Archive for the ‘Consequences’ Category

Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

Original Plaster and Whitewash at Chetro Ketl

Given the obvious continuity in material culture between ancient and modern Pueblos, one potential source of information on the connections between prehistory and history in the region is the traditions of the modern Pueblos themselves. The florescence of Chaco was about 1000 years ago, so the events since then that led to the modern distribution of Pueblos are more recent than that, and potentially within the time depth for which the accuracy of oral traditions has been demonstrated in other parts of the world. Furthermore, the Pueblos do indeed have extensive oral traditions documenting how the various groups now residing in a given Pueblo got there, where they lived before, and what made them move. This seems on the face of it like an ideal situations, and indeed anthropologists at various points in the past hundred years or so have tried to match up the events in the oral traditions with what the archaeology shows. The efforts of Jesse Walter Fewkes with the Hopis in the early twentieth century, Florence Hawley Ellis with the Rio Grande Pueblos in the 1950s and 1960s, and various archaeologists associated with the Center for Desert Archaeology (now known as Archaeology Southwest) in the past few years with the western Pueblos are particularly noteworthy along these lines.

However, there are some big challenges to this type of work. First, it’s not clear how accurate the oral traditions are, and many anthropologists have distrusted them. Elsie Clews Parsons in the 1920s and 1930s pushed back strongly against the approach taken by Fewkes and others, pointing out that the traditions include many obviously mythical or legendary elements that must be brushed aside to treat them as “history” in the Western sense. Similarly, the rise of the “New Archaeology” in the 1960s and 1970s led to a tendency to downplay this kind of research on the archaeological side in favor of more “scientific” types of research focused on ecological factors. Lately the pendulum seems to be swinging back again, and many archaeologists as well as sociocultural anthropologists have begun to take oral traditions seriously as a source of information that can bridge the gap between prehistoric archaeology and the ethnographic present. Personally, I think these researchers are on the right track; the difficulties pointed out by Parsons and others are real, and the traditions can’t be accepted uncritically as fact, but they do very likely contain much information that is useful for historical reconstructions when interpreted carefully in context.

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

Pueblo Display at Chaco Visitor Center

That more general issue aside, there are a lot of specific characteristics of the existing narratives that make them hard to work with, especially in the case of Chaco. For one thing, there aren’t that many of them that have been documented, and those that have overwhelmingly come from the western Pueblos of Hopi and, to a lesser extent, Zuni. The eastern Pueblos, which on geographical and other grounds are the ones most likely to have close ties to Chaco, have produced far fewer narratives, and those that are available are much less detailed and relevant. There are two main reasons for this, both stemming from the much more intense experience of Spanish colonization in these areas versus Hopi and Zuni:

  1. The Rio Grande Pueblos, especially, have been in such close contact with Spanish colonists that many traditions have been lost due to population loss and cultural change, and those that have been preserved have been influenced to some extent by European folklore elements. This is probably less of a concern with origin and migration stories than with more “informal” folktales.
  2. Due to the extreme repression of Native religion and culture by the Spanish missionaries, the eastern Pueblos are much more reluctant to share whatever traditions they have with white anthropologists than the western Pueblos are. This is probably the biggest reason for the lack of eastern Pueblo data, but its scale is impossible to estimate because we just don’t know how many traditions there are that have never been shared.

As a result of these two factors, we don’t have anything comparable to the extensive and detailed accounts of Hopi clan migrations that have been collected by numerous researchers, starting with Fewkes. There are a fair number of general creation stories from the eastern Pueblos, including those collected from the Tewa by Parsons and from Keresan Pueblos of Acoma and San Felipe by C. Daryll Forde and Ruth Bunzel respectively. These tend to be somewhat abbreviated, and sometimes also confusing in a way that suggests important parts have been omitted. Migration stories are much rarer, but a few have been recorded at least in a general fashion. George Pradt gave a brief overview of a western Keres migration tradition in introducing a story about Acoma:

THE oldest tradition of the people of Acoma and Laguna indicates that they lived on some island; that their homes were destroyed by tidal waves, earthquakes, and red-hot stones from the sky. They fled and landed on a low, swampy coast. From here they migrated to the northwest, and wherever they made a long stay they built a “White City” (Kush-kut-ret).

The fifth White City was built somewhere in southern Colorado or northern New Mexico. The people were obliged to leave it on account of cold, drought, and famine.

Now this is of obvious interest in discussing Chaco and Mesa Verde connections to modern Pueblos! The first part is of unclear relevance and likely has little or no historical content, but the part about moving around and building a series of communities, the last of which was in “southern Colorado or northern New Mexico” (i.e., north of Acoma and Laguna and in the general area of Chaco, Mesa Verde, and other important late prehistoric Pueblo sites), matches up pretty well with what is now known of the archaeological record. Furthermore, the “White City” or “White House” concept recurs in other Keres-speaking Pueblos as well. Here’s the San Felipe version recorded by Bunzel, starting just after the Emergence:

Then the people came out and walked towards the southwest. There they built a little town, Kackatrik (White House). This was their first village. Then from there came every nation. All the different kinds of Indians had their language and their songs and their ceremonies. There were many people there. Then the people were starving. There was no food to eat at this time. Then they had a meeting to talk about it. “Why are we starving?” all the head men said, “We have stayed here a long time. We should move on to some other place.” So then they started to move again. There were all different kinds of people, and they had all different kinds of languages. So then from there they scattered. Some went to the east and some went to the west, and some came through the middle.

Again, this is pretty consistent with the archaeology of Chaco, and to some extent of Mesa Verde as well. The “White House” story seems to be specific to the Keres, which implies a particularly strong connection between that groups and the ancient sites of the Four Corners, as many anthropologists have concluded. That’s not to say they were the only ones up there, however. There’s also evidence among some of the other groups’ traditions indicating an origin in this area.

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

White House/Black Market, Santa Fe, New Mexico

For the Tewa, Scott Ortman has done extensive research using several lines of evidence, including what little is known of Tewa migration traditions, to conclude that Tewa-speakers migrated to the Rio Grande Valley from the Mesa Verde region. He has a new book, which I have not yet read, making this argument in detail. He could well be right, in which case there may have been both Keres- and Tewa-speakers in the Mesa Verde region, and perhaps at Chaco as well given the close but complicated ties between the two areas. This would be similar to the modern situation in the central part of the Rio Grande Valley, which is also divided between Keres- and Tewa-speaking Pueblos.There are also clear ties between Chaco and the Zuni area, which has an unusual degree of settlement continuity extending to modern times compared to other Pueblo areas, which may imply that Zuni-speakers were involved in Chaco as well. Ties to the Hopis are more tenuous despite the larger corpus of Hopi traditions, which tends to trace most Hopi clans to the south or west rather than the east (with the exception of clans from other Pueblo regions that moved to Hopi and became assimilated to Hopi culture fairly recently).

So, tentatively, the limited information available from oral traditions suggests particularly strong ties to the Four Corners among the Keres, which makes sense since they are still the closest Pueblos to the area geographically. There is some evidence for connections to the area among the Tewa and Zuni as well. Little is known about Tiwa or Towa (Jemez) traditions, but it is noteworthy that Jemez is the only Pueblo that has not claimed cultural affiliation with Chaco under NAGPRA, which implies strongly that Jemez traditions point to a different history. The Hopi connection seems to be more distant, and primarily through groups that were not originally Hopi-speaking but immigrated to Hopi from other areas further east in recent centuries and became assimilated over time.

I think there’s a lot of potential for further research along these lines, mostly using the scattered and fragmented eastern Pueblo traditions collected decades ago. Individually each of these may not be very enlightening, but piecing them together may reveal some useful connections. It’s very unlikely that any of these groups will reveal any more of their traditions to outsiders; many are still angry at the early anthropologists who recorded and published traditions revealed surreptitiously by individual community members at considerable personal risk. Parsons comes in for particularly harsh criticism for publishing the names of her informants in some of her early work. It’s possible that in the future the relationship between anthropologists and the eastern Pueblos will improve to the point where the Pueblos are more comfortable revealing information, but we’ve got a long way to go.
Pradt, G. (1902). Shakok and Miochin: Origin of Summer and Winter The Journal of American Folklore, 15 (57) DOI: 10.2307/533476

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Kachina Fast Tax, Winslow, Arizona

Kachina Fast Tax, Winslow, Arizona

As I mentioned in the last post, I don’t think the linguistic relationships among the modern Pueblo languages shed much light on the details of the relationships between ancient and modern Pueblo groups. However, that’s not to say that linguistics is totally useless in addressing this issue. There’s another type of linguistic evidence which has received less attention from researchers but has a lot of potential here: contact linguistics, especially loanword studies.

Due to the close historical connections and cultural similarities among the Pueblos, they form what linguists call a “Sprachbund”: a linguistic area where borrowing of both words and other linguistic features is common among unrelated (or distantly related) languages. Oddly, however, there hasn’t been a whole lot of study of this phenomenon among the Pueblos. Individual loanwords from one Pueblo language to another have been pointed out in descriptive accounts of the specific languages, and instances of unusual lexical or grammatical influence from one Pueblo language to another have been noted. There has been some research on loanwords from Spanish and English into various Pueblo languages (e.g., Hopi), mostly in the 1950s and 1960s when the process of acculturation was a major topic of anthropological interest. Nevertheless, there has still never been a systematic, comprehensive study of linguistic contact between Pueblo languages. My discussion here will therefore have to be limited to pointing out individual instances of contact that have been noted in the literature and suggesting possible implications for prehistoric relationships.

Known examples of loanwords tend to relate to ceremonial  concepts, and often are from Keres into other languages. For example, and of interest for the question of the origins of the kachina cult, the word kachina itself is apparently a loan from Keres into Hopi. That’s not necessarily evidence that the Keres originated the kachina cult, but it could be interpreted as evidence that they transmitted it to the Hopi, which would argue for an eastern rather than western origin for the cult. On the other hand, the Zuni word for “kachina,” koko, is apparently a loanword from a Piman language, which would seem to argue for a western origin of the cult, possibly even outside the Pueblo world itself. Teasing apart the implications of the various terms associated with the kachina cult in different languages would be a promising way to try to address the issue of origins, but it would be a huge and difficult task, and as far as I know no one has attempted it yet.

