!
-- Dr. E.

KBP Team

I apologize for the delayed response to this question. When I first read it (quickly), I understood it to ask "What is the most important finding project?" I thought to myself "Great-I'm off the hook! I can pass this question off to Ben, since he's the project director!"Now that I've re-read the question, I'll step back up to the plate and answer the question you asked, not the question I thought you asked! (But for good measure Ben's response to the other question follows below....)
We now have decent faunal samples (bones and shells) from nearly every part of the Kuril Archipelago-all the way from Urup Island northward up to Shumshu. The most striking aspect of these collections, when viewed altogether, is how dissimilar they all are from one another. It is difficult for us to tell yet whether differences from island to island reflect availability or cultural preferences. For instance, Ainu Creek, a site on Urup Island that we visited in 2006 and 2007 has lots of albatross bones, as does the site on Rasshua Island we visited this summer. But unlike Rasshua, Ainu Creek also has lots and lots of eagle bones, as well as dolphin and whale. Is that because eagles are less abundant at Rasshua than at Urup? Or maybe eagle bones and feathers had more cultural significance for the folks living at Ainu Creek than at Rasshua?
And how about the apparent differences in the abundance of albatross bones at both of these sites relative to their abundance today in the Kuril Islands? Granted, we have now seen many more albatrosses since I made my last post (we saw a group of 30 or so off of Simushir when we were weathering that last storm). But they may have been preferentially targeted for more than just food (see the "Ask the Team" response about albatrosses....)
We definitely have a lot to think about over the next two years as we finalize our labwork and start working on our final reports and papers!
--Dr. E

KBP Team

From Dr. Ben Fitzhugh
Mike asked me to describe a few of our more interesting discoveries of the summer so far. This is always a difficult question for me to answer because what drives my research are questions that can only be answered with months of analysis after we return home from the expedition.
Sometimes we find cool artifacts, but these are almost always less important for answering big questions than the study of the less glamorous bits of stone, pottery, charcoal, and bone. So to answer this question, I will start by discussing some of our findings from the past 2 years into which this expedition's findings fit.
Overall, we want to know how the history of human occupation in the Kurils has been influenced by environmental factors (such as the distribution of food animals and plants, warm and cold climates, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions), as well as cultural factors (such as changes in hunting and boating technologies, population sizes, and political/economic pressures from outside the island chain).
Mike has previously written about how many of the environmental studies of our colleagues will help us understand some of these issues.
To address the archaeological questions, we need to know when people were on some or all of the Kuril Islands and when they were not and in what approximate numbers. We expect the small and far apart central islands to have been the hardest to live on, and perhaps these would be the first to be abandoned when conditions were unfavorable for island living.
One of the most important ways we estimate the changes in human use of the islands is by making lots of carbon dates from layers at sites all over the archipelago and using the dates as a way of estimating when people were in different places. If we have lots of sites of the same age in lots of places (and especially lots of large sites with many houses) we know that there were lots of people in the islands at that time. And when we have few or no dates in a time period or section of the islands we infer that there were few or no people there.
Without going into too much detail the results of our dating so far suggests that there were relatively small numbers of people in the southern islands from at least 4000 years ago until roughly 2500 years ago, when large numbers of "Epi-Jomon" people pushed north through the central Kurils, possibly as far north as the northernmost islands. These people appear to have been living in the Kurils in large villages.
Like their successors the Okhotsk people, the Epi-Jomon placed their dwellings on top of terraces 20-40 meters above sea level. We currently see no evidence of large scale abandonment of the Kurils from 4000 until 800 years ago - through the Okhotsk period. The unexpected finding of our results is an absence of any radiocarbon dates or archaeological material dating to the early or middle Ainu period. From historical reports, we know that Ainu people lived on the northern and southern archipelago, after 300 years ago. It was always assumed that the Ainu had lived in the Kurils well before this time period also, but our dates suggest otherwise. One hypothesis we are trying to test attributes a relative abandonment of the Kurils from AD 1300 to 1700 to a cold climatic snap sometimes called the "Little Ice Age". But first we need to know if the absence of Ainu period dates is real. from these results we have the ongoing challenge: WHERE WERE THE AINU?
Possible Ainu Rafters

Possible Ainu rafters excavated on Rasshua Island. This is the Ainu House Pit mentioned in the posting from 17 August that cuts into the midden deposit (see also the photo “Andy measuring strata").
So one of our goals this summer was to try and find Ainu archaeological evidence. The discovery of a portion of a possible Ainu house in our excavations at Rasshua is thus of great interest. The apparent late age of this structure, based on the presence of an historic trade bead and the relatively well preserved wood of the structure suggest a late or historic Ainu age for the structure. If radiocarbon dates support this attribution, this evidence will not contradict a gap in the occupation history and we still need to explain the lack of Ainu archaeology from 700 to 300 years ago. But if the age comes in within the gap, we can start to challenge the conclusion of a widespread abandonment.
-- Ben

Anonymous (not verified)

A 2004 study by Masaki EDA and Hiroyashi HIGUCHI in Zoological Science # 21 on the distribution of albatross bone remains during the Holocene period identifies 100 archaeological sites in Hokkaido where they were found. Most were from the Okhotsk culture but also included 14 that were from the Ainu period. 7 sites were found in Sakhalin of which one was from the Ainu era.They did not study the Kurils nor were they prepared to speculate on the actual use to which the bones were put beyond a general statement as to potential for tools or arrows. In some Okhostk period sites such as Menashidomari, Hokkaido (on the Sea of Okhotsk coast) albatross bones made up a high proportion of the avian bones found.
There are a few historical records of the use of bird feathers, including those of albatross, by the Ainu. "Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People" published by the Smithsonian in 1999 has 2 illustrations of bird skin clothing on pages 313 and 316. There is a birdskin robe in the collection of Minpaku in Osaka, Japan that includes the feathers of albatross as well as those of puffin and auklet.
Albatross skulls were known to have been used by Ainu shaman (vide John Batchelor; The Ainu and Their Folklore, 1901), a practice they may have adopted from the Okhotsk culture. Albatross were also probably deified by some coastal Ainu groups.
It seems quite likely that, in the central Kurils at least, that a large seabird like the albatross represented the potential for a meal in an environment of limited food resources. They may have been relatively tame and, if they bred on islands in the Kurils, relatively easy to catch during the breeding season.
The more recent history of albatross nesting in Japan is one of exploitation almost to the point of annihilation.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the comment about the albatross bones. We have now nearly finished analyzing all of the bird bones from our midden samples. There is not any evidence that the albatrosses were breeding in the Kurils (the bones of juvenile albatrosses would be easy to recognize). The Ainu Creek site, on the south end of Urup Island, seems to have a disproportionate number of albatross and sea eagle. We strongly suspect that bones, feathers, and skins from these birds were being traded back to mainland Hokkaido, perhaps in exchange for obsidian.We are working towards obtaining funding to conduct a large DNA and stable isotopes study of the albatross bones from the Kurils, as well as from the Aleutian Islands. Do you know about the availability of albatross bone samples from Japanese midden collections for potential inclusion in our study?
If you have additional information, please feel free to email me directly:
metnier@u.washington.edu

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/07/2008 - 18:20