Over the years, Lara Croft has visited some of the coldest and most remote places on the planet and the Aleutian Islands, which feature in the mini-adventure The Golden Mask, are no exception. In Golden Mask, Lara travels to Melnikov Island in search of the legendary Golden Mask of Tornarsuk and ends up infiltrating an old Soviet base in the process. While Melnikov Island is completely fictional, the Aleutian Islands themselves are very much real and may have been home to some of the first humans to settle in North America during the last Ice Age. And while there may not be rivers of molten gold flowing under the Aleutian Islands, the islands’ real-life history and archaeological remains more than make up for it.
The Aleutian Islands, which stretch from Alaska to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, home to large colonies of seabirds, and consist of dozens of volcanic islands characterized by steep mountains, rocky shores, frequent fog cover, strong winds, and heavy rainfall. Not the best place for a summer holiday, perhaps, but these sparsely populated islands are the perfect place for a secret Soviet mining operation. In reality, most of the islands are now part of the American state of Alaska and only the westernmost islands, the so-called Commander Islands, are Russian territory. Some of the islands were captured by the Japanese during World War II but there is no evidence for Russian occupation during the Cold War.
That’s not to say that the Russians had nothing to do with the islands. On the contrary. The Aleutian Islands were first recorded by European explorers in the 1730s and 40s as part of the Russian Empire’s Great Northern Expedition, which was led by the Danish explorer and Imperial Commander Vitus Bering and his Russian deputy, Aleksei Chirikov. Their crews soon discovered that the islands were home to large populations of Northern fur seals, sea otters, and other fur-bearing animals and once the news reached Russia, fur hunters began to flock to the islands and eastwards into Alaska, displacing the native Aleut (or Unangan) people in their path and allowing the Russian Empire to gain a foothold in North America. The region remained under Russian control until 1867, when a cash-strapped Russian Empire sold Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the United States for the tidy sum of $7.2 million (or almost $120 million in today’s economy).
Now, the map seen in Golden Mask’s loading screen places Melnikov Island somewhere between the islands Seguam and Yunaska and a quick glance at Google Maps suggests that the game could have taken place on Amukta Island or nearby Chagulak. Both of these islands are part of the island chain known as the Islands of the Four Mountains, which refers to the volcanoes that tower over four of the islands. Amukta and Chagulak are both small, uninhabited, mountainous islands which seem to have little of archaeological interest but may appeal to geologists or birdwatchers. Anyone looking for traces of ancient Aleut culture, however, would need to look elsewhere.
Most of the people who claim Aleut ancestry now live on mainland Alaska or in the island chain’s towns and villages (e.g. Unalaska, Akutan, and Sand Point) but their ancestors once occupied a region that not only included the Aleutian Islands but also parts of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the westernmost section of the Alaska Peninsula. Prehistoric settlements can be found dotted across the islands though it is hard to determine when the islands were first occupied as many of the earliest settlements may have been submerged when the sea levels rose following the end of the last Ice Age. Most of the surviving settlements have been found along the coast and close to sources of fresh water and salmon streams. As hunter-gatherers, the ancient Aleut knew how to make the most of their surroundings. The men would hunt for sea mammals on the open sea on small kayaks (known as baidarkas or iqyax) made of driftwood and seal skin, while women would occupy themselves with clothes making, weaving, and collecting berries, kelp, molluscs, and fish. Salmon, crabs and cod are still an important part of the modern Aleut diet though many residents no longer need to hunt for their own food.
The ancient Aleut once lived in partially subterranean homes called ulax (or barabara in Russian). These communal pit dwellings were warmed by hearths and oil lamps and had roofs and walls made from driftwood, sod, and woven grass mats, which offered families protection from the cold and the islands’ infamous strong winds. When the Aleut communities weren’t busy hunting for food or tending to the demands of everyday life, they devoted their time to arts, craftsmanship, and ceremony. Traditional Aleut religion was animistic and relied on shamans to act as mediators between the human world and the spirit world. No easy task when you believe that everything around you, living and non-living, possesses a soul or spirit.
Dances and storytelling were also popular forms of religious practice (and entertainment) and intricate masks carved from wood were often used to depict figures from Aleut mythology or history. As I mentioned in an earlier article, the Mask of Tornarsuk was not only modelled on an ancient Mycenaean artefact found thousands of miles away, it was also made from gold, a material not commonly used or valued by the indigenous tribes of northern Canada or Alaska. There is also the minor detail that Tornarsuk was an Inuit god and not worshipped by (or perhaps even known to) the tribes of the Aleutian Islands. In all likelihood, Lara would have ended up looking for human-looking masks made of driftwood or whalebone, characterized by their prominent noses, and decorated with feathers and/or paint made from berries and other natural pigments. A few examples of Aleut masks can be found here.
Traditional Aleut culture and art suffered under Russian colonization and as a result of the influx of gold prospectors to Alaska in the late 19th century but many modern-day Aleut communities have made a tremendous effort to promote Aleut (or Unangan) cultural heritage, language, and craftsmanship. If you’d like to learn more about the Aleutian Islands and Aleut culture, check out the sites and sources listed below!
Sources & Further Reading:
- Alaska’s Heritage: Aleuts (Alaska History and Cultural Studies)
- Aleut (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
- Aleut (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)
- Aleut (Wikipedia)
- Aleutian Islands (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
- Aleutian Islands (Wikipedia)
- Aleutian Tradition (About.Com)
- Alutiiq and Aleut/Unangan History and Culture (Anchorage Museum)
- An Overview of Pre-Contact Aleut Culture (Alaska Native Knowledge Network)
- Culture of the Aleutian Islands (Museum of the Aleutians)
- History (Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association)
- The Unangan: Survival in the Aleutian Islands (Kellen Hinrichsen)
- Who Are the Unangan? (Alaska Fisheries Science Centre)