Archive for December, 2011

Looking South from Kin Ya'a

One of the most notable examples of an assemblage of highly mutilated human remains from the Southwest being attributed to witchcraft execution rather than cannibalism, in accordance with J. Andrew Darling’s theory discussed in the previous post, is Ram Mesa, southwest of Chaco Canyon near Gallup, NM.  This site was excavated by the University of New Mexico as a salvage project, and the relevant assemblage was reported by Marsha Ogilvie and Charles Hilton in 2000.

The Ram Mesa assemblage, consisting of 13 individuals, is pretty similar to many other assemblages in the Southwest attributed to cannibalism, but Ogilvie and Hilton make a plausible case that while the remains are clearly highly “processed” there isn’t a whole lot tying this dismemberment and mutilation to actual consumption of the remains.  Few of the bones showed any evidence of burning, a condition which applies to several other cases of alleged cannibalism as well.  The few cut marks, which were mostly found on children’s skulls and lower jaws, weren’t particularly indicative of the removal of large muscles that might be expected if consumption were the object.  On the other hand, however, relatively few of the bone fragments were sufficiently large to be identified to body part, and any diagnostic evidence from these tiny fragments was clearly destroyed by the thoroughness of the processing.  It’s not clear, therefore, how representative the larger fragments with surviving evidence of burning and cutting are of the entire assemblage.  The most I would say about this site is that the evidence is not sufficient to make a positive diagnosis of cannibalism, and other explanations are therefore plausible.

However, as I noted before in discussing Darling’s arguments, witchcraft execution and cannibalism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Indeed, the execution of suspected witches may well have involved some level of cannibalism among some Southwestern groups in prehistoric times, thought there is certainly no evidence that it did in historic times as documented by ethnographers.  There are some other oddities about the Ram Mesa site that suggest that it might not be expected to pattern with the majority of the suspected cannibalism assemblages, so it is certainly possible that it represents a variation on the same behavior that may not have included cannibalism.

For one thing, this is an odd place for one of these assemblages.  Although some early excavations at Chaco Canyon and in northern Arizona have been proposed as showing evidence of cannibalism, the vast majority of the well-documented cases are in southwestern Colorado, especially around the modern town of Cortez.  This includes the Cowboy Wash site, the site with the best evidence for cannibalism of any of them.  Given the known cultural differences between prehistoric populations at the northern and southern edges of the San Juan Basin (the San Juan and Cibola Anasazi, respectively), it’s quite possible that the cultural activities resulting in similar assemblages in these two areas may have been somewhat different, with the San Juan groups practicing cannibalism and the Cibola groups not.

Furthermore, there may be differences in the dating of the sites.  Most of the well-documented Cortez-area sites date to right around AD 1150, and they may all represent part of a single event at that time, which was in the midst of a severe drought when social structures were likely under extreme stress.  The Ram Mesa site is dated by six radiocarbon dates to a period that Ogilvie and Hilton describe as “AD 978 to 1161.”  They do clarify that these are calibrated dates, which is helpful, but it would have been better if they had shown the ranges for the individual dates, as well as the materials that were dated, which would give a better idea of the most likely dating for the human remains.  On the assumption that the remains date to the latest period of occupation, which seems plausible based on comparison to similar assemblages elsewhere, this puts the latest date at 1161, which is interestingly close to the dates for the similar Cortez sites.  Due to the lack of information of the dates, however, it’s not clear is this is an intercept (i.e., most likely) date or the late end of a range; if the latter, it’s possible that the assemblage dates to somewhat earlier than the Cortez sites.  In that case it would not be part of the same phenomenon, whatever that was, and the postulated lack of cannibalism may be related to that.

In any case, this site definitely seems to have been within the Chacoan sphere of influence, which makes the interpretation of the remains there important for understanding the relationship of alleged cannibalistic events to the rise and fall of Chaco.  Christy Turner has famously argued that they represent the expansion of the Chacoan system and the use of brutal force by the rulers of Chaco (hypothesized on very dubious evidence to be Toltec immigrants from central Mexico) to ensure that outlying communities were incorporated into the system and supplied tribute to the canyon.  This idea is pretty implausible based on the evidence from the Cortez area, where most of the assemblages date to the period of Chaco’s decline rather than its rise.  If Ram Mesa dates to the same period it would support that evidence, whereas if it dates to earlier it could conceivably either support Turner’s ideas or point to a different interpretation, perhaps having something to do with the well-known fact that the outlying Chacoan communities to the south of Chaco seem to have been abandoned beginning much earlier than those in other directions.  There are a lot of outlying Chacoan great houses in this area, including Casamero and Kin Ya’a, but they seem to have rather different histories than those to the north, such as Aztec Ruins and Yellow Jacket.

