Archaeological research indicates that the Itelmen settled in Kamchatka before the Koryaks and the Ainu; their presence on the peninsula dates from the end of the Paleolithic period. The traditional occupations of the Itelmen are fishing, hunting, gathering, and, to a lesser degree, hunting of sea animals. The economy had a foraging character that precluded specialization and did not offer opportunities for the development of regular exchange. Before the arrival of the Russians, the Itelmen had no knowledge of metallurgy.
Itelmen were nomads and this quickened the processes of assimilation. In the eighteenth century all Itelmen were brought into the Russian Orthodox church. The hunters paid tribute in furs. The rulers' tyranny caused a riot (1730-1731). But the most tragic events in Itelmen history were epidemics: of smallpox (1768-1769) and then of "rotten fever" (probably influenza, 1799-1800 and 1819). As a result of these epidemics the population of Kamchatka decreased by two-thirds. The census of 1827 recorded only 1,800 or 1,900 Itelmen. Since then, their numbers have not increased.
After these epidemics, a growing number of Russian-speaking settlers increased the population on the peninsula. A creolized population (Kamchadals) began to form in the southern part of Kamchatka, where the administrative centers were located (Bol'sheretsk on the western coast and Petropavlovsk on the eastern coast, on Avachi Bay). Later, creolization spread to the valley of the Kamchatka River (eastern coast). At the beginning of the twentieth century the Itelmen language disappeared completely in these regions. The modern Russian-speaking Kamchadals are a minority, outnumbered by newcomers. The portion of the Itelmen population that still speaks the native language inhabits only a small area between the Tigil' and the Icha rivers. Today this area has narrowed in the south to the Khairuzovo River.
In the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries Itelmen were officially called "Kamchadals." After the Revolution their own name was reestablished. The Itelmen did not resist collectivization. Traditional productive activities—fishing and hunting—developed on the collective farms, as did dairy and gardening activities that had been adopted in the nineteenth century (cereal grains do not grow in Kamchatka). In the period after World War II, local authorities conducted a policy of "enlargement" of the small Itelmen villages that caused the destruction of many traditional economic relations and "lumpenization" of a part of the population. Education (including higher education) that the Itelmen received fueled the assimilation process and the loss of their native language. In the 1980s the teaching of the Itelmen language began again. Textbooks and dictionaries are being published, but for Itelmen children today this language is essentially foreign. In 1989, under the influence of democratization in the former USSR, Itelmen by their own initiative organized a union for revival of the Itelmen people, Tkhsanom (Dawn), founded with ethnocultural aims.