Similarly, I’ve previously mentioned Jane Hill’s argument from alleged Uto-Aztecan loanwords in Proto-Kiowa Tanoan that agriculture was introduced to the Southwest by migrants from the south speaking a Uto-Aztecan language. In that case the evidence for borrowing is more tenuous and less widely accepted than in the kachina case, but it’s still an interesting approach that could be fruitful if applied more broadly to both this and other puzzles of Southwestern prehistory.

It’s not clear if either of these examples sheds much light on Chaco or its relationship to the modern Pueblos, however. The introduction of agriculture, however it happened, was thousands of years before the era of the Chaco Phenomenon (although recent evidence has shown that agriculture at Chaco itself began much earlier than previously thought). The kachina cult, on the other hand, is generally thought to have originated in the post-Chacoan era, perhaps as one of many societal responses to the chaotic conditions in the aftermath of the decline of Chaco. There are some archaeologists who see some form of the kachina cult as having existed at Chaco, in which case the linguistic evidence about kachinas would be more important for understanding it, but I haven’t been convinced by their arguments.

So what can loanword and other linguistic contact evidence tell us about the relationship between Chaco and other prehistoric sites and the modern Pueblos? Given the limited research along these lines so far, not much. As I said above, though, there is still a lot of potential for studies of this issue, so I wanted to highlight it as a separate line of evidence from the more commonly used evidence from linguistic relationships.
Dockstader, F. (1955). Spanish Loanwords in Hopi; A Preliminary Checklist International Journal of American Linguistics, 21 (2) DOI: 10.1086/464324

Hill, J. (2008). Northern Uto‐Aztecan and Kiowa‐Tanoan: Evidence of Contact between the Proto‐Languages? International Journal of American Linguistics, 74 (2), 155-188 DOI: 10.1086/587703

Shaul, D., & Hill, J. (1998). Tepimans, Yumans, and Other Hohokam American Antiquity, 63 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694626

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Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Given the diversity of languages spoken by the modern Pueblos, and the diverse archaeological “cultures” of Pueblo prehistory (as described in the previous post), one obvious line of inquiry in making connections between past and present focuses on language. Specifically, the fact that some Pueblo languages are part of larger families and others are not seems to open the possibility of some Pueblo groups being relative newcomers to the Pueblo lifestyle, which leaves others as more likely to be the direct descendants of the prehistoric groups who inhabited sites like Chaco and Mesa Verde.

There have been several attempts to reconstruct Pueblo culture history along these lines, but I’m not going to discuss them in detail because I think the whole approach is unlikely to work. A closer look at the specifics of the relationships involved shows why.

There are two Pueblo language groups whose languages are part of larger families: Hopi and Tanoan. The Hopi language belongs to the very large Uto-Aztecan family, stretching from the Great Basin south into Mexico and beyond. The Tanoan family is part of the Kiowa-Tanoan family, along with the single language Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The other two Pueblo languages, Keres and Zuni, are isolates not known to be related to any other language (including each other).

Starting with Hopi, at first glance this seems like a good candidate for a language spoken by a mobile hunter-gatherer group, like the modern Numic speakers of the Great Basin, who only settled down to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle relatively recently. However, it’s important to note that Hopi forms its own branch of the Uto-Aztecan family (or possibly of the Northern Uto-Aztecan subfamily, the existence of which is a matter of dispute). It is no more closely related to Numic than it is to, say, the Piman languages spoken by the O’odham agriculturalists of southern Arizona. Depending on how the overall Uto-Aztecan family is reconstructed, it may even be equally close to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s not possible to assign specific dates to divisions of language families, but on a qualitative level, Hopi is sufficiently divergent from the rest of its family that it is very unlikely that its speakers entered the Pueblo culture area in the past few centuries. Archaeologically, there is abundant evidence that modern Hopi society emerged from the amalgamation of many different groups from different parts of the Southwest who migrated to the Hopi mesas in the post-Chacoan period, and the same impression is given by Hopi oral history. Which of these groups spoke the language ancestral to modern Hopi is impossible to determine from archaeological evidence, of course, but it’s reasonable to think at least one of them did, and had been speaking it while practicing a basically Pueblo lifestyle for many centuries before that.

Turning to Tanoan, the archaeology is a lot murkier but the general point still stands. The relationship to Kiowa suggests the possibility that the Tanoan-speakers only entered the Southwest fairly recently, presumably from the Plains. In a small language like this is it is even harder to quantify divergence than it is in large language like Uto-Aztecan, but again, the Tanoan languages are quite different from Kiowa. They are so different, in fact, that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the relationship between the two was established to the general satisfaction of historical linguists. The oral history of these groups is also murky, but what is known of Tanoan traditions doesn’t seem to point to origins outside the Southwest, and Kiowa traditions also don’t seem to record any knowledge of a relationship to any of the Pueblos. Who moved where when is hard to determine in this case, but nothing about the linguistic evidence points to a particularly recent adoption of Pueblo culture by Tanoan speakers. The eastern Pueblos, including the Tanoans, do show a lot of evidence of Plains cultural traits, but this is most likely a result of close contact with the Plains during the late prehistoric and early historic period, for which there is plenty of evidence.

That leaves Keres and Zuni, about which nothing can be said about external relationships. It is likely that both groups have been culturally Pueblo for a very long time, but there is no way to tell based on the linguistic evidence whether they have been so for longer than their neighbors to the east (Tanoan) and west (Hopi).

So basically, I think linguistic relationship is a dead end in determining historical connections between ancient sites and modern Pueblos. That’s not to say that linguistics is entirely useless, however. There are other, more subtle aspects of the linguistic relationships among Pueblo groups that may well have historical value. That’s a topic for another post, however.

Hopi Buttes from Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

Hopi Buttes from Homol’ovi Ruins State Park

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Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

As a first step in evaluating the connections between prehistoric and modern Pueblo societies, it’s necessary to define exactly which societies we’re talking about here. This post is a brief overview of the prehistoric cultures and modern ethnolinguistic groups in question. As noted below, these are not necessarily equivalent units, and failing to recognize this has been a frequent problem with previous reconstructions of Southwestern culture history.

On the ancient side, we are primarily dealing here with  a handful of “branches” within the overall Anasazi “root.” (See my previous post on lesser-known prehistoric Southwestern societies for more on the “root and branch” system that has traditionally been used to organize Southwestern prehistory.) These branches inhabited various parts of the drainage of the San Juan River prior to AD 1300; how far back they go before that is unclear. These are the traditional branches:

  • Chaco Branch: The primary center of this branch is of course Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, but it extended over the entirety of the southern San Juan Basin and further south into the drainage of the Rio Puerco of the West. There are various distinctive characteristics of this branch prior to about AD 1200, when it seems to converge with the Mesa Verde branch before disappearing entirely.
  • Mesa Verde Branch: While Mesa Verde proper is historically the area of main research focus for this branch, recent research has shown that it was much more widespread, extending thoughout much of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The exact nature of its relationship with the Chaco branch is still unclear, but there has been increasing evidence for cultural similarity and historical connections between the two. There is a clear pattern of alternating population concentration implying migration between north and south on a scale of centuries prior to the depopulation of the entire area before AD 1300.
  • Kayenta Branch: Located in northeastern Arizona, this branch shows some clear cultural differences from Chaco and Mesa Verde, but certain sites do show evidence of influence from Mesa Verde especially during the Tsegi Phase from AD 1250 to 1300. The cliff dwellings of Navajo National Monument and Canyon de Chelly are probably the best known Kayenta sites.

On the modern side, there are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, plus several on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and a few communities of Pueblo ancestry in the vicinity of El Paso, Texas. They belong to six known linguistic groups, listed below.

  • Hopi: This language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the more widespread and well-documented families of North and Central America. As the name implies, the family includes both the Great Basin hunter-gatherers of the Numic subfamily (Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone) and the complex agricultural Aztecs of the Basin of Mexico, as well as many groups in between. As a result, this family is among the best examples in the world of a lack of correlation between language family and economic orientation. The Hopis fall in between the extremes of the Numa and the Aztecs, and their language forms its own branch of Uto-Aztecan sufficiently different from the others to make it very difficult to draw any culture-historical conclusions. The three Hopi mesas (unimaginatively named “First,” “Second,” and “Third” in English) have distinctive dialects that further complicate the situation.
  • Zuni: Today this is just a single pueblo, speaking a language generally considered an isolate unrelated to any other. Prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 there were several Zuni pueblos, however. In addition to language, there are several other aspects of Zuni culture that tend to distinguish it from the other pueblos, although there are also enough similarities to Hopi to distinguish the two as “western” pueblos in contrast to those further east.
  • Keres: This is another language isolate, but spoken by several historically autonomous pueblos that still retain separate identities and speak slightly different dialects of a single mutually intelligible language. The Keres pueblos form a “bridge” in some respects between the western and eastern pueblos. Acoma and Laguna tend to pattern more with Hopi and Zuni, while Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Cochiti, and Santo Domingo are located further east and tend to have more similarities to the Rio Grande Pueblos.
  • Tanoan: This (sub)family is located entirely in the Rio Grande Valley and is divided into three languages/subfamilies, which are in turn related to a fourth language, Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The Tanoan subfamilies are:
    • Tiwa: This subfamily is in turn divided into Northern and Southern divisions, which occupy the extreme north and south portions of the modern Pueblo domain. Northern Tiwa is spoken in Taos and Picuris, while Southern Tiwa is spoken at Sandia and Isleta in the vicinity of modern Albuquerque. Tiwa was also spoken historically at Ysleta del Sur near El Paso, Texas, which was founded by Southern Tiwas displaced during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. There is some evidence that the Piro pueblos south of the Southern Tiwa also spoke a language closely related to Tiwa, although this language is poorly documented and is now extinct.
    • Tewa: This subfamily occupies the portions of the northern Rio Grande valley near modern Santa Fe, in the pueblos of San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Pojoaque. A closely related dialect was also spoken further south in the Galisteo Basin until approximately 1700, when the remaining residents of that area moved to the Hopi area of Arizona and founded the pueblo on First Mesa known as Hano (or Tewa), which continues to speak a dialect of the Tewa language to this day.
    • Towa: Today this language is spoken only at Jemez Pueblo on the western edge of the Rio Grande region, but until the 1830s it was also spoken at Pecos on the eastern edge. When the pueblo of Pecos was abandoned its remaining inhabitants moved to Jemez, where their descendants still form a distinctive segment of the population.