Like most research related to Chaco, this paper ultimately raises more questions than it answers.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, especially when it comes to a topic as controversial and poorly understood as these assemblages suggesting cannibalism.
Ogilvie, M., & Hilton, C. (2000). Ritualized violence in the prehistoric American Southwest International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 10 (1), 27-48 DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1212(200001/02)10:13.0.CO;2-M

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Fort Smith Gallows, Fort Smith, Arkansas

Last year around Christmas I did a series of posts on the evidence for cannibalism in the prehistoric Southwest.  I didn’t cover nearly all that there is to say about this important but controversial issue then, so I figured it would be a good idea to discuss it a bit more this year.  In this post I would like to take a look at what has become the main alternative explanation for the assemblages of human remains that are often seen as evidence of cannibalism: witchcraft execution.

The idea that the assemblages of broken, burned, and otherwise heavily “processed” human bones found in various parts of the Southwest represent the remains of the execution of alleged witches originates mainly in an article by J. Andrew Darling published in 1998.  In it, Darling notes that most of the evidence for cannibalism in these assemblages has come from osteological analyses of the bones conducted by physical anthropologists, with little contextual analysis by archaeologists or ethnographers that would allow better understandings of what the assemblages mean in cultural terms.  This is more or less true as of when he was writing, although more recent analyses have been much more thorough (perhaps in part as a response to critiques like Darling’s).  Importantly, Darling does not contest the osteological evidence.  He accepts the conclusions of physical anthropologists that it represents substantial “processing” of human remains around the time of death or shortly afterward, and he even agrees that the specific actions indicated are strongly reminiscent of the evidence for butchering found on animal bones.

Where Darling parts ways with the physical anthropologists, however, is in inferring from this evidence for butchering that the intent of this processing was to prepare human flesh for consumption.  He points out, again rightly, that little is known about the butchering of animals for purposes other than consumption, and that it cannot therefore be assumed that any processing of remains, human or animal, necessarily indicates consumption of those remains.  In other words, Darling agrees that people were butchering and mutilating the bodies of other people, but he does not agree that this means they were eating them.

At this point I think it is worth pointing out that Darling’s acceptance of this much of the physical anthropological evidence indicates how much the cannibalism side had already won the debate at this point.  Indeed, the objections of Darling and those who cite him may reveal more about the societal mores of modern anthropologists than those of ancient Puebloans.  “Yes, okay, they did gruesomely butcher and dismember people, but that doesn’t mean they ate them” is a rather odd line of defense to offer against accusations of cannibalism.

Note also that Darling was writing before the publication of the data on the Cowboy Wash assemblage, including the infamous coprolite that tested positive for human muscle tissue.  His arguments that the evidence of butchery on the bones doesn’t necessarily indicate consumption of the flesh therefore stand on their own, but they don’t apply at all to the coprolite evidence, which is just about the most solid evidence for actual consumption of human flesh imaginable.

Leaving all that aside for the moment, Darling’s alternative explanation for the heavily processed assemblages is that they represent the remains of executions of suspected witches.  His evidence for this draws mostly from modern Pueblo ethnography, especially records of witchcraft trials at Zuni in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as ceremonies conducted at several Pueblos to cure ailments attributed to witchcraft.  He notes, importantly, that this does not mean he is merely projecting the ethnographic present into the past; indeed, the modern activities he describes would likely not account for anything like the prehistoric assemblages.  The Zuni trials, many of which were subject to intensive interference by Anglo anthropologists and government agents, provide interesting data on Zuni attitudes toward witches, but they resulted in very few executions, and there is little to no data on the way those few executions were carried out.

For data that could possibly account for the intensive processing of the remains of executed witches, Darling points to the ceremonies, which in modern times largely consist of the symbolic hunting, capture, dismemberment, and burning of the witches in the form of effigy dolls.  Combining this with the evidence from the Zuni trials, the idea seems to be that at some point in the past similar “trials” often ended up with executions carried out similarly to the ritual destruction of the dolls.  This is a bit speculative, but it’s not a hugely implausible theory.

It’s not totally clear, however, that this is actually an alternative to the cannibalism theory.  I think it could just as easily be seen as a supplement to it, with the intensive processing of executed witches at some times in the past also involving consumption of their flesh. Darling doesn’t address this objection specifically, but it seems like it has occurred to him, as he makes a big deal about how cannibalism itself is strongly associated with witchcraft in Pueblo thought.  Indeed, one of the reasons he argues the cannibalism theory is wrong is that this association is so strong that Pueblos would never engage in cannibalism, even under conditions of severe subsistence stress, for fear of either being thought of as witches or even actually becoming them.  This is fair enough, as far as it goes, but Darling doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that some of these attitudes toward witchcraft and cannibalism may have developed relatively recently, perhaps even in reaction to prehistoric incidents of cannibalism.  Whether or not the people who dismembered and perhaps cannibalized others in the twelfth century interpreted what they were doing as punishing witches, it seems pretty plausible to me that later Puebloans reinterpreted those events as the actions of witches themselves, and incorporated cannibalism into their cultural ideas of witchcraft.

