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quinhagak

Quinhagak, Alaska

I’ve mentioned before that the prehistory of Alaska is much less well-understood than that of many other parts of North America, but there have been some interesting recent efforts to expand the amount of data available and the interpretations it can support. One of the most interesting is the excavation of the Nunalleq site in the small, remote community of Quinhagak. This project is distinctive in that it has been driven primarily by the local community, which saw that the site was in danger of being lost from accelerated erosion (driven in part by climate change). In partnership with archaeologist Rick Knecht from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, local people led by the village corporation, Qanirtuuq Incorporated, worked to excavate this extremely well-preserved late pre-Contact site, which dates to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries AD. The number of elaborate, well-preserved artifacts is astounding, and it is by far the richest site of the ancestral Yup’ik people of southwestern Alaska known to date.

Even more interesting, the artifacts are being displayed in a newly opened museum right in Quinhagak, rather than being stored in a distant location where they are not accessible to the descendant community. This not only gives the local people an opportunity to understand and access their heritage, but it also provides a tourist destination that can bring in much-needed economic activity to this very poor part of the state. This isn’t a model that can be replicated everywhere, but it’s a fascinating success story of archaeological research and heritage presentation driven by a local indigenous community in cooperation with outside academic experts. Definitely worth noting.

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Qanirtuuq Incorporated Building, Quinhagak, Alaska

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Another Great Resource

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Hopi Buttes from Homol’ovi Ruins State Park

One noteworthy trend in recent years has been for publishers and scholarly organizations to increasingly put back issues (and in some cases even new issues) of their journals and other publications online for free. This has opened up a huge opportunity for the interested public to easily access publications that until recently have been difficult to find, in some cases even for specialists. Academics have long had access to a wide variety of publications through university libraries, of course, so this is probably less of a noticeable change for them, but it’s huge for those of us without an academic affiliation.

From time to time I’ve noted here when resources like this have become available for publications of interest in the study of Chaco Canyon and Southwestern archaeology more broadly, and today I noticed another one. The Peabody Museum at Harvard (not to be confused with the totally separate Peabody Museum at Yale) has begun to put online many of its early publications, especially those in its Papers series which includes many classic early works in Southwestern archaeology and ethnography.

Perhaps the best known of these publications are those documenting the early-twentieth-century expeditions of Alfred Kidder and Samuel Guernsey in northeastern Arizona, which excavated many rockshelters with astonishingly good preservation of organic artifacts especially from the Basketmaker period early in the Southwestern prehistoric sequence. Those papers are all among the ones now available online, along with some but not all of the papers from the later Awatovi Expedition that documented a much later period in the Hopi area. There are also papers on the archaeology of the Maya region and various other parts of North and South America, as well as many ethnographic papers including several important studies of modern Navajo culture.

Sadly, not all of the early Papers are included, although some are listed as “Coming Soon.” The order in which they seem to be added is odd, and there are some glaring gaps in the sequence. Most noticeable to me is the lack of Volume 21, J. O. Brew’s classic 1946 report on the excavation of the important southeastern Utah site of Alkali Ridge, but there a couple other unexplained gaps as well. (In addition, and less oddly, the more recent numbers in the series that are still in print are not included.)

Like I said above, I only discovered this resource today so I haven’t had a chance to really dig through any of these publications (so to speak). I’ve seen them before in libraries, but it’s something entirely different to have them in electronic form for download. I suspect they’ll be of interest to many readers of this blog as well.

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Lighthouse on the Coast of British Columbia

In the previous post, I mentioned that the study of Native California solstice observation that I was discussing found that southern California groups had types of observation resembling those in the Southwest, while northern California groups had observation types more like those of the Northwest Coast. This makes sense in terms of the larger cultural patterns tying these California groups to these other regions in general. However, when I started thinking more about this particular pattern I realized that there was something odd, or at least unfamiliar, about it.

The Southwest is of course very well known for its Native astronomy, both ancient and modern. The same is not true of the Northwest, however. This region is ethnographically very well-studied, and is well known for its cross-culturally unusual pattern of complex hunter-gatherer societies with a variety of elaborate social institutions. Astronomical observations, however, are not among the institutions widely associated with the Northwest. In contrast to the wide-open skies, sunny weather, and distant, varied horizons of the Southwest, the Northwest is a humid, rainy area of dense forests and mountains that come all the way to the sea. This would be a hard place to observe the sun! What’s more, astronomy and calendars are often associated with agriculture and the need to keep track of seasons for planting and harvesting, but the Northwest tribes had no agriculture and instead relied on hunting, gathering, and especially fishing for their subsistence. Did they really observe the sun and keep track of the solstices?

To try to answer this question, I followed the references from the California paper and found that those relating to the Northwest pretty much all came back to one publication, a monograph by Leona Cope published in 1919 entitled Calendars of the Indians North of Mexico. This is a systematic survey of the ethnographic information available at that time about the calendrical systems in this large region. To my knowledge there has never since been a similarly comprehensive study with updated information, which is unfortunate as the data available 100 years ago for many tribes and areas was quite sketchy and incomplete.

