I’m currently in Albuquerque visiting my mom and helping her out with some things. I usually try to mark the solstices on this blog, but in this case I’ve been too busy to put together a real post. (The solstice was technically yesterday in this time zone anyway.) I know the blog has been pretty quiet lately; I’ve been busy with various things, but I have been getting back into reading stuff about the Southwest and will have some substantive posts soon. Anyway, happy solstice and so forth.
This post about what European history would look like if it were told like Native American history typically is has been getting a lot of well-deserved attention on social media lately. It’s quite well-done, and worth a look. Here’s a sample:
Most pre-contact Europeans lived together in small villages. Because the continent was very crowded, their lives were ruled by strict hierarchies within the family and outside it to control resources. Europe was highly multi-ethnic, and most tribes were ruled by hereditary leaders who commanded the majority “commoners.” These groups were engaged in near constant warfare.
The whole blog is quite good. (And I’m not just saying that because it has me on the blogroll, although that is how I first discovered it.) The author, a college undergrad named Kai, seems to be very well-informed about Native American history and to have a perceptive and nuanced approach to the issues involved in it. I particularly like this post discussing the sources of information for indigenous history. I agree entirely with both the three main sources mentioned (archaeology, ethnohistory, and oral tradition) and the assessments of their strengths and weaknesses. My own approach with this blog is very similar in the types of information I draw on and how I evaluate them. The goal, however, seems to be slightly different from my own:
Personally, my ultimate goal is returning the power to indigenous people to tell our own histories. We are deprived of control of our own history on so many levels: through government and private ownership of ancestral remains and objects, through the lack of Native voices in popular history, through the poor education given to indigenous youth, through the delegitimization of indigenous ways of telling history. The only place we have kept sovereignty over our own history is amongst ourselves, in the stories our grandparents tell us and we tell each other. For that reason, I tend towards the view of using archaeology and written records to illuminate the oral and written traditions of Native people, rather than the other way around as many academics do it. Because at the heart of it, indigenous history belongs to indigenous people–people not only deserve but need to know their own history. So my priority is returning it to them where it has been forcibly severed from them.
This is a worthy goal, and I support it wholeheartedly. It’s not quite the same as what I’m doing with this blog, however. I am not Native myself, and the Native groups I discuss here are generally fairly satisfied with their knowledge of their own history (which is of course sometimes quite different from how white people see that same history) and often reluctant to share that knowledge with outsiders. My main focus is on illuminating the (pre)history of North America for all audiences who are unaware of it. This includes Natives themselves, of course, if they want to read what some white guy has to say about their past, but my expectation is that most of the people who read me will not be indigenous themselves. This difference in emphasis between me and Kai may stem in part from the different geographical areas we focus on; I focus on the West, where many Native groups have maintained major parts of their traditional culture quite robustly in the face of Euroamerican colonization, whereas Kai seems to focus on the East, where colonization has been a much more overwhelming force for Native communities and traditional culture has been maintained in more subtle ways. These are very different situations, and they lead to different issues that need to be addressed.
In any case, I highly recommend Kai’s blog to anyone who likes mine. It focuses mainly on a different part of the continent, but discusses it in a very similar way, and also addresses more general issues of interest to anyone concerned with Native America.
With increasing evidence for Mesoamerican influence at Chaco in recent years, it’s worth taking a close look at what was going on in Mesoamerica itself during the Chacoan era. As I’ve mentioned before, there is some reason to believe that the most likely area to look to for direct influence in the Southwest is West Mexico, but developments in Central Mexico are also worth considering. The Chacoan era corresponds generally to the Early Postclassic period in Mesoamerican history, and in Central Mexico this period is dominated by the Toltecs and their widely influential state with its capital at Tula, in the modern state of Hidalgo northwest of Mexico City.
