Aleutian Tradition (ca 2500 BC - AD 1800)

Prehistory of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska

A cliff-face in the historic Aleutian Islands
U.S Fish and Wildlife Service / Public Domain

The term Aleutian Tradition is used to describe a prehistoric Arctic culture widespread in the Aleutian Islands of Western Alaska. This culture developed between 2500 BC and AD 1750, when first contacts with Russians caused a huge depopulation due to the spread of diseases, and massacres.

Aleutian Environment and Resources

The Aleutian Islands of Western Alaska are among the most isolated places in the world.

However, human occupation is well documented as early as 8500 years ago. Although the temperatures here are milder than inland Arctic, the Aleutian archipelago has volcanic origins and in the present as in the past has often been struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. Land animals are scarce, therefore Aleut people developed highly specialized techniques for hunting marine mammals, such as whales, sea otters and seals and fish such as cod, halibut, and salmon.

The Prehistory of the Aleutian Islands

The earliest known occupation of the Aleutian Islands occurred ca 8500 years ago and is documented by the Anangula site. Archaeologists believe that there are no direct cultural connections between the early Anangula tradition and the later Aleutian tradition, not only because of the large time span (4500 years) but also for the differences in stone technologies and food resources.

By 4000 BC, shell middens start to appear on the coasts of the Aleutian islands. These were located usually close to sea shores or stream mouths. These middens were made up of crushed seashells and sea mammal bones mixed with volcanic ashes. Because of their composition, shell middens are very good for the preservation of organic materials such as bone implements, like harpoons, and bone and ivory figurines.

These shell midden sites are considered the origins of the Aleutian Tradition.

Aleutian Tradition

Between 2500 BC and AD 1800, Aleutian settlements were composed of small and large houses, partially underground and accessible from the roof, called barabaras. These houses could be occupied by more than 100 people that usually considered themselves as a family. Along with domestic hearths, oil lamps were commonly used in Aleutian houses for light and heat. Wood was a rare commodity in the tree-less landscape of the islands, therefore these houses were made of whale bones or driftwood timbers found on the beaches.

Everyday activities at these sites consisted of tool making, fishing, tailoring clothes from bird and sea mammal skins, sea mammal hunting with harpoons, and during the right season, gathering land and marine plants.

Aleutian people both in prehistoric and recent times were famous for their kayak-style boats made of animal skin around a wooden frame, used for fishing, hunting and moving from island to island.

Aleutian Artifacts and Technology

Ancient Aleuts had a sophisticated technology that allowed them not only to cope with their environment but also produce beautiful bone and ivory objects.

Among these are barbed harpoons, projectile points, drills, ground stone bowls, knives, lamps, net weight and stone sinkers, fishhooks, wooden and bone artifacts that unfortunately rarely preserve. They didn't have pottery but used baskets, wooden and stone bowls for food preparation and storage.

European Contact

At the time of the European contact (by Russian explorers between 1750 and 1780), Aleut people were organized in ranked societies, divided into different social levels and ruled by nobles and chiefs. The Aleutian tradition started to disappear with the introduction of imported goods from Europe and Russia in the mid-18th century, and with the spread of diseases which caused a huge population decrease.

Aleutian Sites

Important archaeological sites in the Aleutian Islands include: Anangula, Hot Spring, Chaluka, Amchitka, Buldir Midden site.


Fagan, Brian, 1991, Ancient North America. The Archaeology of a Continent. Thames and Hudson, London & New York.

Gibbon, Guy, ed, 1998, Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America. An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc, New York & London

McCartney, Allen P. and Douglas W. Veltre, Aleutian Island Prehistory: Living in Insular Extremes, World Archaeology, Vol. 30, No. 3, Arctic Archaeology (Feb., 1999), pp. 503-515