So that’s the present situation. The picture is complicated, and it’s hard to figure out what the historical events that resulted in this arrangement would have been. The fact that Tiwa occupies both the northern and southern ends of the Rio Grande culture area, while Towa occupies the eastern and western peripheries and Keres occupies both a core part of the center of the region and an area further west that is more similar culturally to Hopi and Zuni, makes it difficult to fit the known facts into a simple scheme of migration or cultural diffusion. Clearly the story must be more complicated, and digging into those complexities will be the purpose of the following posts in this series.

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

It’s quite clear that, in a general sense, the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona are the cultural descendants of the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) groups of Chaco Canyon and other parts of the northern Southwest no longer occupied by people of Puebloan culture. Indeed, as the previous post explains, the descendants of the Chacoans are much easier to identify than those of pretty much any other prehistoric society in the Southwest. Nevertheless, the modern Pueblos are quite diverse in many ways. While they all have similar material culture, which is what most clearly shows their relationship to prehistoric sites like Chaco, the Pueblos speak six different languages belonging to four completely unrelated language families, and the linguistic divisions correspond generally (but not perfectly) to differences in other aspects of culture, such as kinship systems, sociopolitical structures, and religious practices.

With so much diversity, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that some modern Pueblo groups have closer connections to particular ancient sites than others. Demonstrating any specific connections has been frustratingly difficult for scholars so far, however. The immense upheavals of the Spanish colonial period led to significant changes in many Pueblos that make it difficult to trace their histories back into the prehistoric period, and archaeology has demonstrated considerable evidence for prehistoric upheavals that similarly obscure continuities of culture and population. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that the Pueblos have long had very similar material culture to each other, which makes it difficult to tell different ethnolinguistic groups apart archaeologically, and that the extensive migrations of the late prehistoric period seem to have involved rapid change in material culture as well, obscure whatever small differences had existed among different Pueblo groups.

On account of these difficulties, for a long time Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists were often reluctant to try to reconstruct culture history in enough detail to connect specific ancient sites with specific modern Pueblos. In recent years this reluctance has decreased, however, and there is now a fair amount of interest in these questions, spurred in part by the requirements under NAGPRA for demonstrating cultural affiliation of modern groups in ancient sites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the last period of considerable interest in this topic, which was similarly spurred by the effort in the 1950s to settle Indian land claims. In any case, archaeologists today have proposed various models of Southwestern prehistory to account for the distribution of modern Pueblo peoples.

With this context, and inspired in part by some interesting questions asked by commenter J. R. Barnett, I’ve decided to do a series of posts addressing this issue and the types of evidence available to address it. I’ll be focusing heavily on linguistic evidence, which is of particular interest to me personally as well as being of considerable importance in defining cultural differences among the Pueblos. I will, however, also discuss the evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology (including DNA studies), sociocultural anthropology, and oral traditions. In doing some reading on these topics recently, it’s been apparent that there really is quite a lot of relevant evidence out there. While we will surely never be able to recover every detail of the story, it’s worth taking a serious look at the available evidence to see what we can find out.

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

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Sign Describing Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Sign Describing Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

The Great Basin and northern Colorado Plateau were occupied at the time of European Contact (generally between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for this region) by a variety of relatively small groups of hunter-gatherers, all of whom spoke closely related languages belonging to the Uto-Aztecan language family. By the early twentieth century these groups had become of considerable interest to anthropologists due to the harshness of their physical environment and the apparent simplicity of their social structure.

The most influential ethnographic studies of these groups were those conducted by Julian Steward among the Western Shoshonis in the 1930s. Steward developed a model of Western Shoshoni society in the Great Basin that emphasized the constraints imposed by this harsh environment and the consequent need for small group size and frequent movement in search of subsistence resources. Steward focused heavily on the political structure of Western Shoshoni society, which he divided into two fairly different forms of social organization: “village” and “band.” “Village” groups he characterized as small groups of people who generally aggregated in small villages during the winter at favored locations and dispersed into even smaller family groups in the other seasons to gather scattered resources. Each village group roamed through a territory which was not sharply defined but typically consisted roughly of a single valley, but the groups were fluid and people and families frequently moved from one to another for a variety of reasons such as resource availability and kin or trading ties.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Office, Lone Pine, California

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Office, Lone Pine, California

“Band” groups, on the other hand, were larger and generally found in areas of greater concentration of resources than is typical in the arid Basin. The Owens Valley Paiutes were the preeminent example of this type of organization, as Owens Valley was teeming with resources and was divided into a number of band territories which were carefully guarded and defended by their resident bands. (This may seem incongruous to anyone who has been to Owens Valley recently and seen how dry and desolate it looks, but the story of how it got that way is of course a famous one.) Some of the Shoshoni groups in nearby valleys had similar social organization to the Owens Valley Paiute, but Steward considered band organization in most of the rest of the Basin to be a post-Contact phenomenon associated with the introduction of the horse and extensive cultural influence from the Plains buffalo-hunting cultures further east.

Steward considered all the cultures he documented in the Great Basin to be of relatively recent origin and the result of influences from many directions, some of them post-Contact (most obviously the case with horses). Archaeologists, however, were very impressed with the way the social models he outlined, especially the “village” one, evidenced a very close relationship between the resources of the land and the social structure of the people living in it. This seemed like a description of society at its most basic in a harsh environment, which might be a reasonable model for prehistoric societies who inhabited similarly harsh locations, including the Great Basin itself. As more discoveries came to be made extending knowledge of North American prehistory in what is now known as the Archaic period, especially in the deserts of the Southwest, archaeologists began to interpret them in light of Steward’s ethnographic data. In the 1950s this approach was codified by Jesse Jennings of the University of Utah into the concept of a “Desert Culture” that looked basically like Steward’s “village” societies and existed throughout the desert Southwest from the end of the Paleoindian period until the adoption of agriculture in some areas and until Contact in others (the latter being the societies Steward studied).

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

The idea of a relatively unchanging culture limited by ecological conditions and lasting for thousands of years was especially attractive to the “New Archaeologists” who emerged on the scene beginning in the 1960s and were very concerned with deriving general conclusions about social processes from the archaeological record using the scientific method (which led to them eventually being known as “Processualists”). Unlike in many areas where the cultural record was clearly very complicated and many different societies with different economies had followed each other over the millennia, here was a case where a single social model had endured for almost the entirety of the archaeological record, in some areas right down to the ethnographic present. Environmental and archaeological data could be gathered and compared to each other to test various hypotheses derived from explicit theories based on the baseline data established by Steward and Jennings. Most of the other variables that tended to confound such theory formation and hypothesis testing in other areas were held constant here by the harsh environment and the resultingly simple and stable societies that were adapted to it.

As a result, the Great Basin by the 1970s became the site of several major archaeological research projects sponsored by prominent institutions seeking to capitalize on this opportunity. They collected an enormous amount of useful data that shed important light on both general anthropological questions and the culture history of the Great Basin itself. The region was a triumph of processual archaeology and a showcase of its potential.

Datura Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

Datura Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

There was a nagging problem with all this, however. The archaeology and ethnography (which were generally treated as basically the same) of the region painted a picture of remarkable cultural stability, but the linguistic evidence pointed in a very different direction. Explaining how requires some backtracking and explanation of the linguistic situation at Contact.

As I said earlier, it was apparent to anthropologists by the late nineteenth century that the languages spoken by the Basin groups were closely related to each other and more distantly related to many other languages of western North America (including Mexico) within what came to be known as the Uto-Aztecan language family. The internal structure of this language family was much harder to establish than its existence, however, and there’s actually still no consensus among linguists about how it should be divided. In 1925 Alfred Kroeber of the University of California proposed a division whereby most of the languages north of the US-Mexican border constituted a “Shoshonean” family that was subdivided into four branches. The branch consisted of the groups occupying the Great Basin and adjacent portions of the Colorado Plateau was known as “Plateau Shoshonean,” a label that stuck for decades afterward, and was divided into three branches itself. Steward in the 1930s kept Kroeber’s basic division of both the overall Uto-Aztecan family and the Plateau Shoshonean subfamily, although he gave the sub-branches different names. These three branches, with their general areas of occupation, are:

  • Northern Paiute (Steward), Mono-Paviotso (Kroeber); from Owens Valley northward through western Nevada to southeastern Oregon
  • Shoshoni (Steward), Shoshoni-Comanche (Kroeber); from Death Valley northeastward through eastern Nevada and northern Utah to western Wyoming, with the Comanche as an offshoot that migrated in the eighteenth century to the southern Plains
  • Southern Paiute (Steward), Ute-Chemehuevi (Kroeber); from Panamint Valley and possibly southern Death Valley eastward through southern Nevada and southern Utah to western Colorado

The overall division of the linguistic groups and their general territories have not been controversial, and this three-part scheme continues to be the standard way to divide up these languages. Looking at a map of the territorial distributions, an interesting fan or wedge shape is very evident. Each of the three subdivisions extends from one or more isolated valleys in eastern California at the western edge of the Great Basin (the narrow end of the wedge) out across the Basin and, in some cases, beyond (the wide end of the wedge). Steward and Jennings didn’t have much to say about this distribution, but it would later become a crucial point of evidence in a very different interpretation of Basin prehistory that directly challenged the long-term and unchanging nature assumed in the Desert Culture framework.

Yucca Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

Yucca Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

In the 1950s a linguist named Sydney Lamb conducted extensive linguistic fieldwork among speakers of these languages and came up with much better data than Kroeber or Steward had been able to secure. He published an important paper in 1958 reporting on his resulting conclusions about the internal relationships of the languages and the implications for the prehistory of the region.

Lamb’s work confirmed Kroeber’s three-part division of Plateau Shoshonean, but undermined the notion of “Shoshonean” itself as a basic division of Uto-Aztecan. Instead he considered the “Shoshonean” subfamilies to be independent branches of Uto-Aztecan, and proposed new names for them to indicate this. “Plateau Shoshonean” thus became “Numic” after the word for “people” in the languages in question. In subsequent research the related term “Numa” has also become popular as a collective noun referring to speakers of these languages.

