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Applied Osteology:  Current Projects, Kuril Islands Biocomplexity Project

We're gearing up to head into the field for the Summer 2007 season.  Projected dates are July 11 to Aug 23.

Here are some of my favorite images from the summer onto the website:  KPB Summer 2006 Images.

The Kuril Island Archipelago stretches 1200 km (~745 miles) between Hokkaido, Japan, and the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. The archipelago consists of 56 islands, five of which are occupied today.    However, people have been living in the Kurils for thousands of years.

Kuril Islands Archipelago map

 During the entire time people have lived there, they have been subjected to a nearly continuous string of natural disasters including volcanic eruptions (there are 39 active volcanoes in the archipelago today), earthquakes (related to the high tectonic activity of the area), and tsunamis (which have been documented to originate locally or as far away as Chile, 10,000 miles away).  In addition, this region is likely to have experienced changing environmental conditions, some of which were natural and some of which may have been anthropogenic.  In spite of this, most of the archipelago was occupied by humans until the 20th Century. 

My colleagues at the University of Washington and I have successfully competed for a Biocomplexity Grant from the National Science Foundation. We have assembled an international team of archaeologists, geologists, and paleoecologists that will try to understand how it is that people have been able to survive and, in many cases, thrive in such a challenging landscape.  To do this, we will spend three field seasons (Summer 2006, 2007, and 2008) accessing various islands by way of a large research vessel to collect archaeological, geological, paleobotanical, and oceanographic data.  The ship we will be calling "home" in 2007 is the cargo/passenger vessel <<Iskatel 4>>.  We have not yet made arrangements for the 2008 field season.  After each field season, we will conduct preliminary analyses on the samples we have recovered. We will also spend an additional two years after our field work finishing on-going analyses, tweaking our computer simulation model, and preparing final reports and publications.

For my part, I will be part of the field crew in each of our three field seasons.  I will also be over-seeing the lab analyses of the faunal remains (animal bones) we recover in our field seasons.  The faunas will be interesting for several reasons.  For starters, very little is known about the archaeology of this region.  It is pretty easy to make predictions about the kinds of natural resources people were using for subsistence, based on what we know about maritime adaptations in similar environments.  But at a very basic level, we will be adding significantly to the knowledge base concerning the specifics of human subsistence adaptations to the Kuril Archipelago.  In addition to this basic information, we will be able to generate a large volume of paleoecological data for the species that were targeted by the inhabitants of the Kurils.  This will be accomplished through metric, chemical, and genetic analysis of the bones and teeth we recover.  Although we anticipate obtaining large samples of ancient fish and bird bones, I'm particularly interested in the sea mammals.  Preliminary field work in 2000 yielded small bone samples from harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), and the extinct Japanese sea lion (Zalophus californianus japonicus).

In addition to these fairly "traditional" North Pacific species, we may also encounter bones from ice-adapted seals more commonly associated with the Arctic.  Sea ice forms seasonally in the Sea of Okhotsk, and periodically affects some of the Kuril Islands.  Counterintuitively, sea ice concentrations in the Kuril Archipelago are highest in the southern end of the island chain (sea ice image from Earth Observation Research and Application Center, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency):

Feb 2003 sea ice extent in the Sea of Okhotsk

Because of this, any ice-adapted seals that show up in the archaeofaunal assemblages would be expected in the southern, not the northern end of the island chain.  Furthermore, as sea ice conditions in the Sea of Okhotsk changed with global warming and cooling during the Holocene (the geological time period representing the past 12,000 years), the presence of ice-adapted seals at specific islands in the chain would have tracked the variability in sea ice extent. 

We are looking forward to our secone field season, which begins in July 2007.  We will be investigating a few of the more promising sites we sampled last summer.  For the 2007 field season, we will be accompanied once again by Bellingham science teacher, Misty Nikula as part of NSF's TREC program.  She will be maintaining a website from aboard the ship, making regular entries into her journal, including photo submissions.  Because we will have only limited ability to communicate with the outside world during the field season, this will be the best way to keep up with all the latest happenings.

For more background and specific information on the area and the project, there is a wealth of additional information available through the official KBP and IKIP websites.

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