Overall, Darling’s article raises some important points, and presents some interesting data on Pueblo witchcraft ideas, but it is highly unconvincing in presenting an alternative to the cannibalism theory.  As noted above, it is totally inadequate as a response to cannibalism evidence that comes directly from coprolites rather than indirectly from bones, and the alternative theory it proposes is actually not necessarily incompatible with cannibalism at least in some instances.  The fact that some archaeologists continue to rely on it as the basis for arguing against cannibalism as an explanation for certain assemblages just goes to show how few other interpretations are really plausible at this point.
Darling, J. Andrew (1998). Mass Inhumation and the Execution of Witches in the American Southwest American Anthropologist, 100 (3), 732-752 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.3.732

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Geronimo Birthplace Marker, Gila National Forest, New Mexico

The term “Apache” is one of the most widely known names for Native American groups, but it’s actually quite problematic.  There is, I think, a general perception that it refers to a specific “tribe,” but it doesn’t.  What it really is, at least as it’s used today, is a designation for all the Southern Athapaskan groups except the Navajos.  These groups include the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches in New Mexico and the Western Apaches (several closely related contiguous groups) in Arizona.  There are also some smaller groups that have largely merged with the others, most notably the Chiricahuas, who famously fought the US Army for many years under Geronimo and other famous chiefs but have since mostly merged with the Mescaleros.  These various Apaches, however, don’t form a single group linguistically.  Some of the languages, especially Western Apache, are closer to Navajo than they are to some other “Apache” languages.  This makes “Apache” polyphyletic in classificatory terms.  In other words, there is no group of “Apache” languages the members of which are more closely related to each other than to other Athapaskan languages.

This fact has been recognized for a long time.  Harry Hoijer published an initial attempt at classifying the Southern Athapaskan (or “Apachean”) languages in 1938.  In it he posited that all the Southern Athapaskan languages form a single genetic unit divided into Eastern and Western branches, with Navajo, Western Apache, Mescalero, and Chiricahua all belonging to the Western branch, with Jicarilla and the apparently closely related Lipan belonging to the Eastern branch.

Also belonging to the Eastern Apachean branch in this classification were the so-called “Kiowa Apaches,” although Hoijer recognized that their language diverged from all the other Apachean languages in important ways.  This group has long been a puzzle for ethnographers.  They have been called both “Kiowa Apaches” and “Plains Apaches,” but some anthropologists have preferred to call them “Na’isha” after their name for themselves, and I will follow their example for reasons that will soon become apparent.  Culturally and politically, they are very closely connected to the Kiowas, who speak a totally unrelated language (which has its own puzzles, but that’s a separate matter) and as of the nineteenth century lived way out on the Southern Plains, far removed from any other Athapaskans groups.  The Na’isha, however, do not speak Kiowa but their own language, which is clearly Athapaskan.  Despite the clear divergences between it and the other Southern Athapaskan languages, it does also show some similarities to the Eastern Apachean languages specifically, and Hoijer therefore classified it in 1938 as an Eastern Apachean language with some major divergences from the others, in the same way that he considered Navajo a Western Apachean language with some divergences.  Later in life, however, after fuller data became available on a wider variety of Athapaskan languages outside the Southwest, he seems to have changed his mind and reclassified Na’isha as an Athapaskan language closely related to the Apachean languages but not more closely related to them than to some other Athapaskan languages found further north.  In 1985 Martin Huld published an article pointing to some additional differences between Na’isha and the Apachean languages that further support the idea that Na’isha is not Apachean.

The picture emerging from this research is that both Na’isha and Proto-Apachean seem to have separated from other Athapaskan languages somewhere on the far northern Plains, perhaps in southern Alberta.  The Athapaskan language still spoken in the Calgary area, Sarcee, also shows some similarities to both Na’isha and Apachean.  The implication of these conclusions is that all of these languages were once spoken in the same area by groups in close contact with each other, resulting in many similarities in the languages.  Crucially for understanding the prehistory of the Plains, however, the Na’isha seem to have split off and headed south separately from the Apachean speakers.  This model is in strong contrast to other models which have the Na’isha splitting from the other Apacheans after the latter had moved to the Southwest, and it is more consistent with Na’isha and Kiowa oral tradition, which holds that they had been associated with each other for a very long time and came to the southern Plains from the north.

So, it seems that the “Kiowa Apaches” are neither Kiowa, despite close association with the Kiowas, nor Apache, despite their Athapaskan language.  Instead, they most likely represent an additional Athapaskan migration to the south, separate from the migration(s) that brought the Navajos and the various other Apaches to the Southwest.  This is why both “Kiowa Apache” and “Plains Apache” are very problematic as terms; the Na’isha are probably not “Apaches” in the linguistic sense, nor are they Kiowas, and they are not the only Athapaskans to occupy the Plains either.  The Eastern Apachean Jicarilla and Lipan Apaches also lived on the Plains, to the west of the Kiowas and Na’isha, closer to their Western Apachean brethren.  These groups are, indeed, often considered intermediate culturally between the Southwest and the Plains.  They were in contact with the Pueblos, and the Jicarillas even farmed to some extent, but they also hunted bison and had various Plains cultural traits, although to a lesser extent than the Na’isha, Kiowas, and Comanches, the preeminent bison-hunting cultures of the southern Plains.