Entrance Sign, Death Valley National Park

Entrance Sign, Death Valley National Park

Within Numic, Lamb found that each of the three subfamilies consisted of two languages, closely related to each other but not quite mutually intelligible and quite distinct from the languages in the other subfamilies. In each case one of these languages was spoken in the eastern California valleys at the southwestern end of the subfamily’s distribution and the other was spoken over the vast area to the north and/or east that made up the remainder of the distribution, with little variation over these huge areas.

Based on this distributional evidence, combined with some tentative glottochronological dates that Lamb prefaced with appropriate skepticism about the validity of glottochronology, Lamb concluded that the Numic languages had originated in the valleys of eastern California and had spread from there across the Great Basin quite recently, perhaps around 1000 years ago. Importantly, the subfamilies were apparently already distinct at this point, and their speakers seem to have moved in similar ways and directions but independently, which implied that there was some common force drawing them further into the Basin (or, perhaps, out of California). Lamb tentatively suggested that access to bison might have been part of the motivation for the migration, but without going into detail. The most important point, however, is that Lamb concluded that the linguistic uniformity of the Great Basin Numic languages suggests strongly that Numic speakers, including Steward’s famous Western Shoshoni whose culture was the basis for Jennings’s Desert Culture, were recent immigrants into most of the Basin, and not the surviving remnant of a widespread Desert Culture that had existed there for thousands of years. He acknowledged that this conclusion was in sharp contrast to the archaeological consensus, but put it out for discussion nevertheless.

Sign at Border of Ute Mountain Indian Reservation

Sign at Border of Ute Mountain Indian Reservation

Initially, at least, archaeologists didn’t buy it. They were quite confident of the validity of their Desert Culture model, and the subsequent rise of processual approaches only intensified the split between linguistic and archaeological interpretations of Great Basin prehistory. Not all linguists agreed with Lamb either, and various papers by both linguists and archaeologists in the succeeding decades proposed alternative explanations for the distribution of the Numic languages. Overall, though, most linguists came to be convinced by Lamb’s evidence that his interpretation was the most plausible, and by the 1980s even archaeologists began to be convinced.

Note that when I say “archaeologists” here I’m referring specifically to archaeologists who specialized in the Great Basin, especially those who focused on the western part of the Basin where Steward had done his work. Those archaeologists who studied the eastern Basin and the Colorado Plateau, many of whom were more associated with Southwestern archaeology, had much less trouble accepting the idea that the Numic-speakers were recent arrivals in the Basin, as they obviously were in the Plateau. The ethnographic literature on the Utes and Southern Paiutes contains various references to the remains of the Fremont associating them with the Hopis rather than with Numic-speakers, and Steward himself recorded a tradition among the Northern Paiutes that the area around Lovelock Cave had been inhabited by non-Paiutes fairly recently. Remember that Steward considered the cultures he studied to be relatively recent, which is consistent with a recent Numic spread and inconsistent with Jennings’s Desert Culture theory.

Owens Lake, California

Owens Lake, California

The first major theory based on a recent Numic spread to be proposed by archaeologists was that of Robert Bettinger and Martin Baumhoff of UC Davis, who published an important paper in 1982 making their case. They argued that Lamb’s Numic spread could be explained through a processual model. Under this model the pre-Numic cultures of the Basin were said to be based heavily on the hunting of big game, especially bighorn sheep, while the Numic cultures were based on a more intense gathering of small seeds, a lower-ranked resource that was more effort to get and process but more reliable as a source of calories. Bettinger’s own fieldwork had been focused mostly on Owens Valley, which he concluded had been where the Numic speakers had developed this focus on seeds out of necessity given the density of resources and population (recall that Steward had also argued that this was an area of more elaborate cultures than most of the Basin, for the same reason). Bettinger and Baumhoff argued that population pressure stemming from the adoption of this strategy was the impetus for the Numic groups to begin to spread out into the rest of the Basin, where their more effective seed-based economic strategy allowed them to out-compete the pre-Numic groups, who were unable to adapt to a similar strategy fast enough to compete effectively because of societal inertia. Climatic changes that reduced the availability of game may have played a role as well. They supported this idea of a discontinuity by pointing to differences in rock art and artifacts between earlier and later periods in the Great Basin archaeological record, especially the increased presence of specialized seed-beating equipment in the later period, presumably Numic.

The Bettinger-Baumhoff hypothesis immediately aroused considerable controversy, and in the next few years many objections to it were raised, mostly by archaeologists but occasionally by linguists as well. Bettinger and Baumhoff responded to some of these objections in follow-up papers, and overall their arguments have sparked a serious and generally productive discourse on the prehistory of the Great Basin and how to reconcile the archaeological and linguistic evidence. Over time the general trend has been toward increasing evidence of a variety of types in favor of some sort of recent Numic spread, and more and more archaeologists have begun to accept the reality of it. DNA evidence demonstrating a major discontinuity between at least some pre-Numic human remains and modern Numic groups has added an important independent line of evidence for a Numic spread, and additional intensive research in Owens Valley has further clarified the archaeological picture there and given more context to cultural changes (such as the adoption of pottery) that may have played a role in the origins of the spread.

Kaibab Paiute Housing Development from Pipe Spring National Monument

Kaibab Paiute Housing Development from Pipe Spring National Monument

So that’s the history of research into Numic prehistory in a nutshell. My take on it is that Lamb was clearly totally right that there was a Numic spread and that it was relatively recent (though his specific glottochronological dates are of course unreliable), and that Bettinger and Baumhoff may have been correct about its nature but that there remain some weak points in their theory. I think the archaeological reluctance to accept the idea of a Numic spread is due to a number of factors that have been problematic in the history of Americanist archaeology throughout the twentieth century but are particularly extreme in this case.

For one thing, there has long been a tradition of archaeologists projecting ethnographic data on post-Contact Native American groups uncritically back into the past. This was particularly common in the early twentieth century before it was widely accepted that the Americas had been occupied more than a few thousand years, and in that context it was at least understandable that Native cultures would have little time-depth. With the extension of the archaeological record further back in time and the development of more accurate and precise dating techniques, it became less justifiable to use ethnographic analogy and the Direct Historical Method so straightforwardly, but it has continued to some extent throughout the US, and the perceived harshness of the Great Basin environment and the relatively extensive ethnographic record there has made this tendency particularly pronounced there.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

The “New Archaeologists” of the 1960s and 1970s defined their approach explicitly in contrast to previous generations’ overreliance on specific ethnographic data and naive projection of it back into prehistory. In many parts of the US this meant a major shift, but again the specific characteristics of the Great Basin made the New Archaeological method look a lot like old-fashioned culture history. The apparent lack of change in the Basin’s archaeological record over millennia had meant that the culture history was interpreted as a story of stasis ending up with the ethnographic Numa, and this story of ahistoricality was easily translated into a story of consistent adaptations to a harsh and severely limiting environment. In both cases there was not actually any evidence strongly in favor of continuity of population (as opposed to adaptation), but that was a reasonable null hypothesis and, as often happens, over time it expanded from that to an unstated assumption. Bettinger and Baumhoff’s theory was presented very explicitly in the terms of processual archaeology but was nevertheless very controversial because of this assumption.

The generally ahistorical approach of the processualists is now less dominant in American archaeology than it was in 1982, and this is probably a factor in the increasing acceptance of a Numic spread among archaeologists. I find it a fascinating story both because it sheds light on the dynamic nature of prehistory and relationships between linguistic and cultural groups and because it illustrates important trends in the intellectual history of American archaeology in particularly vivid fashion. It’s also a story that seems to be more or less completely unknown among the general public, which is unfortunate, and I’d like to make more people aware of it. This post is a start.
Bettinger, R., & Baumhoff, M. (1982). The Numic Spread: Great Basin Cultures in Competition American Antiquity, 47 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280231

Jennings, J., & Norbeck, E. (1955). Great Basin Prehistory: A Review American Antiquity, 21 (1) DOI: 10.2307/276104

Kaestle, F., & Smith, D. (2001). Ancient mitochondrial DNA evidence for prehistoric population movement: The Numic expansion American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 115 (1), 1-12 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1051

Lamb, S. (1958). Linguistic Prehistory in the Great Basin International Journal of American Linguistics, 24 (2) DOI: 10.1086/464442

Steward, J. (1937). Linguistic Distributions and Political Groups of the Great Basin Shoshoneans American Anthropologist, 39 (4), 625-634 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1937.39.4.02a00070

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Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

As I mentioned in the previous post, the most mysterious thing about the Fremont is what happened to them. Unlike the Anasazi, who obviously became the modern Pueblos, the Fremont have no obvious connections to any modern groups. Fremont sites appear to disappear around AD 1300 in most areas, although there is some regional variation and in part defining an end date depends on how you define “Fremont.” Since the practice of agriculture is closely associated with the Fremont complex, the latest dates of sites with clear evidence for agriculture is one convenient way to date the end of the Fremont. In their important 1998 review essay, David Madsen and Steven Simms give the following dates for the end of agriculture in different Fremont regions:

  • Uinta Basin: AD 1000
  • Parowan Valley and Great Salt Lake wetlands: AD 1100 to 1150
  • “Much of the Fremont region”: AD 1250 to 1300
  • Northwestern Colorado: After AD 1450

(Note that Madsen and Simms annoyingly cite their dates as “Before Present” without specifying what date they are using for the “Present” or whether these are calendar or radiocarbon years; in calculating the above dates I have assumed a “Present” of AD 1950 as conventionally used in radiocarbon determinations.)

The Madsen and Simms date for much of the region is very close to the “Great Drought” of AD 1276 to 1299 known from Anasazi sites to the south (assuming of course that their dates are in calendar years). Given the low precision of the radiocarbon-based Fremont chronology compared to the tree-ring based Anasazi one, however, it is risky to make too much of coincidences like this, and the wide variation across different Fremont sub-regions suggests that something more complicated is going on here than a simple reaction to a single prolonged drought. The Great Drought may well have affected Fremont farmers, of course, but the Fremont data are not clear enough to establish a definitive association. In general a rough date of AD 1300 for the end of Fremont in most areas is widely used and probably close enough for most purposes. It does seem that some form of the Fremont lifestyle persisted significantly longer in northwestern Colorado, which could have served as a refuge for Fremont farmers displaced from other areas.

