Intriguing archaeological sites that may go back 15,000 years and a mountain lake pierced by a volcanic cone that has been isolated for at least 30,000 years are among the primary targets for an international team of researchers heading for the North Pacific in the sixth year of the International Kuril Island Project.
Scientists and students from the University of Washington, Russia and Japan will spend six weeks in July and August in the remote island chain that stretches for about 750 miles between the northern tip of Japan and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. Ted Pietsch, UW fisheries professor and curator of fishes at the UW's Burke Museum, says this is the first Kuril expedition to have a major archaeological component, following successful seasons studying the flora and fauna of the islands. All the expeditions have been funded by the National Science Foundation.
UW assistant archaeology professor Benjamin Fitzhugh, three UW students and other colleagues from the U.S., Russia and Japan plan to survey the region for clues about early residents of the islands and, perhaps, links to the peopling of the Americas. The possible spread of seafaring people from the Kurils to Alaska's Aleutian Islands intrigues scientists who theorize that the earliest Americans may have found their way to the continent by sea as well as via the Bering land bridge.
"We know people from Japan and Kamchatka interacted back and forth through the historic period," said Fitzhugh. "We suspect an even earlier Aleutian-Kuril connection. For example recent finds in the central Aleutians include prehistoric artifacts belonging to the Ainu culture of northern Japan or the Kuril Islands. These connections may have existed far into the past. People would have traveled by boat along the coast and we are looking for an old link between Japan and Kamchatka."
A site on Onekotan Island in the northern Kurils features a number of curious circular mounded earth rings 9 to 13 meters in diameter. The rings could date back several hundred years to when the Ainu people were known to have traveled between Japan and Kamchatka, he said. Or they might be of considerably younger vintage, remnants of a Japanese Word War II anti-aircraft gun site, although there is no recorded evidence in Japan of gun emplacements at that location.
On Chirpoi, in the central Kurils, the archaeologists will focus on depressions left by approximately 40 pit houses in an area where hunter-gatherer implements have been dated back 3,000 to 4,000 years. Throughout the chain, geoarchaeologists will seek preserved landforms that could hold archaeological remains dating back as far as 15,000 years ago.
How early humans may have altered the fragile balance of species makes the archaeological work pertinent to the efforts of scientists studying biodiversity in the Kurils, expedition leader Pietsch says. Large terrestrial mammals, for example, are all but absent from the islands and raise the possibility of prehistoric human impacts in this fragile ecological domain.
Each of the chain's 56 islands has its own biological history after haven been separated from the mainland and each other by channels of swift-moving water or miles of open ocean for millions of years. Scientists are particularly interested in the differences that evolved in species isolated on single islands, Pietsch says.
For the first time this year, for instance, scientists will make a concentrated study of a high-elevation lake on Onekotan that sits isolated, 1,200 feet above sea level in the crater of a volcano. The slowly growing volcanic cone at the center of the crater now rises 3,000 feet out of the center of the vast lake. Scientists estimate the lake is relatively old, perhaps more than 30,000 years, and Pietsch said it is reasonable to expect to find species that are quite distinctive even from what's found elsewhere on the island.
Researchers already have published or submitted for publication descriptions of 40 new species. Hundreds of others are likely to be found among the 350,000 specimens that are being sorted, curated and sent out around the world for identification. There are 200 spiders, for example, that the group's expert on Pacific Rim spiders is unable to name.
International Kuril Island Project: http://artedi.fish.washington.edu/ikip/home.html
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