When discussing the Toltecs, it’s important to note that most of the available information about them comes from later Aztec sources dating to the period after the Spanish conquest, and there is considerable debate about how historical these accounts actually are. Some scholars have argued that the stories of the Toltec “empire” with its capital at a city known as “Tollan” reflects a longstanding tradition in Mesoamerica dating back to long before the period of the site now known as Tula. There is considerable evidence that the Aztecs, at least, identified Tula with Tollan and venerated it as the capital of the legendary Toltecs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much for the actual history of the site. Setting aside the ethnohistoric traditions about the Toltecs, then, the archaeology of Tula itself is worth a close look. What do we know about this site and its history?
As Dan Healan explains in a recent review article, the answer at this point is, “not much.” Tula actually seems to be surprisingly poorly understood for a major Mesoamerican city. Presumably this is largely because it has been overshadowed by the more impressive remains of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan in the same region dating to earlier and later, respectively. As Healan notes, the nature of the city itself, which was built mainly of adobe, meant that it ended up with a much less impressive physical appearance than Teotihuacan, which was made primarily of stone. The lack of a precise chronology is also a problem; despite several decades of research, only a small number of radiocarbon dates are available for Tula. The chronology is therefore based primarily on ceramic cross-dating, but even this is not very precise or secure. Typically for Central Mexico, as opposed to the Maya area, there is also a lack of monumental inscriptions to provide an alternative means of dating construction and related events.
As a result of all these difficulties, the picture that emerges from research at Tula is still pretty blurry. It’s not completely dark, though. As Healan presents the evidence, Tula appears to emerge in the Epiclassic period after the fall of Teotihuacan as one of several small polities in the general area. Judging by ceramic styles, at least some of the people inhabiting the Tula region at this point appear to have had strong connections to the west, specifically to the area known as the Bajío in what is now southern Guanajuato and Querétaro. These apparent migrants from the west may have merged with remnant Teotihuacan-influenced populations to form the core of the Toltec state.
Developments at Tula itself are hard to trace due to the dating problems mentioned earlier, but there are two distinct ceremonial centers at the city, known as Tula Chico and Tula Grande, which are very similar in layout and seem to have succeeded each other in time. Interestingly, Tula Chico appears to have been burned early in the development of the Tula polity but to have remained in a ruined state while the city grew around it and it functions were assumed by the new center at Tula Grande. The reasons for this are hard to discern, but Healan suggests that whatever violence was involved may have been internecine, with the victorious faction leaving the old civic center destroyed as a reminder of its victory. This is plausible enough, but other explanations are also possible.
Whatever the backstory, at the height of its power Tula was clearly influential over a wide swath of Mesoamerica, although its area of direct control is harder to discern. In addition to the well-known similarities between Tula and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, which Healan doesn’t discuss in much detail given the already vast literature discussing them, sites with clear Toltec characteristics are found as far north as southern San Luis Potosí and as far south as western El Salvador. This suggests Tula played an important role in the developing trade networks that extended throughout the region beginning in this period. Interestingly, while these sites suggest a large area of north-south influence, some areas quite near Tula to the east and west show essentially no influence from it. Perhaps this indicates a specific axis of Toltec influence, with other states having more of a role in other areas.
The extension of Toltec influence quite far north is of course significant for developments in the Southwest. To my mind it suggests the possibility of a trade system running north-south along the eastern flank of the Sierra Madre Occidental, connecting Tula to the Mimbres area. This would be somewhat distinct from the parallel system running along the Pacific coast and controlled by the polities of the Aztalan tradition connecting Michoacán and Jalisco to the Hohokam area. Chaco may have been connected to either or both of these networks; it is still unclear how much contact the Chacoans had with either the Mimbres or the Hohokam. One way or another, however, Mexican trade goods reached Chaco. Some of them (e.g., copper bells) definitely came from West Mexico, but others (e.g., chocolate and macaws) came from much further south and could have come up through either pathway.
