Imagine a life of almost complete isolation, spent on a barren island constantly hit by a mix of volcanoes, tsunamis, and long, brutal winters. For thousands of years, that's what people have endured on the Kuril Islands, an archipelago stretching from Russia to Japan that just might be the most extreme place humans have ever lived.
Three different times - the earliest in 6000 BCE and the most recent in 1200 CE - colonists arrived on the islands and tried to forge an existence on some of the most inhospitable places imaginable. University of Washington anthropologist Ben Fitzhugh is leading a diverse team of anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists, and Earth and atmospheric scientists to try to figure out just how these settlers made life on the Kuril Islands work. He explains:
"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."
Although the Kuril Islanders spent their lives more or less cut off from the Asian mainland and the far more hospitable Japanese archipelago that lay to the south, the key to survival was the ability to quickly move. Fitzhugh says there's evidence that the islanders would leave their settlements when volcanoes or tsunamis hit, moving temporarily to other settlements in the island chain that had not been so badly hit. In order to pull that off as far back as 8,000 years ago, the inhabitants had to build and maintain social networks across the islands and to have a good working knowledge of their surrounding environment.
And it wasn't as though moving between islands was easy. The Kurils are often shrouded in a dense, thick fog that leaves the chain in a state of perpetual darkness, meaning the islanders needed to learn how to navigate by methods other than sight. They relied on subtle clues in bird behavior, ocean currents, and water temperature to work out how to get from one island to the other.
These days, the indigenous population of the Kurils is in decline, although that has far more to do with ongoing political tensions between Russia and Japan over the political status of the islands as it does the difficulty of living there. Fitzhugh says the Kurils can offer a vital understanding of how to deal with particularly extreme natural disasters - a potentially invaluable skill in a world where climate change could supercharge hurricanes and tsunamis, several volcanoes are overdue for major eruptions, and even the Sun might be out to get us.