In keeping with their general interpretation of Fremont as involving a wide variety of adaptive strategies and frequent movements of people between farming and foraging, Madsen and Simms interpret the end of the phenomenon as consisting largely of farmers switching to foraging, along with possible immigration of foragers from outside the region. Basically they see this period as a time when the precarious balance between farming and foraging characteristic of the Fremont period tipped decisively in favor of foraging, perhaps in response to climatic changes that made foraging a more effective subsistence strategy.

Whatever the mechanism for the collapse of Fremont as an archaeological complex, the question of what became of the people remains. There are three main logical options:

  1. They died out entirely and left no descendants.
  2. They changed their culture and stayed in the same region.
  3. They left the region.

The first option is apparently attractive to a lot of people, judging by the popularity of descriptions of ancient peoples as “vanished” and so forth, but it’s actually quite rare for a group to literally die out entirely. It’s certainly possible that this is what happened to the Fremont, especially given the lack of continuity with later groups, but the number of people and large area involved make it implausible. That leaves us with either continuity between the Fremont and the ethnographic inhabitants of their region or a migration of the Fremont to somewhere else.

The idea that the Fremont might have developed into the hunter-gatherers known ethnographically in the eastern Great Basin and northern Colorado Plateau has a respectable history in the literature; as I noted in the previous post, James Gunnerson proposed just this back in the 1960s. The distinction in material culture between the Fremont and the Numic-speaking groups that followed them (Shoshone and Ute) is quite marked, however, as Albert Schroeder pointed out at the time. Furthermore, Madsen noted in 1975 that the distinctive Numic pottery is associated with the very different Fremont pottery at several well-dated sites in the region, suggesting that the two groups were distinct but contemporaneous. It is certainly possible that some of the Fremont assimilated into Numic society in some areas, or that the two merged in various combinations, and Madsen and Simms suggest that some such merging may have occurred in the Great Salt Lake area, though it’s not clear from their discussion whether they see the immigrant groups that merged with the Fremont as specifically Numic, as they propose a hiatus between this merged society and the ethnographically known culture of the region, perhaps due to the spread of European disease in the contact era. The whole issue of the Numic groups and how they got to where they are today is important in understanding the prehistory of these areas, but it is a big, complicated issue and I’ll address it more fully in a subsequent post. The material culture differences are significant enough that it seems unlikely that assimilation in place is the answer to the question of what happened to the Fremont in general.

As an alternative to seeing the Fremont as turning into the modern Numic groups that occupy the same areas, they may have migrated elsewhere. But where? Another theory noted in my previous post is that proposed by Melvin Aikens in the 1960s that the Fremont originally came from the Plains and ultimately migrated back there to become one or more of the ethnographically known Plains groups, probably Athabascan-speaking (i.e., Apache and/or Navajo). He based this theory on some suggestive parallels in material culture between the Fremont and Plains groups, especially the later Dismal River culture, generally thought to be associated with the Athabascan Na’isha. There certainly do seem to be some Plains-like traits in Fremont culture, including an emphasis on bison hunting, use of the shield-bearing warrior rock art motif, wearing of moccasins rather than sandals, etc. It’s not clear, however, whether these result from actual migrations of people from the Plains to the Fremont area or vice versa (and the two migrations Aikens posits would not be necessary in any case to explain the similarities). Aikens also used some physical anthropological evidence from skull morphology to support his theory, but the usefulness of the type of data he used was disputed even at the time, and it is not taken seriously at all now. Furthermore, more recent physical anthropological research using DNA analysis suggests strongly that there is no genetic connection between the Fremont and modern Athabascans or other Plains groups. In a sample of remains from the Great Salt Lake area the most common mitochondrial haplotype among Athabascans was not present at all, which is quite striking since it is quite common among Native American groups in general. It is of course possible, even likely, that this sample was not representative of Fremont groups in general, but of all the Fremont sub-areas the Great Salt Lake is the closest to the Plains both geographically and culturally, so if there’s no evidence of a genetic connection to the Plains from there it’s very unlikely that one will be found anywhere else. The same study found no clear evidence for a connection to the modern Numic groups either. This DNA stuff is another interesting, complicated issue that deserves its own post, but for now the upshot of this is that the Plains traits seen among the Fremont probably result from contact and cultural diffusion rather than migration in either direction, and the fate of the Fremont remains mysterious.

So if they didn’t go east onto the Plains, where did the Fremont go? The next obvious option is that they went south and joined the Pueblo groups with which they had many cultural similarities. This is another idea that has been proposed by some archaeologists, and it also appears to have support from oral traditions. David Pendergast and Clement Meighan published a paper in 1959 reporting that during their excavations of a site in southwestern Utah that would today be considered Parowan Fremont (though Pendergast and Meighan called them “Puebloid”) local Paiutes (a Numic group) told them some things about the people who had inhabited the site that they considered surprisingly accurate given the archaeological evidence. The Paiutes referred to the Fremont by the term Mukwitch, which is also the Paiute term for the Hopis, and reported that they had moved south and joined the Hopis when they left Utah. While their comments on the lifestyle of the Mukwitch and the reasons they had left were rather inconsistent, the consistency of the accounts of where they went is striking. The Paiutes also said that the Mukwitch were quite different from the Paiutes but had lived peacefully alongside them, which is noteworthy in light of the Numic pottery found in association with Fremont pottery mentioned above.

This paper has not been taken very seriously by archaeologists, and in fact I have not seen it cited at all in other Fremont literature. The only mentions of it I have seen, in fact, have been in cautions about the problems with taking oral traditions seriously, presumably because of the inconsistencies in the accounts. The accounts certainly are inconsistent on certain points, but consistent on others, and I think this paper deserves more attention from archaeologists wondering what happened to the Fremont. It’s certainly plausible that they moved south to join the Anasazi, and the Hopi are the most likely of the modern Pueblos for them to have ended up at for straightforward geographical reasons. A look at some of the recorded Hopi clan traditions with this in mind would likely be interesting. It’s unlikely that all of the Fremont moved south to join the Hopis, but it’s plausible that at least some did. Others may have stayed in place and been assimilated into the Numic groups spreading across the region, and still others might have died out entirely due to drought, warfare, or other factors.

So in some sense we’re back where we started, with no clear answer. But in other senses we do have some answers, at least in ruling out some options: The Fremont don’t seem to have either come from or gone to the Plains, and the Apaches are probably not their descendants. Wherever they did go (or stay), they changed their material culture rapidly and completely to assimilate into other groups, whether Numic or Hopi. This sort of rapid and complete assimilation is actually not as implausible as it seems; there are other examples of it in the prehistoric Southwest, and it must have happened quite a lot if the archaeological record is to be reconciled with the ethnographic one. All this suggests above all that the late prehistoric period, from AD 1300 on, was a time of immense change in the Greater Southwest, which makes it very difficult to figure out what was going on before that. Difficult, but not necessarily impossible. There are some ways to see through the haze.
Aikens, C. (1967). Plains Relationships of the Fremont Culture: A Hypothesis American Antiquity, 32 (2) DOI: 10.2307/277904

Armelagos, G. (1968). Aikens’ Fremont Hypothesis and Use of Skeletal Material in Archaeological Interpretation American Antiquity, 33 (3) DOI: 10.2307/278710

Gunnerson, J. (1962). Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory: A Suggested Reconstruction American Antiquity, 28 (1) DOI: 10.2307/278076

Madsen, D. (1975). Dating Paiute-Shoshoni Expansion in the Great Basin American Antiquity, 40 (1) DOI: 10.2307/279271

Madsen, D., & Simms, S. (1998). The Fremont Complex: A Behavioral Perspective Journal of World Prehistory, 12 (3), 255-336 DOI: 10.1023/A:1022322619699

Parr RL, Carlyle SW, & O’Rourke DH (1996). Ancient DNA analysis of Fremont Amerindians of the Great Salt Lake Wetlands. American journal of physical anthropology, 99 (4), 507-18 PMID: 8779335

Pendergast, D., & Meighan, C. (1959). Folk Traditions as Historical Fact: A Paiute Example The Journal of American Folklore, 72 (284) DOI: 10.2307/538475

Schroeder, A. (1963). Comment on Gunnerson’s “Plateau Shoshonean Prehistory” American Antiquity, 28 (4) DOI: 10.2307/278572

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Monks Mound, Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville, Illinois

One of the major advantages Southwestern archaeologists have over those studying other areas of prehistoric North America is a very solid chronology, based primarily on tree-rings and extended by diagnostic pottery types that in many cases changed rapidly. As a result of this chronology, in many parts of the Southwest unexcavated sites can be dated to within a century or less based purely on the potsherds found on the surface. This is not the case in most other parts of North America, where dating is based primarily on radiocarbon dates, which are inherently less precise than tree-ring dates, and where the pottery types are often less solidly defined and/or less securely tied to the sequence of absolute dates. In recent decades, however, the development of more precise radiocarbon dates through the accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) technique and the further refinement of artifact typologies have allowed archaeologists in many areas to get a better sense of cultural dynamics over time.

One of the areas where this has been particularly the case is the southeastern US, where the late prehistoric period is marked by the rise and fall of a wide variety of societies noted for their large platform mounds, extensive use of maize agriculture, and distinctive iconography indicative of a widespread set of ideological beliefs and social structures. These societies are known as “Mississippian,” and while much remains to be known about them, we know much more about them now than we did fifty years ago. They are generally considered to have had a “chiefdom” form of society, less complex than a state but more so than a band or tribe, although an increasing number of Southeastern archaeologists have been questioning the whole concept of chiefdom and of this typological approach to societal complexity in general. Be that as it may, it’s quite clear that the leaders of most Mississippian communities had quite a lot of control over their fellows, as shown by the amount of labor they could control to build the platform mounds (which in Mississippian communities generally served as bases for elite residences and temples, a striking difference from the more communal ritual purposes that mounds had served in many earlier societies) and their elaborate burial ceremonies and grave goods.