The importance of this conclusion for archaeology is that the “Athapaskan migration” that has been so elusive in the archaeological record likely consisted not of a single large group but of multiple smaller groups which would be very hard to find evidence for, some of which later coalesced into the Apache groups known from the ethnohistoric record.  This is another example of the huge and largely untapped potential for linguistics to contribute to archaeological problems.
Hoijer, H. (1938). The Southern Athapaskan Languages American Anthropologist, 40 (1), 75-87 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1938.40.1.02a00080

Huld, M. (1985). Regressive Apicalization in Na’isha International Journal of American Linguistics, 51 (4) DOI: 10.1086/465932

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Painted Wall, Santa Fe, New Mexico

There’s been quite a bit of research on relations between the Pueblo and Athapaskan peoples of the American Southwest, most of it falling within the broad domain of ethnography or sociocultural anthropology.  That is, there is quite a lot of evidence that some of the Athapaskan-speaking Apache groups, especially the Navajos, have been in close contact with the Pueblos and have adopted many Pueblo cultural practices.  It’s not clear when or how this happened, however; with regard to the Navajos specifically the Pueblo Revolt period (AD 1680 to 1692 or a bit later) has often been posited as a time when an influx of Pueblo refugees to the Navajo country led to the adoption of many Pueblo cultural practices by the Navajos, but recent archaeological research has cast doubt on this theory.  (More on that later.)  In general, there has been plenty of documentation of Pueblo influences on Apaches, but little progress on figuring when and how these influences occurred.

The issue of influences in the other direction, from Athapaskan-speaking groups to Pueblos, has received much less attention.  This is probably due mostly to the longstanding if mostly implicit idea among anthropologists that the Pueblos, as settled agriculturalists, were in some sense more developed culturally than the Athapaskans, who were certainly hunter-gatherers when they entered the Southwest although many of them adopted agriculture to varying degrees once they were there.  The idea seems to be that more “primitive” hunter-gatherers would of course have borrowed lots of cultural practices from the more “advanced” farmers they encountered (and, indeed, they did), but that the Pueblos wouldn’t have borrowed much, if anything, from the barbaric newcomers to the area they had inhabited for millennia.

Nevertheless, there is in fact some evidence for cultural influence flowing from Athapaskans to Pueblos in addition to vice versa.  Due to the abovementioned lack of research there aren’t very many specific instances of influence to point to, but I have found one clear-cut instance of linguistic influence in this direction.  This is explained in a short but very interesting article by Paul Kroskrity of UCLA published in 1985.  Kroskrity points out that Tewa, a Pueblo language spoken in northern New Mexico around Santa Fe as well as in one village in the Hopi area of Arizona (the latter resulting from a migration from the Galisteo Basin south of Santa Fe after the Spanish Reconquest of New Mexico in 1692), has a possessive construction very different from those found in the other languages of the Kiowa-Tanoan family to which it belongs.  The usual way of expressing possession in these languages is with a periphrastic construction roughly equivalent to “the x y has” in English.  Tewa, however, alone among Kiowa-Tanoan languages, has in addition to this construction another, simpler way to express possession with a single morpheme, a suffix -bí attached to the possessor.  This is equivalent to saying “y’s x” in English.  This suffix appears to be fixed in form, regardless of the number or gender of either the possessor or the possessed.

Since this suffix is found only in Tewa, and not in any other related languages, it is a good candidate for a borrowing from some other language.  And, as it happens, the Athapaskan languages have a very similar morpheme used to express a third-person possessor, a prefix bi- appended to the possessed.  Since both Tewa and Athapaskan have the usual word order “possessor-possessed” the fact that the morpheme is a prefix in Athapaskan but a suffix in Tewa is no problem; it seems Tewa just attached it to the previous word rather than the following one.

Linguistically the case is straightforward.  Culturally and historically, the implications are more complicated.  Generally linguistic borrowing goes from a language perceived to have more prestige to one perceived to have less, and while there are some exceptions this case can probably be best explained in that framework, which rather turns the idea of “advanced” Pueblos and “primitive” Apaches on its head.  At the very least it implies that the relationship was a two-way street.  This raises the interesting question of when and why Tewa-speakers would have perceived Athapaskans to have more status, to which I have no answer at this point.  An alternative explanation would be that some Athapaskan language was used at some point as a lingua franca for communication among the various Pueblos (which speak several languages, not all of them related), with the adoption of useful grammatical devices from this intercultural contact language being adopted into Tewa as more useful than the native constructions used for the same purpose.  This explanation however does not account for Tewa being the only one of the Kiowa-Tanoan languages to adopt this construction.  More extensive data on possible Athapaskan loanwords into Tewa and other Pueblo languages would be helpful in clarifying this.  Generally words are borrowed much more easily than grammatical structures like this, so any structural borrowing will usually only come after fairly extensive borrowing of words.

