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| Human World on Feb 22, 2011

Human adaptability in ancient Ring of Fire settlements

Ancient human populations lived on islands rife with natural disasters. From their early settlements, we’re learning what it means to survive in a difficult and uncertain world.

What are the limits to a human population’s endurance and adaptability when faced with frequent natural disasters and difficult living conditions? That’s what a team of scientists are trying to figure out in the Kuril islands, a segment of the Pacific Ring of Fire between Japan and Russia, where they’re studying the remains of early human settlements that date as far back as 6,000 B.C.. It’s a place with long winters and inhospitable landscapes, often disrupted by volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Learning how humans handled the barrage of natural disasters may give us some insights into how we can cope with natural upheavals ourselves, be it long-term climate changes or shorter-term natural disasters.

Map of northwest Pacific, showing the Kuril Islands between Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and Hokkaido, Japan. Credit: Norman Einstein, Wikimedia Commons

The islands of Kuril, located at the boundaries of two tectonic plates, are volcanic and often wracked with earthquakes that could result in tsunamis. The winters are long, and during summer, the islands are often blanketed in thick fog.

Despite the islands’ inhospitableness, there’s evidence that people have lived there, on and off, for as far back as 6,000 B.C.. Ben Fitzhugh, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, is leading an international team — anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, and earth and atmospheric scientists — in a study of past human habitation on the Kuril Islands. They’ve found that despite the often occurring natural disasters, people who left the settlements eventually returned.

Said Professor Fitzhugh, in a press release,

We want to identify the limits of adaptability, or how much resilience people have. We’re looking at the islands as a yardstick of humans’ capacity to colonize and sustain themselves.

These are stone artifacts, mostly tips for spears and harpoons, found on the Kuril Islands. Photo credit: Coby Phillips, U. Washington.

In three separate expeditions to the lower half of the island chain, the team found evidence of human housekeeping: small pit houses, pottery, stone tools, barbed harpoon heads, as well as other indications of their fishing and foraging activities.

This begs the questions: how did these people endure and adapt to such difficult conditions?

The team found that an understanding of the local environment was key. For instance, travel between islands would have been difficult when then it was dark and chilly, or foggy. The team suspects that native Kurilians used other natural cues, such as water currents and temperature, as well as bird behavior, to aid in their navigation. The communities were highly mobile, and had tight social networks that helped them get through hard times. Said Fitzhugh,

Having relatives and friends on other Kurils meant that, when something disastrous happened locally, people could temporarily move in with relatives on nearby islands.

The Kuril Islands are among the foggiest places on earth. Here the research team approaches Shiashkotan, one of the Kuril Islands. Photo credit: Matt Walsh, U. Washington.

The population of Kuril has since declined drastically, but not because of its harsh conditions. Instead, it’s due to the political tug-of-war between Russia and Japan, each claiming sovereignty over the island chain.

Ben Fitzhugh, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, collects charcoal samples to be used for radiocarbon dating of different layers of an eroding archaeological site in the Kurils. Photo credit: Mike Etnier, U. Washington.

Dr. Fitzhugh noted, in his press release, that as a global society during a time of environmental changes, we need to support the ability of small and vulnerable populations to sustain themselves:

This is not something that will naturally rise to the top of priorities of large political systems without concerted effort.

Life on the Kuril Islands, in the northwest Pacific Ocean, has never been easy. Because of its location along two tectonic plates, the islands are subjected to a high incidence of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The winters are long, and during summer, the islands are often blanketed in thick fog. Yet humans have lived there as far back as 6,000 B.C. An international team of scientists are exploring the islands to learn more about how ancient human settlements on the Kuril archipelago coped through the natural disasters that plagued them, hoping to bring the lessons learned to help modern human populations adapt to environmental changes.

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