Closeup of Monks Mound, Cahokia Mounds, Collinsville, Illinois

The greatest Mississippian center, by far, was Cahokia, in the American Bottom region of west-central Illinois across the Mississippi River from what is now St. Louis. I’ve written a bit about some recent work on the origins of Cahokia, but while it’s a really spectacular site (well worth a visit) it’s important to note that there were many other Mississippian centers, none of them quite on the same scale as Cahokia but many of them pretty important and impressive themselves. Among the most important of these in the area surrounding the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, south of Cahokia, were:

  • Kincaid, in far southern Illinois, across the Ohio River from the modern city of Paducah, Kentucky
  • Angel, further up the Ohio in what is now Evansville, Indiana
  • Wickliffe, a smaller center in what is now Wickliffe, Kentucky, right at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio
  • Shiloh, further south, on the Tennessee River at the site where the Civil War battle of Shiloh would later be fought

After the introduction of radiocarbon dating in the late 1940s, the chronology of occupation at these sites gradually became clearer. It now appears that Cahokia, despite being the biggest and most impressive Mississippian center, was relatively early in the sequence, with its major building period beginning in the eleventh century AD and continuing into the twelfth, but declining after then and becomingly largely empty by about 1350. Kincaid and Angel, which emerged later than Cahokia, lasted a bit longer, but both seem to have been abandoned by about 1450. The other, smaller centers in the region seem to have similar trajectories, with occupation appearing to end at various points but never later than 1450 or so.

Sign at Kincaid Mounds, Massac County, Illinois

It’s notoriously difficult to date the end of anything by archaeological means, but the widespread lack of post-1450 dates throughout the confluence area is certainly suggestive, especially since it is not universal among Mississippian societies. Indeed, many Mississippian centers further south and east continued to be occupied after 1450, and some were still there when the De Soto Expedition showed up in the sixteenth century (and wreaked sufficient havoc to destroy most of them, but that’s another story).

This apparently total but geographically limited abandonment of some of the largest river valleys on the continent led one archaeologist, Stephen Williams of Harvard, to propose in the early 1980s that this region constituted a “Vacant Quarter” starting sometime between 1450 and 1550 and continuing into the historic period. Williams defined the Vacant Quarter as starting with the American Bottom, extending south along the Mississippi to its confluence with the Ohio (but, importantly, no further south), then up the Ohio as far as Angel and up the Tennessee as far as the Mississippi and Alabama borders. Part of his argument for the vacancy of this area was the total lack at major sites within it of certain artifacts he had found at sites in northeastern Arkansas that he considered temporal markers for the very late prehistoric period. While these or similar objects were also found in other areas further away that are known to have been occupied at this time, including Alabama and Wisconsin, they are conspicuously absent from Kincaid, Angel, Cahokia, and other major sites along the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee. In his early formulations of the concept, however, Williams did acknowledge that his information came entirely from large sites in the major river valleys, and that more study might show that smaller sites in the surrounding uplands may have been occupied later.

Charles Cobb and Brian Butler went on to test this idea in their fieldwork in the uplands of southern Illinois, and they published their results in 2002. What they found was that Williams’s Vacant Quarter hypothesis held for these upland areas as well. The sites they excavated were smaller than the large riverine centers, but the many radiocarbon dates they had acquired showed the same pattern: little to no occupation later than 1450, and abandonment possibly even earlier.

Mural of Kincaid Mounds, Paducah, Kentucky

The fact that abandonment appears from this data to have been essentially complete within the Vacant Quarter, regardless of environmental setting, suggests that while climatic changes associated with the Little Ice Age (one explanation that has been offered for the abandonment of the area) may have had something to do with the abandonment, whatever changes occurred must have been sufficiently severe to affect basically everyone in the area, but not people in surrounding areas with generally similar conditions. To me this suggests that environmental changes were not the main cause of the abandonment, but it is quite possible that they played a role in catalyzing changes that also had to do with social and political dynamics. Persistent drought, which can be quite localized, is a possibility, although it would have to take one hell of a drought to force farmers to abandon what was (and is) one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world. More likely, perhaps, as an environmental cause is severe flooding, which as we’ve seen in recent years can be a major problem in this region. When I was traveling through it this summer the effects of recent flooding were very apparent. Still, it’s not clear why this would have affected the Vacant Quarter but not the surrounding areas.

Finally, as ever with abandonment scenarios, there is the question of where the people went. In the case of Angel, this seems to be apparent. Around the same time the Angel center was abandoned, a new occupation seems to arise a short distance downstream, around the confluence of the Ohio and the Wabash near what is now the Illinois-Indiana border. This is known as the Cabon-Wellborn phase, which is generally Mississippian in culture but lacks platforms mounds and extends well into the protohistoric period, as late as 1650 or even later. Cobb and Butler seem to think this represents the descendants of the people who lived at Angel, and I see no reason to doubt this. The other parts of the Vacant Quarter seem to lack comparable descendant communities, which suggests that they went somewhere else, perhaps joining the surviving Mississippian centers to the south or the quasi-Mississippian Oneota groups to the north.

Mound A, Angel Mounds, Evansville, Indiana

Cobb and Butler note that while the Vacant Quarter is a particularly dramatic example of regional abandonment, such events are not unusual in the archaeological record of the Eastern Woodlands. They suggest that this was a fairly common occurrence, and that it should receive more study than it has. They specifically refer to the Southwest as a region where similar abandonments are widely accepted and intensively studied, and imply that Southeasternists could follow this lead in trying to explain these events. Their own guess about the Vacant Quarter specifically is that “climatic deterioration or other causes may have exacerbated a competitive and often hostile political environment that rendered the region less hospitable,” which sounds good to me.

The major mound sites of the US Midwest and South have been objects of considerable interest for well over a century, but it is only in recent decades that modern archaeological techniques have begun to unravel the undoubtedly complicated stories behind them. There’s still a very long way to go before we have a clear picture of what these societies were like and what happened to them, but we’re getting closer all the time.
Cobb, C., & Butler, B. (2002). The Vacant Quarter Revisited: Late Mississippian Abandonment of the Lower Ohio Valley American Antiquity, 67 (4) DOI: 10.2307/1593795

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Welcome Sign Facing the Ohio River, Paducah, Kentucky

In 1827 William Clark, who had attained national fame as co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition more than 20 years earlier and had gone on to a successful career as an Indian Agent and governor of the Missouri Territory, obtained title to 37,000 acres in western Kentucky along the Ohio River that had been part of a grant to his late brother, George Rogers Clark, for service in the Revolutionary War. William Clark immediately went about evicting the handful of settlers on the site, which was then called Pekin, and surveying it as a new town which he named Paducah.

Paducah would go on to become one of the most important towns in the region, and over the years a local tradition grew up attributing the town’s name to a “Chief Paduke” of a local tribe. A letter Clark wrote to his son, however, appears to clearly show that this is not correct, and that Clark instead chose the name to honor a tribe he knew as the “Padoucas” (consistent spelling was not one of Clark’s strong points) that had once been large but had been much reduced since European contact. This condition applies to virtually all tribes in the Americas, of course, but the name is definitely not of any tribe in western Kentucky, which was occupied by the Chickasaw until 1819, when Andrew Jackson negotiated the cession of this area, known as the “Jackson Purchase,” opening it up for settlement and speculation by people like Clark.

Plaque Describing the Naming of Paducah, Kentucky

Who then were these Padoucas, and how did Clark know of them? Presumably he learned of them either during the Lewis and Clark expedition or later, when he was serving as a frontier official in Missouri, so the place to look is well to the west of Kentucky. And, indeed, a tribe known as the Padoucas (under various spellings) appears in records from French Louisiana starting with the early explorers of the late seventeenth century and continuing down to Clark’s day. These reports refer to the Padouca as living somewhere to the west of the Mississippi and Missouri valleys, which is to say, on the Great Plains.

The French were not very familiar with the Plains, and most of their information on them came from tribes in the Mississippi and Missouri valleys with whom they were in close contact as trading partners and military allies. They did mount a few expeditions further west in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that provided a bit more information, but these were too few and far between, and their permanent outposts too far away, for them to keep close tabs on developments on the Southern Plains during this period. This fact turns out to be quite important for understanding the identity of the people the French called “Padouca.”

Plaque Describing William Clark's Foundation of Paducah, Kentucky

The Spanish in New Mexico and Texas, on the other hand, were much closer to the Plains, and between their occasional forays onto them and their close diplomatic contacts with various Plains tribes they had much better information than the French about who was out there and what they were doing. As a result, we can track developments on the Southern Plains in the eighteenth century quite clearly through Spanish documents, and as it turns out there was a lot going on out there.

At the time the Spanish entered the Southwest in the sixteenth century, the Plains were occupied by various groups of hunter-gatherers whom the early Spanish explorers called “Querechos.” After the establishment of a permanent colony in New Mexico in 1598, the Spanish began consistently referring to these groups as “Apaches” (the term itself is of obscure origin, perhaps coming from one of the Pueblo languages), with specific politically autonomous subgroups indicated by modifiers such as “Lipan,” “Jicarilla,” and “Faraón.” There were Apaches to the west of New Mexico as well, including the Navajos. Relations among the Spanish, the Pueblos, and these Apaches varied, with the Apaches at times raiding both the Pueblos and the Spanish villages, and at other times allying with one or both of the more settled groups for various purposes. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, some Apache groups joined with the Pueblos to kick out the Spanish, but after the Spanish Reconquest in 1692 Apache raids on both the Pueblos and the Spanish continued intermittently. By the early eighteenth century, however, the Spanish had allied with some of the more distant Apaches on the Plains for mutual protection against the French and their allied Indians in the Missouri Valley.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, this picture had been totally changed by the movement of a new people onto the Southern Plains. These were the Comanches, who had broken off from the closely related Shoshones in the Rocky Mountains and headed out onto the Plains, where they acquired horses and became the most aggressive and successful military power that region had yet seen. They swiftly pushed the Apaches out of the way and became the main power on the Southern Plains, raiding New Mexico with a ferocity unprecedented in earlier times. The threat of Comanche raids kept New Mexico Hispanics from expanding significantly east of the Rio Grande Valley for over a century, and it likely also led the Pueblos to more completely accept Spanish rule in exchange for the level of protection provided by Spanish arms. At first the Spanish attempted to defend their Apache allies on the Plains by fighting the Comanches, but this approach met with limited success and only encouraged increased Comanche attacks on Hispanic and Pueblo settlements, so in the late eighteenth century Governor Juan Bautista de Anza decided to switch sides, sign a peace treaty with the Comanches, and agree to assist them in their wars on the Apaches. This general pattern, of the Spanish allied with the Comanches against the Apaches, endured until the Americans conquered New Mexico in the 1840s.