I think the most likely explanation for this borrowing is that there was some time in the past when Tewa-speakers were in close contact with speakers of one of the Apachean languages in a context where the Apachean-speakers had a relatively high level of perceived status.  This must have been before the early eighteenth century, when the Arizona Tewas migrated to the Hopi country from the Galisteo Basin, since Kroskrity’s data makes it quite clear that this construction is shared by both Tewa groups (which have not been in close contact since the migration).  The odd thing about this is that the Tewas are located near the center of the Rio Grande Pueblo culture area, which makes it look unlikely at first glance that they would have had more contact with outside groups than their linguistic relatives the Tiwa (to the north and south) and Towa (to the east and west).  While the Northern Tiwa and Eastern Towa are known to have had quite close connections to some of the Apache groups of the southern Plains (Jicarilla and Lipan, respectively), the Tewa were not in the same situation.

The only Athapaskan group that seems like a plausible candidate for loaning this construction to the Tewa is the Navajos, who in early historic times were located northwest of Tewa territory, not particularly close but without much in between.  Ethnographic and historic data tends to suggest that the Tewa and Navajos were generally adversaries in recent centuries, but this may not necessarily have always been the case.  They were certainly familiar with each other; indeed, the name “Navajo” comes from the Tewa word navahu, meaning “plowed fields” and borrowed in to Spanish as a way of distinguishing the Navajos, with their greater emphasis on agriculture, from other Apaches who were still primarily hunter-gatherers.  That very emphasis on agriculture, of course, may in and of itself indicate somewhat closer contact with the Pueblos.

This is a good example of the largely unrealized potential of linguistics to contribute data to the understanding of culture change and prehistory.  Linguists and archaeologist don’t tend to use each other’s data much (and when they do they all too often seize on the most superficial and/or tendentious interpretations available rather than the most reasonable), but there is an enormous amount of information available to contribute to a fuller picture of the past if people are willing to figure out how to use it judiciously.
Kroskrity, P. (1985). Areal-Historical Influences on Tewa Possession International Journal of American Linguistics, 51 (4) DOI: 10.1086/465943

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Delaney Park at Noon on the Winter Solstice, Anchorage, Alaska

Today is the winter solstice, which means two things: the anniversary of the beginning of this blog (three years now), and the shortest day of the year.  Up here in Alaska, the second is particularly noteworthy.  We had about five and a half hours of daylight today; officially, the sun rose around 10:15 and set around 3:45.  In Anchorage, however, which has mountains to the east, the sun didn’t actually appear until about 11:00.  The state likes to emphasize the converse of this phenomenon in summer in their promotional material, of course, hence the idea that Alaska is the “Land of the Midnight Sun,” but in the winter the “Twilight Noon” is equally appropriate.  Indeed, for the parts of the state that are below the Arctic Circle (most of it), it never gets completely dark or completely light for 24 hours straight, so the Midnight Sun never strictly appears even on the summer solstice.  Noon on the winter solstice definitely does start to look pretty similar to twilight, though.

I’ve talked a lot about archaeoastronomy in the Southwest on this blog, which is why marking events like the solstices has been such an important part of it, but as far as I can tell there is no evidence that the native people up here paid much attention to astronomical phenomena.  (It’s quite possible that they did and I just haven’t found the documentation of it, of course.)  This could be because of the lack of an indigenous agricultural tradition, since calendar-making has generally been linked to agriculture, although of course seasonal events like salmon runs are often very important to non-agricultural people and it would presumably be helpful to have a means of marking them.  I believe navigation by the stars was pretty well developed among some of the more maritime-oriented societies of the North, which makes sense given the general lack of landmarks along the Arctic Ocean coastline, but use of the sky to tell time doesn’t seem to have been as important.  Presumably people just paid more attention to other time markers.  This is a topic I should definitely look into.  Anyway, happy solstice, and thanks for reading.

Captain Cook Statue at Noon on the Winter Solstice, Anchorage, Alaska

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Sign at the Entrance to Ahtna Property, Mentasta, Alaska

In discussing Dena’ina, the most divergent of the Athapaskan languages, I mentioned that its Upper Inlet dialect (spoken in the area that is now Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, i.e., the most populous part of Alaska today) shows extensive influence from Ahtna, the language spoken to the east.  This probably accounts for most of the many differences between this dialect and the more conservative Dena’ina dialects further west in the lower Cook Inlet area.  James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center, who did the research on Dena’ina dialects I discussed in the previous post, has also done a lot of research on this contact between Ahtna and Upper Inlet Dena’ina, and he published an article summarizing his findings in 1977.

