International Scientific Conference "Archeology of the Arctic"
November 19-23, 2017

Aleut (Unangan) mortuary practices: reinterpretation of reported cessation of traditional practices by Russian/American control.

B. Frohlich1, D. Hunt2

1 2 National museum of Natural History Smitsonian institution, Washington, D.C., USA.




In 1874 Captain Hennig collected 12 bundles of mummified human remains from the 'Warm Cave' on Kagamil Island in the Aleutian Islands.  In 1936, 1937 and 1938, Aleš Hrdlička collected numerous mummies from the same cave. Finally, William Laughlin visited the Warm Cave in 1948, and found it empty. The majority of these collections of remains from the Kagamil cave is now in the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

The Aleut people (Unangan) subsisted on the Aleutian Island chain for approximately 9,000 years. At the time of 'discovery' by Vitus Bering, they numbered more than 20,000 individuals, successfully adapting to the extremely harsh sub-arctic environment. According to recent research, the Unangans achieved a life expectancy significantly higher than other contemporary populations in arctic and sub-arctic North America. Nevertheless following the 1741 'discovery', increased internecine warfare, massive genocides, and the introduction of contagious diseases (including smallpox, leprosy, and venereal diseases), all reduced the Unangan population size to less than 2,000.

Mortuary practices, including mummification were established by the Unangans hundreds or possibly thousands of years before the arrival of Vitus Bering in 1741. Those practices were reportedly discontinued with the subsequent establishment of Russian trading posts, permanent settlements, the 'Russian-American Company', and especially the Russian Orthodox Church. However, our research on the human remains from the Aleutian Islands indicates that the traditional Unangan burial practices continued until as late as the 1920’s.  Our study suggests that some of the bundles collected by Hrdlička in 1936 were placed in the 'Warm Cave' after Hennig’s visited it in 1874. One such bundle is an infant 'backpack', which is in pristine condition and would have unquestionably been collected by Hennig had it been in the cave on his collecting visit.

The use of these caves for traditional mortuary practices after the arrival of Russians and Russian and American management of the Unangans contradicts the historic reports that traditional mortuary practices had been completely eliminated.  Accordingly at least some of the Unangans were not adhering to the imposed Russian and American cultures and religious constraints but continued their traditional rituals of spiritual preparation of their dead. 

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