Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Too hot, too cold, just right: Testing the limits of where humans can live

On an isolated segment of islands in the Pacific Ring of Fire, residents endure volcanoes, tsunamis, dense fog, steep cliffs and long and chilly winters.

Sounds homey, huh?

At least it might be for inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, an 810-mile archipelago that stretches from Japan to Russia. The islands, formed by a collision of tectonic plates, are nearly abandoned today, but anthropologists have learned that thousands of people have lived there on and off as far back as at least 6000 B.C., persevering despite natural disasters.

"We want to identify the limits of adaptability, or how much resilience people have," said Ben Fitzhugh, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington. "We're looking at the islands as a yardstick of humans' capacity to colonize and sustain themselves."

Understanding what made residents stay and how they survived could inform how we adapt to modern vulnerabilities, including climate change. The findings also have implications for how we rebound from contemporary catastrophes, such as the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, hurricanes Katrina and Rita and last year's earthquake in Haiti.

Fitzhugh is leading an international team of anthropologists, archaeologists, geologists and earth and atmospheric scientists in studying the history of human settlement on the Kuril Islands.

The team's findings will be discussed Feb. 20 during a lecture, Scales of Vulnerability and Resilience in Human Settlement of the Kuril Islands (, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The scientists are studying islands in the central portion of the Kurils, from Urup Island in the south to Onekotan Island in the north – about 75 percent of the island chain. During three expeditions, they've found small pit houses, pottery, stone tools, barbed harpoon heads and other remnants of the islanders' fishing and foraging lifestyle.

The scientists believe that human settlements existed in three different waves, the earliest in 6000 B.C., the most recent in 1200 A.D.

Fitzhugh finds evidence that following volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, people left the settlements but eventually returned. Fitzhugh and his research team have found that mobility, social networks and knowledge of the local environment helped indigenous people survive.

"Having relatives and friends on other Kurils meant that, when something disastrous happened locally, people could temporarily move in with relatives on nearby islands," he said.

Understanding the local environment also helped people survive the persistently foggy, dark and chilly environment. Since fog can shroud the islands, residents couldn't navigate between islands by simply pointing their boats toward destinations. Fitzhugh and his collaborators suspect that indigenous Kurilians instead used bird behavior, water currents and water temperature to navigate.

Fitzhugh says that the Kurils' population decline has less to do with environmental challenges and more to do with changes in social and political influences, such as skirmishes between Russia and Japan over control of the Kurils.

He adds that as a global society in a time of environmental changes, we have to protect abilities of small and vulnerable populations to sustain themselves.

"This is not something that will naturally rise to the top of priorities of large political systems without concerted effort," Fitzhugh said.

The work is part of the Kuril Biocomplexity Project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the University of Washington, with additional support from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

For more information, contact Fitzhugh at or 206-543-9604.

See photos, learn more:

Molly McElroy | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Diagnoses: When Are Several Opinions Better Than One?
19.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht High in calories and low in nutrients when adolescents share pictures of food online
07.04.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

A new look at thyroid diseases

28.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Sweetening neurotransmitter receptors and other neuronal proteins

28.10.2016 | Life Sciences

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>