Ahtna is also an Athapaskan language, and it may be more closely related to Dena’ina than either is to the rest of the family; Kari notes a few very deep-seated grammatical similarities between the two.  Be that as it may, however, Dena’ina has undergone unique changes that make it very different from every other Athapaskan language, including Ahtna, and the two are not mutually intelligible.  All the Dena’ina dialects show sufficient similarity to indicate that they arose relatively recently from a single protolanguage, as discussed by Kari in a more recent paper, and it seems that that language had been relatively isolated from most other languages in the family for a relatively long period of time before its recent expansion.  Kari favors a location in southwestern Alaska, probably northwest of what is now Lake Clark National Park, for the Dena’ina Urheimat, although he acknowledges that somewhere in the Upper Inlet is another possibility.  This seems implausible to me, however, since one of the major differences between Dena’ina and most other Athapaskan languages is its radically simplified vowel system, which seems to show evidence of influence from Yup’ik Eskimo, which is spoken along the west coast of Alaska and probably has been for a long time.  Kari notes that there are relatively few Eskimo loanwords in any Dena’ina dialect, however, which suggests to me that this vowel system may have spread to proto-Dena’ina from another Athapaskan language in western Alaska which had in turn gotten it from Yup’ik.  (Note that the Yup’ik are the Eskimos who are not Inuit; Inuit, which is spoken further north, has an even simpler vowel system.)

In any case, by the time the Dena’ina spread into the Cook Inlet basin and began to adopt, to varying degrees, a more maritime subsistence pattern they had been separated from the main mass of Athapaskan speakers, who were mostly concentrated along the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, for a very long time, and their language was very distinct.  This distinctiveness may in fact have been deliberate, at least in part; one of the most distinctive characteristics of Dena’ina is its use of words, often for very common concepts like “water” and “fire” that appear to be Athapaskan in origin but are not the standard Athapaskan roots used by most languages for those meanings.  Kari implies that this “tabooistic replacement” (a term I’m not crazy about) may have had something to do with maintaining cultural boundaries, probably an important consideration for a group expanding into new and relatively unfamiliar territory.

When the Dena’ina reached the upper end of Cook Inlet, they would have soon encountered the Ahtna.  While they were (and are) based primarily in the valley of the Copper River to the east, the Ahtna were a  large, powerful tribe that expanded as far west as the Denali area, and as Kari notes they appear to have had the superior position in their contacts with the Dena’ina.  There are many Ahtna loanwords into Upper Inlet Dena’ina, as well as a certain amount of phonological influence leading to simplifications in the consonant system that make Upper Inlet Dena’ina very hard for speakers of other Dena’ina dialects to understand.  There were some borrowings in the other direction too, but fewer.  Many of Kari’s informants even seem to have explicitly said that they considered the Ahtna culturally superior to themselves.  The historic and ethnographic records give plenty of supporting evidence of extensive contact, trade, and intermarriage between the Upper Inlet Dena’ina and the western Ahtna, which corroborates the very strong linguistic evidence Kari presents.

The upshot of all this for culture history is not totally clear, but it definitely seems that the Dena’ina most likely spread from west to east, and the Ahtna may have been spreading in the other direction at approximately the same time.  Archaeological evidence suggests that the Dena’ina spread into the Kenai peninsula (across the inlet from their apparent homeland) took place less than a thousand years ago.  Since it seems very clear that the Athapaskans had been in Alaska for a very long time before that, certainly long enough for Dena’ina in the southwest to diverge markedly from the various languages that form a large dialect continuum in the Tanana and Yukon valleys, this suggests that the story of Athapaskan prehistory is both very complicated and very long-term.  Specific inferences useful in understanding the migration of other Athapaskans to the American Southwest, a process which must have begun long before the Dena’ina entered the Kenai, are not apparent.  But then, this is the opposite end of the Athapaskan world, so that’s not all that surprising.

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Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, Anchorage, Alaska

As I mentioned in the last post, it’s generally thought that the Athapaskan migrations which eventually led to the entrance of the Navajos and Apaches into the Southwest began in Alaska.  The northern Athapaskan languages are actually spoken over a very large area of northwestern Canada as well, but the linguistic evidence clearly points to Alaska as the original place where Proto-Athapaskan was spoken at the last point before it splintered into the various Athapaskan languages.  That is, the Urheimat of the Athapaskans seems to have been somewhere in Alaska.

There are two main pieces of evidence pointing to this conclusion.  One is the fact that it has been quite well established at this point that the Athapaskan language family as a whole is related to the recently-extinct language Eyak, which was spoken in south-central Alaska.  Eyak was clearly not an Athapaskan language itself, but it had sufficient similarities to reconstructed Proto-Athapaskan to establish a genetic relationship.  Since Eyak was spoken in Alaska, it therefore seems most probable that the most recent common ancestor of both Eyak and the Athapaskan languages (Proto-Athapaskan-Eyak) was also spoken in Alaska.  This is not very strong evidence on its own, however, since Eyak was only a single language spoken by a relatively small group of people, and there is some fairly strong evidence that they have not lived in their current location for a very long time (although they may well have moved there from elsewhere in Alaska).