Sign Describing William Clark's Purchase of the Future Site of Paducah, Kentucky

So where do the Padouca enter into this picture? In the Spanish documents, not at all. The term “Padouca” was not used by the Spanish for any of the Plains tribes they encountered. Instead, they spoke exclusively of Apaches and Comanches. Given that the French documents referring to the Padouca place them in the same places as these tribes at the same time, that leaves three possibilities for who the French could have meant by the Padouca:

  1. The Apaches
  2. The Comanches
  3. Both, either by not distinguishing them at all or by referring to one group at some times and the other at other times

With the rise of American ethnography in the late nineteenth century, American anthropologists began to look back at these documents and try to connect them to the ethnographic data on contemporary tribes. They found that many of the tribes from the Plains and surrounding areas used terms similar to “Padouca” to refer to the Comanches, and many simply assumed from this that the French had always used the term to refer to the Comanches as well. This became something of the received wisdom by the early twentieth century, but in 1920 the anthropologist George Bird Grinnell published an article taking another look at the issue taking into account the Spanish and early French sources. From these Grinnell concluded that the term had instead referred to the Apaches, whom the Spanish sources clearly showed were the only tribe that the earliest French sources from the seventeenth century could plausibly have been referring to, since the Comanches didn’t enter the area in strength until well into the eighteenth century. Furthermore, there is one incident narrated by both Spanish and French sources that seems to clinch the case.

In 1720 a Spanish expedition led by Pedro de Villasur was sent out onto the Plains to combat French influence. The expedition included some Jicarilla Apaches as guides. Upon reaching what is now Nebraska, the expedition was attacked and soundly defeated by a group of Pawnees, possibly accompanied by French traders. The important thing about this incident for the Padouca question is that Villasur’s guides are consistently referred to as Apaches in Spanish accounts but as Padoucas in French accounts. Grinnell concludes, quite reasonably, that this shows that at least in the 1720s the “Padoucas” in French sources were Apache.

Mural Showing William Clark Surveying the New Town of Paducah, Kentucky

However, Grinnell’s article doesn’t address the evidence from more recent ethnography, and in a subsequent comment Truman Michelson points out that among the Fox (Mesquakie) tribe the term for “Comanche” is something closely approximating “Padouca.”  He declines to discuss Grinnell’s article further, but his tone clearly shows that he considers this information more dispositive than Grinnell’s historical sources. And, indeed, any full solution to the problem must account for the fact that the recent ethnographic data clearly shows that the term was used in the nineteenth century by many tribes for the Comanches.

A solution tying all this evidence together didn’t appear until thirty years later, when Frank Secoy published an article bringing in more evidence, especially from French maps, and considering both the documentary and ethnographic evidence. He concludes from this that both sides were both right and wrong in part. Specifically, Grinnell was right that in the earliest French sources “Padouca” must mean Apache, but Michelson and others were right that later on it meant Comanche for both the French and the tribes in the Mississippi and Missouri Valleys. The switch came in the middle of the eighteenth century when the Comanches took over those parts of the Plains that had formerly been Apache. Since the French only ventured out into that area occasionally, they were not very aware of this process as it was occurring, and later expeditions encountering the Comanches where their maps (put together by cartographers in France grappling with disparate information from French and Spanish sources) showed the “Padoucas” to be naturally assumed that the two groups were the same, not realizing that the expeditions from decades earlier had actually used the term to refer to a different people who had been there at the time but were now elsewhere.

Furthermore, Secoy notes that the etymology of the term itself gives a clue to how its meaning might have changed for the Indians who used it. It seems to come from a verb root common throughout the Siouan language family with the meaning “to pierce.” The rough meaning of “Padouca” in whichever Siouan language the French got it from would then be “piercer,” which Secoy, drawing on his own previous research on warfare on the Plains, links to the use by Plains groups in the early historic period of large piercing lances, which they had adopted during what he calls the “post-horse–pre-gun” period of Plains warfare. That is, since the Plains tribes acquired horses before they acquired guns, there was a period when the key advantage of having a horse was in allowing a warrior to get very close to his enemy very quickly, and a thrusting lance was a very useful weapon in this context that would have made a major impression (so to speak) on the horse-less groups that encountered these groups. Since the first groups like this that the Siouan tribes of the Missouri Valley encountered would have been Apaches, the name “Padouca” or “Piercers” would make sense for them to use and to pass on to the French. Since the Comanches entered the Plains during this same technological period and used the same sorts of lances, however, the name would have made equal sense for them and could have easily been transferred once they showed up in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the new horse-based Plains culture would have made both groups seem pretty alien to the Siouans, and they may even have used “Padouca” to refer to Plains groups in general rather than to specific cultural or political entities. Apaches and Comanches speak unrelated languages, but both are also unrelated to Siouan and represented the furthest east representatives of both their languages families as well, so it’s possible that the Siouans couldn’t easily tell them apart. Secoy notes that the French use of “Padouca,” based on outdated information, for the Comanches could also have influenced Siouan usage.

Downtown Paducah, Kentucky

But what about Clark? Where did he get the term, and what did he mean by it? Secoy discusses the appearances of the term “Padouca” in the records of the various American explorers, including Lewis and Clark, and finds that they are sort of all over the map.  He says:

As they traversed the country completely they came into contact with both the colonial French and the Spanish sources of information, which were, of course, still divergent. There were several possible conclusions which could be drawn from such a situation and the American explorers, collectively, arrived at all of them, the differences being caused by the varying specific conditions under which a given explorer obtained his information.

However, when it comes to Lewis and Clark specifically, there is some evidence that the people they identified as “Padoucas” were in fact Apaches, or at least Athapaskan-speakers, despite the fact that their information came mostly from French or Siouan sources. Secoy notes this without explanation, but Grinnell goes into a bit more detail. From a table of tribes that the expedition apparently compiled from information gained at the villages of the Mandans (Siouan-speakers), Grinnell summarizes several entries listing tribes said to speak the Padouca language. The “Padouca” entry is most informative:

Padoucas—English name, French nickname Padoo, Padoucies is their own tongue. Live in villages on heads of Platte and Arkansas, trade with New Mexico; many horses. Yet almost immediately Clark says he could get no definite information about this once powerful nation, and quotes French writers. Speaks of a fork of the Platte bearing the name of the tribe and conjectures that the nation had broken up and become individual small tribes.

It’s not clear how much, if any, of this is quoted rather than paraphrased by Grinnell. Nevertheless, the bit about the Padouca being a “once powerful nation” is presumably the source of the information on them in Clark’s later letter to his son. The fact that Clark couldn’t get much information on them from his current sources and had to rely on (highly outdated) French written sources is one possible reason to think that the group referred to here is Apache rather than Comanche, and other references in the Expedition’s journals to a Padouca-speaking group called the “Cataka” have often been thought to refer to the Na’isha or “Kiowa Apaches,” including by Secoy. Still, if the French by this time were using the term “Padouca” to refer to the Comanches, and Lewis and Clark were getting their information from French informants, why would they call the Apaches “Padoucas”?

Neither Grinnell nor Secoy addresses this question, but I think the answer lies in where Lewis and Clark where when they got this information. Remember, all that stuff about the Comanches pushing out the Apaches and the French inadvertently switching the meaning of the word “Padouca” is about the Southern Plains. Lewis and Clark, however, were traveling across the Northern Plains, following the Missouri River. The Mandan villages where they compiled the list of tribes including the Padoucas were in what is now North Dakota. The Comanches never came close to this part of the Plains, which had a rather different cultural sequence in the historic period. Part of the difference, I suspect, is that the French traders and their Siouan trading partners on the Upper Missouri continued to use the term “Padouca” to refer to Athapaskan groups to the south and southwest, including those who had, unbeknownst to them, recently been displaced by the Comanches from their homelands in what is now eastern Colorado and those that might have still been somewhere on the Northern or Central Plains at this point, north of the Comanches. The former are probably the ones that Clark refers to in the section quoted above, and the lack of information on them is probably due to the fact that any ties they had had to the north had been severed by the Comanche advance without the northern groups necessarily knowing what had happened. The latter would probably include the ancestors of the Na’isha, who may or may not already have been affiliated politically with the Kiowas at this point but probably were somewhere in the Northern Plains. Grinnell notes an account of a Na’isha man who claimed to have been born on the Missouri River northeast of the Black Hills around 1810.

Mural of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Passing the Future Site of Paducah, Kentucky

Thus, I think the most reasonable interpretation of the Padouca question is that the term, meaning “Piercers” in some Siouan language, was used for the Apaches of the Plains by various Siouan-speakers (and others?) living along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the seventeenth century, and was taken over by French explorers at this time. Later French officials in Louisiana continued to use the term for Plains groups without realizing that the Southern Plains had been taken over by Comanches in the mid-eighteenth century, and subsequent French expeditions applied it to the Comanches rather than the Apaches. At the same time, the more southerly Siouan-speakers shifted the referent of the term as well, perhaps under French influence but not necessarily. Further north, where both the French and the Siouans were too far away from the Comanches to encounter them, the term continued to refer to Plains Athapaskans, both the nearby Na’isha and the more distant Apaches about whom the northerners knew little. Clark learned about the Padoucas from Upper Missouri groups who didn’t know much about them, and supplemented this information with French written sources which were also not very well informed. From this mix he came up with an idea of the Padoucas as a tribe that had once been numerous and powerful but had been decimated by European contact. Perhaps entranced by this romantic idea, when he acquired a bunch of land many years later and decided to build a town on it he decided to name it after this “lost” tribe. And that’s the story of Paducah.
Grinnell, G. (1920). Who Were the Padouca? American Anthropologist, 22 (3), 248-260 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1920.22.3.02a00050

Michelson, T. (1921). Who Were the Padouca? American Anthropologist, 23 (1), 101-101 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1921.23.1.02a00120

Secoy, F. (1951). The Identity of the “Paduca”; An Ethnohistorical Analysis American Anthropologist, 53 (4), 525-542 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1951.53.4.02a00060

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Sign at Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory

In 1898 Washington Matthews, the US Army physician who was one of the earliest and best recorders of ethnographic information on the Navajos, published an article in the Journal of American Folklore entitled “Ichthyophobia.” It’s an interesting piece of scholarship for a number of reasons, not least its florid Victorian prose style. Matthews begins thus:

By the term Ichthyophobia I mean, of course, fear of fish; but I do not mean that proper fear, based upon actual knowledge, which the native diver of certain tropic seas feels, who will not venture into deep water lest he be torn to pieces by sharks, nor that equally rational fear that leads us to discard tainted fish, which so often proves poisonous as an article of food. I refer to the fear which results from superstition, and which prohibits all fish as an article of food; in short, to the taboo of fish.

