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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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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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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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Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

I’m currently in Albuquerque visiting my mom, and while I’m here I figured I read up on the archaeology of the Rio Grande Valley and do some posts on it. I’ve read some interesting articles from the journals I have access to, and I’ll have some substantive posts soon based on that, but one thing that has limited me so far is that so much of the early archaeological literature on this region was published in El Palacio, the magazine of the Museum of New Mexico (named after the Palace of the Governors, the original location of the museum). Today this is basically a glossy (but serious and substantive) magazine aimed at a popular audience, but in its first few decades it functioned more like a scholarly journal and was the primary venue for publication of research on the archaeology, anthropology, and history of northern New Mexico.

The problem with this for someone like me had been that, unlike other major publication venues for this kind of research that have evolved into (or been created as) peer-reviewed scholarly journals, El Palacio is not included in any of the major academic databases, and it could only be found on paper in libraries that happened to subscribe to it. This made it effectively impossible for me to access it, given geographic and time constraints, so I was at a distinct disadvantage in understanding the archaeology of this region.

That’s all changed, however. I discovered today that, apparently as part of the commemoration of the magazine’s centennial this year, El Palacio has put its entire archive online. The interface is a little clunky, and it looks like it’s only possible to download pdfs of entire issues rather than individual articles, but this is still a fantastic resource that has suddenly become vastly more accessible. Given my general interest in open access publishing and making data broadly available, I figured it was worth doing a post to point this out. I’ll have some more posts on the actual archaeology of the northern Rio Grande soon.

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Sign with Summer Solstice Sunrise and Sunset Times, Anchorage, Alaska

Today is the summer solstice, and here in the “land of the midnight sun” the longest day of the year is very long indeed. In Anchorage, we don’t quite get to 24 hours of daylight, but it is nevertheless well after 11:00 pm as I write this and the sun is still up. North of the Arctic Circle they do have periods where the sun doesn’t set at all, for varying lengths of time depending on latitude. The northernmost community is Barrow, which gets several weeks of non-stop daylight in the summer (with a corresponding period of darkness in the winter, of course).

Given that the solstice falls right in the middle of this period of extreme daylight, it might be expected that Arctic peoples would mark it in some way, as many other societies around the world do (including the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest, as extensively documented in prior posts here). And this does indeed appear to be the case, though with a typically Alaskan twist.

Whalebone Arch with Umiak Frames, Barrow, Alaska

The Inupiaq Eskimos of the North Slope of Alaska, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, have traditionally had a whaling-based subsistence system, and to a considerable degree still do. They hunt whales in the spring (and in some villages also in the fall) using a type of traditional skin boat known as an umiak. These are large, open boats made of a wooden frame covered with the hides of walruses or seals, made according to a rigorous traditional protocol. They are used in other areas further south along the Bering Sea coast as well, but their close association with whaling is most pronounced on the North Slope. A recent article by Susan Fair discussed them in the context of their architectural uses as temporary shelters in various settings and their cultural importance in both whaling and the demarcation of ceremonial and other culturally important spaces at certain times.

One of those times is the Whale Feast, often known as Nalukataq (although that name technically refers only to the blanket toss that is one of the most famous elements of it). This ceremony is held only in years when at least one whale has been taken, and while its exact date varies it is scheduled for sometime around the summer solstice. As the name “Whale Feast” implies, the main focus of this event is on sharing the meat from harvested whales with the community, and it is an opportunity for the whaling captains (known as umialiit) who own the umiaks to demonstrate their generosity and show off their prowess.

Umiak on Sea Ice, Barrow, Alaska

Fair focuses in her article on the role the umiaks play in both the ceremony and the social system behind it, in which the small number of umialiit in a village form an elite within it and the umiak serves as a symbol of their power and prestige, but I was more interested in the timing of the feast. The spring whaling season at least in Barrow generally ends in late May or early June (it had recently ended when I was up there at the end of May and there were umiaks with flags raised indicating whaling success all over the place), so having the feast in late June makes a certain amount of just practical sense given the preparations necessary, but I do wonder if there is a deeper significance to the association with the solstice, perhaps as a vestige of a large role for indigenous astronomy in the pre-Contact era. I have not been able to find much information on archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy in Alaska, but given the high latitude and spectacular celestial phenomena that abound here I’m sure Native people have long been attuned to the sky. Recent changes, especially aggressive Christian missionization that sought to stamp out Native religion, has obscured a lot of the earlier cultural practices, but I wonder if things like the timing of the Whale Feast preserve bits and pieces of aspects of traditional knowledge that are otherwise forgotten. Certainly a topic that could use more attention, I think.

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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.
ResearchBlogging.org
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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Fort Smith Gallows, Fort Smith, Arkansas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center, Anchorage, Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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