A stronger piece of evidence is the internal diversity of the Athapaskan languages themselves.  A general principle in historical linguistics is that the Urheimat of a language family is likely to be found where there is maximal diversity among the languages in the family.  That is, since language families often spread through migration, areas with many languages from the family that are not particularly closely related to each other in relatively small area are more likely locations for the Urheimat than areas with fewer languages that are more closely related.  When it comes to Athapaskan, this condition obtains most strongly in Alaska.  The languages in Canada and the Lower 48 are all relatively closely related to each other within the family as compared to some of the languages in Alaska.  Although interior Alaska is overwhelmingly dominated by Athapaskan groups, the linguistic boundaries among these various groups, even those adjacent to each other, are often extremely sharp.

This is particularly the case when it comes to the most divergent of all the Athapaskan languages: Dena’ina.  (Note that in many publications this term is spelled “Tanaina,” and I have spelled it that way myself in the past.  “Dena’ina” is the generally preferred form these days, being closer to the original pronunciation and consistent with the principles of the currently used orthography.)  This is the language traditionally spoken around Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska, including the Anchorage area.  While it’s clearly Athapaskan, it’s very weird as Athapaskan languages go.  It is not mutually intelligible with any other Athapaskan language, although it borders several of them, and it is in turn divided into several internal dialects that are strikingly diverse.  James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, published an article on Dena’ina dialects in 1975 based on original fieldwork.  The basic conclusions were that there are two main dialects, Upper Inlet and Lower Inlet, and that Lower Inlet is further subdivided into two or three subdialects: Outer Inlet, Inland, and Iliamna (which lies between the two other dialects and shows similarities to both, although Kari seems to consider it likely that it is ultimately more closely related to the Outer Inlet dialect with the similarities to the Inland dialect due to later influence).  In general, the Lower Inlet dialect is more conservative than the Upper Inlet one, which shows extensive influence from the neighboring Ahtna language, which is also Athapaskan but not very similar to Dena’ina.  Within the Lower Inlet dialect, the Inland dialect is the most conservative, as well as the one with by far the most speakers of any of the dialects as of 1975.  Both these conditions are presumably due to the relative isolation of this dialect, which is spoken in the Lake Clark area and further north in Lime Village.  Kari considers this the most likely homeland of Dena’ina speakers, whom he sees as having moved from the interior to the coast relatively recently, although he acknowledges that this cannot be established based on linguistic evidence alone.

Despite the relative conservatism of the Lower Inlet dialect, however, all its subdialects do show a  certain amount of influence from Yup’ik Eskimo (particularly in the development of the Proto-Athapaskan vowel system).  This is unsurprising, as these dialects lie on the boundary of the Yup’ik area to the west and south, and the Dena’ina groups in these areas show extensive Eskimo influence in many aspects of their traditional culture.  This is particularly the case for the Outer Inlet groups, especially those at the southern end of Cook Inlet, who adopted a much more maritime-oriented culture than is typical of Athapaskans.  These cultural distinctions within the overall Dena’ina society were documented by Cornelius Osgood of Yale in the 1930s.  In an article published in 1933 he noted that the main distinctions among the Dena’ina groups were economic, having to do with their subsistence systems, while other social systems were pretty similar across the various groups.  The Lower Inlet groups, especially those in the Seldovia area on Kachemak Bay near the outlet of Cook Inlet, showed a much heavier dependence on hunting sea mammals and a correspondingly heavier influence from nearby Yup’ik Eskimo groups with a similar adaptation than their compatriots further north who had a more typically Athapaskan lifestyle based on salmon fishing and hunting of terrestrial animals.

The fact that Dena’ina, the most divergent of the Athapaskan languages and therefore the one that most likely split earliest from Proto-Athapaskan, is spoken in Alaska makes it very likely that Proto-Athapaskan was spoken in Alaska as well.  Indeed, if Kari is right that the Lake Clark area was the original homeland of the Dena’ina, this potentially places Proto-Athapaskan quite far west within Alaska and quite close to areas traditionally occupied by Eskimo-speakers.  It should be noted, however, that it’s still very unclear when the breakup of Proto-Athapaskan occurred and who occupied which parts of Alaska at that time.  Nevertheless, the evidence from Dena’ina, which is still one of the least-understood Athapaskan languages despite its obvious importance for Athapaskan studies, seems to pretty clearly show that whenever the important early events in the history of the language family occurred, they almost certainly occurred somewhere in Alaska.
Osgood, C. (1933). Tanaina Culture American Anthropologist, 35 (4), 695-717 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1933.35.4.02a00070

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Junction of Alaska State Highways 1 and 2, Tok, Alaska

I’ve been reading about Alaska a lot mostly, trying to get a handle on this very complicated place where I now live.  Archaeologically, it’s fantastically complicated and not very well understood.  I’ve been meaning to do some blogging about Alaskan archaeology, but I feel like I still don’t have a very good grasp of it except at an extremely superficial level.  Unlike with the Southwest, however, that’s probably still more than virtually anyone else knows about it, so I’ll probably be doing some posts on it in the near future.  I still haven’t fully settled on whether to start a new blog or just use this one, but any near-term stuff I’ll probably just stick here.

