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Large settlements, hunting, fishing and sledge dogs: how Kamchatka indigenous peoples lived 1000 years ago

April 15th, 2020
Large settlements, hunting, fishing and sledge dogs: how Kamchatka indigenous peoples lived 1000 years ago
Right: fortified mansions on the foreland of the river Azabacha and the field of pits. Top view. Left: computer model of the location of the mansions and pits. Credit: IA RAS
The personnel of Kamchatka archaeological group of the Institute of Archaeology RAS have studied the traces of the fortified settlements in the valley of the river Kamchatka and Lake Azabache aroused in the 5th–7th centuries and abandoned in the 17th century. The complicated structure of hundreds of fortified mansions and high density of the construction show that before Russian colonization, there was a developed aboriginal culture on the peninsula. Sledge dog breeding in the area played an important economic role, along with fishing and hunting.

"For the first time ever, we saw the scope of the colonization of Kamchatka from the middle of the first millennium to the period of the region's development by Russian pioneers. Nowhere else in Kamchatka is there such a concentration of fortified settlements. It probably points to a special central role of this micro-region in the inhabited structure of the peninsula on the eve of its colonization by the Russians and a high level of social structure of the indigenous peoples of the peninsula," said Nikolai Krenke, doctor of historical sciences, and the head of the Kamchatka archaeological group of IA RAS.

First data on the life of Kamchatka's native people appeared in "skaski" by the pioneer Vladimir Atlasov of the Anadyr fort, who traveled in 1697 to the unfamiliar territories to the east of Siberia and annexed Kamchatka to the Russian state. Atlasov described the indigenous peoples' dwellings as "ostrogs"—fortified earth dwellings built for defense during wars between peoples, as well as with the Kozaks. "And as we were floating along the river Kamchatka—there are too many foreigners on both banks—there were great settlements, about a hundred yurts of 3 hundredths, and 4 hundredths and 5 hundredths and more." (N.N.Ogloblin, Two "skaski" by Vl. Atlasov on the discovering of Kamchatka).

Probably, after the conquering Kamchatka the system of population resettlement changed: in descriptions of the river-valley Kamchatka made after 40 years by the first researchers of the peninsula G.V. Shteller and S.P. Krasheninnikov there were no great "settlements," the scientists reported on the "ostrozhki" or "yurts" for one-two families. In the end of the 18th century this type of dwellings had been definitively displaced by an izba of Russian type. In the 20th century when the first archaeological researches of Kamchatka began, no constructions signifying the existence of large fortified settlements had been left.

First scientist who realized the scientific importance of the river-valley Kamchatka for archaeology was a Japanese researcher, Eiji Nakaiama. In 1932 he did small excavations not far from Ust-Kamchatsk. Later those places were studied by the expeditions of Magadan scientists: in 1960s N.N. Dikov carried out an archaeological reconnaissance and in 1996 A.K. Ponomarenko made the first exploratory plans of the settlements. However, archaeologists were able to discover these fortifications with the help of modern accurate instrumental procedure and interpret the finds only beginning with 2013 when Kamchatka has started to be studied by the interdisciplinary expedition of IA RAS.

In 2018-2019 interdisciplinary expedition which consisted of the specialists of Institute of Archaeology RAS, Geological Institute RAS, A.N.Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution RAS, The State Hermitage Museum and Kamchatka State University studied the territory near the settlement Klyuchi on the river Kamchatka and the neighborhood of the lake Azabache.It has been found out on the banks of the river Azabacha floating from the lake and runing into Kamchatka in approximately 10 km length the settlements were situated on the distance of some meters from each other. The settlements of the regular geometrical shape mostly square and rectangular of the size 40x40 meters were surrounded by the fosses and ramparts along the perimeter and situated in the flood-plain and the forelands of the high bank. The traces of such fortifications are clearly seen only in spring when the snow becomes melting and the valley is not covered with grass yet. The shooting with the help of the quadcopter has allowed discovering the internal structure of the dwellings: inside the mansions there are rails and around it the cluster of pits The traces of such constructions have been found in the area of the settlement Klyuchi.

Dating carried out with the help of radiocarbon analysis and the studying of the layers of volcanic ash show that the age of the main objects and also the elements of fortification is more than 500 years. Nevertheless, the reconnaissance along the river Azabacha showed that the most of the stations have cultural layer covered with ash of the volcano Ksudach eruption taken place approximately 1800 years ago. Consequently, the settlements arose not earlier than 2000 years ago and seized to exist in 16th—17th cc. which says about appeared social conflicts and war confrontations.

The mansions were surrounded by the hundreds of roundish pits two-three meters in diameter and one and a half meters depths. The studying of one of such pits showed that the refuse had been accumulated also some dog skulls were found there. Based on the ethnographic observation the researchers suggested that these pits were digged for pickling the fish which was prepared for nourishing the dogs. The expedition personnel have selected the samples from the pits for geochemical analyses with the help of which it will be likely to identify what these pits were digged for. This, in its turn, will allow understanding how the private economy of the Kamchatka native people was done from the middle of the 1st millennium to the period of Russian colonization.

The data found in the written and ethnographic sources allows suggesting that the Itelmes—one of the indigenous peoples of Kamchatka—probably inhabited the lower courses of the river Kamchatka and Azabacha. Their fast disappearance is not possible to explain only by the participation in wars and fiercely put down the rebellion in 1731. As Nikolai Krenke believes the native people of Kamchatka did not manage the illnesses which were brought by the Kozaks and to which they had not been adjusted as they had been living in great isolation from the continent. Also the population of Kamchatka could be shrimped as a result of small pox epidemic in the 18th century. Anyway during the 18th century the indigenous population of the river-valley Kamchatka vanished and by the end of the 18th century in those places the Kamchadaly were living, the descendants of the native population and the emigres.

Provided by Institute of Archaeology of Russian Academy of Sciences

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