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Catherine West was having no luck. Knee-deep in the cold waters of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, West scanned the rocky seabed for butter clams. The clams had buried themselves in the sand, as clams are wont to do, so she was looking for the telltale siphon—a small tube they stick out, to suck up the nutrient- and oxygen-rich seawater.

“It looks like a black straw,” called her colleague, geologist Fred Andrus, digging on shore.

West stared doubtfully down at the water, a mosaic of sea stars and spiny urchins under the surface. “Everything looks like a black straw,” she said.

West, a College of Arts & Sciences research assistant professor of archaeology, had come to the remote island of Unalaska—800 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Aleutian Islands—for a week in August 2017 to solve a mystery whose answers date back thousands of years. The butter clams, if the scientists could find some, were to be a critical piece of evidence.