One of the things I’m realizing is that there’s a major disconnect between the archaeological evidence known from Alaska and the role Alaska plays in a number of larger archaeological questions.  Alaska is the presumed starting point for (at least) three very important migrations that defined the cultural history of the entire Western Hemisphere, but so far the archaeological record within the state has shed virtually no light on two of them, and relatively little on the third.  Indeed, it has even been proposed that archaeological research in Alaska has been overly driven by these bigger questions, and that it would be better to try to understand it in its own terms first before trying to tackle them.

The first of these migration is, of course, the initial peopling of the Americas in the Late Pleistocene.  I’ve written before about my belief that this initial migration from Asia doesn’t matter when looking at much later developments such as those at Chaco Canyon, and I still believe that, but it is still an important issue in its own right.  Recent research in various places has increasingly indicated that the Clovis culture of around 13,000 years ago was not the direct result of the earliest migration into the Americas, but it is still the case that any migrations during the Pleistocene (and it’s increasingly looking like there were at least two) almost certainly would have had to go through Alaska.  Unfortunately, despite several decades of looking, no sites have yet been found in Alaska itself that can plausibly be taken to reflect the first immigrants into North America from Asia.  An increasing number of early sites have been identified in the past twenty years, but these are all still too late to represent a population ancestral to Clovis or any of the other early cultures found further south.  Part of the problem here is that preservation conditions for archaeological sites in most of Alaska are atrocious, and in many areas even finding early sites is extremely difficult.  The fact that the state is huge and sparsely populated also means that very little of it has even been surveyed for sites, although that is starting to change a bit with some recent efforts.  Still, we have a long way to go before archaeology within Alaska can shed much meaningful light on the issue of the peopling of the Americas.  I’ll definitely have some more in-depth discussion of this, probably fairly soon.

The second of the migrations I mentioned above is that of speakers of Athapaskan languages to the south, ultimately as far as the Southwestern US and the extreme north of Mexico.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s long been quite obvious that Navajo and the various Apache languages, as well as several languages of California and Oregon coasts, are closely related to a larger number of languages in Alaska and northwestern Canada.  The distribution of the languages, as well as some internal evidence in the southern branch, strongly suggests that the direction of the migration that led to this situation was north-to-south, and similar evidence similarly suggests that the start point was somewhere in what is now Alaska.  Despite the enormous distance over which Athapaskan languages are now spread, the greatest diversity of the languages grammatically is actually found within Alaska.  That is, some Alaskan languages are more closely related to Navajo than they are to other Athapaskan languages in Alaska.  While this is all clear linguistically, tracing the actual migration archaeologically has been enormously difficult at both ends.  Athapaskan archaeology in Alaska in particular is remarkably poorly understood compared to the archaeology of Eskimo groups, due in part to the fact that Athapaskans have mostly occupied the interior areas that are harder to investigate than the primarily Eskimo coastal areas.  I’ll definitely be writing more about this issue from both linguistic and archaeological perspectives, and given the obvious Southwestern connection a lot of that discussion will probably be on this blog even if I start another one.

The third migration, and by far the best understood, is that of so-called Thule peoples from northwestern Alaska eastward across the Arctic as far as Greenland.  The descendants of these migrants are the modern Inuit of Arctic Canada and Greenland, who have close linguistic and cultural connections to the Inupiat of northern Alaska.  While the exact time this migration took place is not totally clear, dates of around AD 1000 to 1200 are usually suggested, which makes it roughly contemporaneous with the major events at Chaco.  Unlike with the other two migrations, the starting point for this one has been fairly well established through extensive archaeological work along the Alaska coast that has defined a series of archaeological cultures leading up to the Thule culture.  Eskimo archaeology has been the main focus of most research in Alaska to date, and it shows in the level of knowledge about these cultures compared to the much more obscure Athapaskan and early cultures.  Still, however, many aspects of Alaskan Eskimo cultures are poorly understood.  (I am aware that the term “Eskimo” is generally avoided in Canada in favor of “Inuit.”  This is not the case in Alaska, where “Eskimo” is widely used and “Inuit” is not considered appropriate in most contexts.  The terms are not synonymous, and in the Alaskan context I think “Eskimo” is probably the best general term to use despite the very real problems with it.  I’ll definitely be discussing this issue further in the future.)

These are the big issues that make the archaeology of Alaska important to New World archaeology in general, and they have been the main impetus for much of the archaeological research done in Alaska to date.  The results have been stubbornly unhelpful in addressing most of them, however, while at the same time bringing to light the unexpectedly diverse and complex prehistory of Alaska itself.  It has long been much more than a corridor or starting point for people going elsewhere.  While the stories of the migrations from Alaska are definitely interesting and important, the ones that took place entirely within Alaska are interesting and important too.

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