One interesting suggestion of connections with Tula specifically is architectural. While Pueblo architecture is very different from Mesoamerican architecture as a general rule, and Chaco is no exception, the distinctive core-and-veneer masonry associated with Chacoan ”great houses” finds an echo in the “small-stone veneer” architecture of Tula. This isn’t a perfect parallel, as it seems the Tula version is a true (non-structural) veneer of stone stuck onto a structural wall of adobe or rough stone, while the Chacoan version is actually a structural facing without which the wall wouldn’t stand up at all. Still, the similarity is striking, as is the rarity of this technique both in the Southwest and (apparently) in Mesoamerica as well. The Tula walls are also plastered, sometimes even with mud, as at Chaco, but more often with lime, which is abundant in the area and appears to have been a major export to both Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan in the periods bracketing the florescence of Tula.
Another more straightforward architectural parallel between Tula and Chaco is the use of columns. Both Tula and Chichen Itza are known for their huge numbers of square columns. This is a distinctive architectural feature that is otherwise rare in Mesoamerica, and it has therefore been one of the main pieces of evidence for a close connection between these two Early Postclassic centers. At Chaco, columns like these are found in the “colonnade” at Chetro Ketl, a single row of square masonry columns facing the plaza apparently added quite late in the history of the site and filled in even later to form a solid wall. It’s very unclear how this feature should be interpreted, but the similarity to the columns at Tula is striking.
It’s frustrating that so little information is available about Tula. At a minimum, a more precise chronology would be a huge help in determining how it relates to other contemporaneous cultures in both Mesoamerica and the Southwest. At the end of his article Healan laments the ongoing destruction of many portions of the site outside the monumental core due to modern urban development. Complaints of this sort seem to be pretty common among Mesoamerican archaeologists discussing various important sites, and certainly the loss of archaeological resources is unfortunate. As Healan notes, however, development at Tula has been accompanied by salvage archaeology to at least document the sites that are being destroyed, although the reports resulting from this work are not always widely available. Another way to look at increasing development, then, would be to see it as a great opportunity to document parts of the site that might not have otherwise have been excavated (and to collect more radiocarbon dates to firm up the chronology). This attitude appears to be increasingly popular among archaeologists in the US, but I’ve noticed that Mesoamericanists tend to be more reluctant to consider salvage projects to be anything other than a necessary evil. As Mexico becomes more prosperous, however, development is only going to continue, and documenting the country’s rich prehistoric heritage can go hand in hand with that process. It’s especially important that it do so in areas that are important but relatively understudied, such as Tula.
Healan, D. (2012). The Archaeology of Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico Journal of Archaeological Research, 20 (1), 53-115 DOI: 10.1007/s10814-011-9052-3
Maria Konnikova has a good post explaining how blogging, along with other “popular” writing such as journalism, is very good practice for the sort of work involved in academic scholarship. I’m not an academic myself and have no interest in becoming one, but I definitely agree with her that blogging helps develop skills in analyzing, synthesizing, and (especially) explaining complicated information compiled from diverse sources, which is what good scholarship in any discipline should do.
I also found her comments on disciplinary isolation within academia interesting, since I’ve found a lot of the same things to be true in archaeology that she found in psychology. I tend to dig deep and look broadly for research that might relate in some way to Chaco, and in doing so I’ve found interesting and relevant publications in very unlikely places. Some of my early posts on subjects such as the ancient Maya and the European Reformation are good examples of how these connections can be found. I haven’t done as much of this lately, it’s true; I’ve increasingly begun doing posts that are either narrowly about Chaco or about something else entirely that also happens to interest me. My recent decision to devote this blog to Chaco and to find somewhere else to put the other stuff may lead me to do more to relate the various things I read to Chacoan issues, or maybe not. We’ll see.
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.
“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I realize it’s been pretty quiet around here the past few weeks. I’ve been very busy with work lately, especially attending conferences and traveling to far-flung corners of the state, and my life has been kind of crazy in other ways too, so I haven’t had much time to devote to blogging. I have been working on a post on the Numic Spread to continue some of the themes from my recent posts on the Fremont, but I need to wait until I have more time to finish it. There are also a lot of other topics I’d like to post about when I get a chance. Hopefully things will calm down a little in the next few weeks and I’ll have some more time. In the meantime, have some pictures of Nome, where I attended a meeting yesterday.
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:
- They died out entirely and left no descendants.
- They changed their culture and stayed in the same region.
- 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