He soon goes on to explain the background to his interest in this issue:

In the year 1866, after I had spent about twelve months on the Upper Missouri among some of the most primitive tribes then within our borders, I came on to Chicago, and there made the acquaintance of a gentleman who had recently returned from New Mexico, having spent a year or more among the Navaho Indians. Oddly enough the gentleman’s name was Fish, although this fact, like the vernal blossoms, had nothing to do with the case, since the Indians did not fear him. In comparing notes of our experience among the Indians, he asked me, “Do the tribes of the Upper Missouri eat fish?” “Of course they do,” I said. “Is there any one in the world who will not eat a good fish if he can get it ?” “Yes,” he replied; “the Navahoes will not eat fish; they will not even touch a fish, and I have known them to refuse candies that were shaped like fish.” At the time, although I had every reason to believe that my friend was a truthful person, I was half inclined to believe that his was a “fish story” in more senses than one, or that he had made some error in observation. But that was in the days of my youthful ignorance. I knew not then the extent and nature of the customs of taboo. I did not realize that I was myself the victim of taboo practices just as unreasonable as that of the Navaho fish-haters.

Fourteen years later I found myself a neighbor of these same Navaho Indians, and one of the first subjects I proceeded to investigate was the fish taboo, of which I had learned years before. I found that my friend, Mr. Fish, had told me the truth,  but had not expressed his case as strongly as he might have done. I found that the Navahoes not only tabooed fish, but all things connected with the water, including aquatic birds. Speaking of the Navaho repugnance to fish with the landlady of the Cornucopia Hotel (a slab shanty) at Fort Wingate, she related the following as a good joke on the Indian. She employed  a young Navaho warrior to do chores around her kitchen. The Navaho warrior has no pride about the performance of menial labor. He will do almost anything at which he can earn money, and this one would do any work for her but clean fish. He would eat, too, almost anything in her kitchen except fish. Noticing his aversion to the finny tribe, she one day sportively emptied over his head a pan of water in which salt fish had been soaked. The Indian screamed in terror, and, running a short distance, tore in haste every shred of clothing from his body and threw it all away. She learned that he afterwards bathed and “made a lot of medicine” to purify himself of the pollution. He never returned to work for her, so this little trick cost her a good servant.

Anthropologists don’t write like this anymore, which seems like a pity to me. That aside, while Matthews certainly shows his fair share of nineteenth-century racism in what he writes here, he goes on to draw an interesting conclusion that is in some ways well ahead of his time:

Our philanthropists wonder at the reluctance of Indians to send their children to a distance to school, and think it is but foolish stubbornness. They cannot realize that, in addition to many practical and sentimental reasons, there are long-cherished religious scruples to be overcome—reasons which are the most potent of all—and, among these, not the least is that they know their children will be obliged to violate tribal taboos. The Navahoes have heard from returning pilgrims that the boy who goes to the Indian school in the East may be obliged to eat geese, ducks, and fish, or go hungry; or that, if  he eats not at first of these abominations, he may be ridiculed and chided till he changes his customs.

“What foolish scruples!” we say, and yet fail to realize that we all refuse certain edible and wholesome articles as food for no good reason that we can assign. What civilized father would send his child to a distant boarding-school where he might be obliged to eat stewed puppy? Yet I have been informed by those who have tasted it that it is a very palatable dish. But we can find a better illustration of our case than this: There are many among the most cultured of our Christian communities who, for religious reasons, refrain on certain days and at certain seasons from articles of food which at other  times are eaten. Such persons would not willingly send their children to places where they would be compelled to disregard these fasts. We may all understand and approve the sentiments which actuate them; yet we seem unable to extend an equal consideration to savages who are, perhaps, actuated by equally worthy motives. Often among the Navahoes children returning from eastern schools fall into feeble health. Their illness is almost always attributed to the violation of taboo while they were away from home, and costly healing ceremonies are performed in order to remove the evil effects of the transgression.

Matthews was unusual in his generation, even among anthropologists, in taking Indians seriously as people and trying to look at things from their perspective. He is best known for his extensive documentation of Navajo legends and ceremonial practices, including sandpainting designs. His success at eliciting this information was likely due in part to his status as a physician and a sense among the medicine men he talked to that he was in some sense engaged in the same trade as they were, that of healing. His respectful attitude toward his informants, evident in his discussion here of their concerns about the possible effects of boarding school on their children, likely also played a role.

Although Matthews clearly considered it important to emphasize to his audience that the Navajo taboo on eating fish is not some absurd result of “savages” being “irrational,” the main point of his article is to look into how this taboo may have arisen. He notes that the Apaches have a similar taboo, and quotes at length a then-recent article by one P. C. Bicknell, who had recently explored the mountains of east-central Arizona, inhabited by the Western Apaches, and had noticed the same taboo among them and inquired into the reasons for it.  Bicknell eventually got an explanation that the Apaches had long ago, when there was not enough food for everyone in the region, made an agreement with the Mohave and Yuma tribes who lived along the Colorado River to the west. Under this agreement, the Apaches would eat no fish, while the river tribes would eat no venison, and therefore everyone would have enough to eat. Neither Bicknell nor Matthews found this explanation convincing, and Matthews uses it as another example of the parallels between Indian and Anglo-American society:

The story here related, which is wisely discredited by Mr. Bicknell, may have been coined for the occasion; but it is more likely that it has been current for some time among the Indians. White men are not the only ones who are importunate to know the why and the wherefore. The inquisitive small boy whose business in life it is to ask questions exists among the savage as well as among the civilized; and there are boys of older growth who pester their seniors for explanations. To satisfy the mind of the inquirer with something in accord with his mode of thought, with the grade of philosophy which he has reached, is the aim of the man, in all ages of the world, who would gain and retain a reputation for wisdom. Milton’s Adam explains everything to Milton’s Eve according to the philosophy of Milton’s time. Modern science has its myth-makers, no less than the wild Apache.

Matthews does however find a possible clue to the actual origin of the taboo among both Navajos and Apaches in another of the explanations given to Bicknell. One of the Apaches he asked, who apparently had very limited proficiency in English, just said “all same water.” Bicknell interpreted this to mean that fish is just as insubstantial and tasteless as water, but Matthews considers this implausible, since if the Apaches have been avoiding fish for generations they presumably don’t actually know what it tastes like. He sees this instead as an indication that it is the association of the fish with water, which is so scarce and precious in a desert land, that accounts for its avoidance. He checks in with Frank Cushing, the preeminent expert at the time on the Zunis, to see if they have a similar taboo, and receives a reply which he quotes:

The Zuñis, like the Navahoes, will not, under any circumstances, eat fish or any other water animal. The reason is this: Abiding in a desert land, where water is scarce, they regard it as especially sacred; hence all things really or apparently belonging to it, and in particular all creatures living in it, are sacred or deified. But, in the case of the fishes, they eat water, chew it, and are therefore, since they also breathe water and the currents or breaths of water, especially tabooed. The Zuñi name for the Isletas is Kyas-i-ta(w)-kwe, Fish Cannibals, because they ate fish formerly.

Matthews considers this ample confirmation of his own conclusions regarding the Navajo avoidance of fish, which seems to be a common (but not universal) trait of Southwestern groups. Furthermore, he notes that the northern Athapaskans, who speak languages quite similar to those of the Navajos and Apaches but live far to the north, in generally well-watered areas of Canada and Alaska, do not have any sort of taboo on fish consumption. To ensure that he hasn’t missed something on this topic he checks with Franz Boas, the towering figure in American anthropology who had done extensive fieldwork among the Northern Athapaskans. Boas replies:

The northern Athapascan tribes have no taboo against fish; on the contrary, they almost subsist on fish for a considerable  part of the year.

Indeed, salmon in particular is hugely important to the diet of many of the Athapaskan groups in Alaska to this day. Matthews draws the reasonable conclusion from all this that the Navajos and Apaches likely acquired their fish taboos after reaching the Southwest, probably under the influence of the Pueblos, although the arid environment itself may have played a role directly as well.

Many years after Matthews’s paper, Herbert Landar presented further thoughts on the linguistic implications of all this. He notes that Navajo basically has only one word for “fish”: łóó’, a generic term referring to all fish.  This echoes the situation in Hopi and Zuni, both of which only have one general “fish” term, but is quite different from the extensive inventory of terms for various fish found in northern Athapaskan languages. These languages do tend to have terms cognate to the Navajo one, and these terms usually refer either to fish in general or to salmon or whitefish specifically. They also have a wide variety of terms for other specific fish and aquatic creatures, cognates for which are apparently totally missing in the southern languages. Landar concludes from this, in keeping with Matthews’s conclusion (though rather oddly he does not cite Matthews’s article) that “a prehistoric southwestern fish taboo led to the truncation of the Apachean fish vocabulary.”

At the time Landar was writing in 1960, the Alaska Athapaskan languages were still not very well documented compared to those in Canada and the Southwest. It was not until the establishment of the Alaska Native Language Center in 1972 that extensive, systematic documentation of all these languages began. The data collected by the ANLC has greatly increased both the ease and the reliability of the kind of comparative study done by Landar, which in his case given the material he had to work with was necessarily very tentative.  As far as I know no one has yet looked at this exact issue using that data, but it would be interesting to see exactly how many “fish” words each Athapaskan language has and how specific they are. Be that as it may, however, the conclusions reached by Matthews and Landar using much less information are likely to stand the test of time.
Landar, H. (1960). The Loss of Athapaskan Words for Fish in the Southwest International Journal of American Linguistics, 26 (1) DOI: 10.1086/464559

Matthews, W. (1898). Ichthyophobia The Journal of American Folklore, 11 (41) DOI: 10.2307/533215

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