LAWRENCE — Cold, foggy and remote, the climate of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands makes them a daunting place for people to live. Couple the unforgiving environment with often-brutal practices on the part of Western colonizers, and it becomes clear that the native populations who have made the archipelago home for thousands of years are tough, adaptable and resilient.
Now, with a new $450,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers from the University of Kansas will gather and study genomic information from ancient and contemporary peoples of the Aleutian Islands to better grasp their evolutionary and cultural history. More than that, because the islands are a remnant of the ancient land bridge that tied Asia and North America, the genomes of indigenous Aleutian Islanders (the Unangan people) could shed light on the origins and history of Native Americans more broadly.
“This new grant is intended to help us understand the history of the Unangan people, who are the indigenous people to the Aleutian Islands,” said Jennifer Raff, assistant professor of anthropology at KU, who is leading the work. “We’re interested in understanding how the Aleutian Islands were peopled. We have some broad-stroke ideas from archeological data and some early genetic studies, many of which were done here at KU. But we want to build on that work and get a much better understanding using whole-genome data from both ancient and contemporary Unangan groups. That should give us a more nuanced and accurate idea of how the process happened and how the Unangan peoples came to be where they are.”
Raff’s work centers on anthropological genetics, a discipline that focuses on genetic differences between different human populations and seeks to discover how aspects of human history have shaped these genetic differences. Thus, part of the analytical work for Raff and KU colleague Dennis O’Rourke, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, will be to hone in on the genetic influence of Russian colonization on the Unangan peoples, which dates back to the 1700s.
“We’re interested in the questions about the effects of European, specifically Russian, colonization of the Aleutian Islands,” Raff said. “We know contact with Russians resulted in a devastating impact on Unangan peoples. There was a really sharp decrease in their populations beginning in the 18th century. Because of warfare and forcible relocations and Russian men deliberately marrying into Unangan families, this all had a major effect on the populations genetically.”
The KU researchers also will try to pinpoint how the unique Aleutian environment may have prompted changes in the biological traits of Aleutian peoples over time as they coped with volcanic and seismic activity, few trees, a short growing season and other challenges posed by their far-flung archipelago.
“We’re interested in what genetic adaptations ancient and contemporary Unangans had,” Raff said. “The Aleutian Islands presented a very specific environment for people who lived there to deal with — both climactically, but also they had to deal with volcanic activity and specific resources available to them. We’re interested in how they adapted biologically to the Aleutian Islands.”
The Aleutian Islands and the genomes of the indigenous populations there could help scientists understand how people traveled between Asia and North America. The archipelago once was close to “Beringia,” a land bridge linking the two continents, according to the KU researcher.
“It was a land connection between the Asian and North American continents, and the Aleutian archipelago was very proximate to the southern margin of that,” Raff said. “Based on paleoclimatic studies, we think this may be an area that harbored people during the last glacial maximum, when global temperatures were much lower. There were small pockets of land with higher plant and animal resources. We think people lived in those areas and re-peopled the continents after temperatures began to rise and more land became available. We don’t think people were living directly on the Aleutian Islands at this time, but it’s close enough to what may have been Beringia, we want to know if there’s any contribution from those peoples to the ancient Aleuts.”
Raff said a better grasp on these genetic relationships between people could help paint a more accurate picture of the origins and relationships of major groups of Native Americans.
“We just don’t know very much genetically about different Native American groups,” she said. “They very much are different peoples. You can trace all indigenous peoples of the Americas — they have this origin out of Beringia — but as far as what happened after that initial peopling event, we don’t have a lot of understanding of the origins of individual populations. As we study genomes from peoples in the Americas, we’re seeing there were very complex ancestries and population histories we weren’t previously aware of doing studies mainly based on single genetic markers or lower resolution studies. When you look at whole genomes, you get glimpses of more complicated and complex histories than we understood.”
The KU researchers will travel to the islands and work in close cooperation with indigenous communities to bring their input into the project.
“The biggest challenge for anyone to work with ancient and contemporary indigenous peoples is making sure the project is responsive to their interests and concerns,” Raff said. “Work needs to be carried out in cooperation with the local population, making sure it’s consistent with their values and wishes. That’s my number-one priority — to do this work in a way that is in accordance with their interests. That’s why we plan to go back and visit to those villages and to Anchorage where the Unangan peoples meet annually, and won’t publish any result from the study without running it by them first to make sure they’re informed and have an opportunity to comment on results.”
The work under the new NSF grant also will help train several student researchers in the techniques and concepts of anthropological genetics, Raff said.
“There’s a couple of student initiatives I’m excited about,” she said. “We have two graduate students who will be working with data from this grant. And we have an undergraduate student, a Bridge (program) student from Haskell University, already doing a project related to this grant, and she has presented work at the meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.”
The KU Institute for Policy & Social Research provided assistance for the award submission and will help manage the award.
Photo: The Aleutian Archipelago island chain and the Alaskan Peninsula with associated tribes and linguistic boundaries. Credit: Reedy-Maschner, 2010