Be that as it may, Cope did quite well with the information she had available. She divided the types of calendars into three categories, based on the origin of the names of the months or “moons”:

  • Descriptive Type, by far the most common and found throughout the continent. The months are named descriptively, often after natural seasonal phenomena but sometimes after cultural phenomena such as ceremonies.
  • Numerical Type, the rarest and most restricted in distribution, running discontinuously along the Pacific coast from southern Alaska to northern California. Some or all of the months are numbered rather than named, though very few calendars use numbers exclusively.
  • Astronomical type, the one of most interest for my purposes here. The calendar, while based on lunar months like the other types, is calibrated in some way to one or both of the solstices. Found in three regional clusters: the Southwest (plus southern California), the southern Northwest Coast, and the central and eastern Inuit groups in Arctic Canada and Greenland.

This is a very interesting distribution of solstice observations! Cope attributes the Inuit observation practices to the unusual seasonal conditions of the far north, which is fair enough though it should be noted that not all of the Arctic or Subarctic groups in her study have astronomical calendars. She notes that the Inuit track the sun by indirect observation of shadows cast by rocks, in contrast to the direct observation of the sun used in the Northwest and Southwest (though recent archaeoastronomical work in the Southwest strongly suggests that at least some indirect observation was done there in the past as well).

Cope also has some information on the function of solstice observation among some of the Northwest tribes. She says of the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island:

The observation of the solstice is of great economic importance. If one
wishes to be successful in the hunting season, he must perform certain magical rites when the days are getting longer and the moon is waxing.

Again, very interesting! This is quite different from the ideology surrounding sun-watching among Southwest agriculturalists, but it has a clear logic to it that would provide an incentive to undertake the difficult task of making these observations in the Northwest.

Also noteworthy is the distribution of solstice observations within the Northwest. Many of the more “complex” features of Northwest Coast societies are generally considered to reach their highest level of complexity at the northern end of the area, among such groups as the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian of southeast Alaska and adjacent parts of British Columbia. Cope’s data show clearly, however, that the area of astronomical calendars and solstice observation is focused on the southern Northwest Coast, with the most detailed accounts of observations and the ideology behind them associated with the Wakashan-speaking groups on and around Vancouver Island. (Cope does classify the Haida and Tsimshian as part of her Astronomical Type, but only because they include a “between period” in their calendars to rectify the lunar months with the solar year. Her data show no trace of an astronomical calendar among the Tlingit.)

These Wakashan-speaking groups are distinctive in other ways; the Nuu-chah-nulth and related tribes are known for their focus on whaling rather than salmon fishing as the basis of their lifestyle, for example. It’s conceivable that solstice observation was originally a Wakashan trait associated with the ideology mentioned above, which later spread to some but not all neighboring groups but not necessarily with the ideological content intact. That’s largely a speculation on my part, though, and I need to research this more to see if it holds up.

After reading this study and seeing the intriguing evidence for ethnographic astronomical observance in the Northwest, I started reading up on the archaeology of this area to see if there has been any research on potential material correlates. The answer appears to be essentially “no,” in striking contrast to the situation in the Southwest where the ethnographic and archaeological evidence is routinely used in combination to better understand both. One major reason for this is surely the environmental context, which is not nearly as good for preservation of structures as the dry Southwest, except in certain unusual circumstances where sites get completely waterlogged. There’s just not much there to study, in other words, if you’re looking for alignments of buildings to astronomical phenomena.

Rock art, however, which is another frequently studied locus for archaeoastronomy, is common in the Northwest. Petroglyph sites here tend to be on beaches and to be associated with the sea, so they may be less likely to have astronomical associations here than in other areas, but it doesn’t appear that anyone has ever really checked.

More fundamentally, it seems like the archaeology of the Northwest has been so heavily dominated by research on economic issues and attempts to explain the complexity of ethnographic societies that things like astronomy don’t really enter into the literature much at all. There is also likely a bias toward focusing on phenomena that can be easily matched to the richly documented ethnographic cultures.

This bias became clear to me when I saw a passing reference in a review article on the archaeology of British Columbia to undated burial mounds on the South Coast. Burial mounds? In the Northwest? This is another phenomenon often associated with “complex” societies that is not often mentioned in connection with the Northwest Coast, presumably in this case because there is no ethnographic evidence for it having survived into the recent past. Mounds are also often associated in other areas with astronomical observations and alignments, which is why this reference piqued my particular interest.

I followed the reference, which went to a 1947 paper in a local historical journal summarizing a lot of information on these burial mounds, often called “cairns” as they were typically built with large rocks covering a burial in a complex but very regular pattern. Earthen examples are also known, however. The area of the mounds seems to have been focused once again on Vancouver Island, but in this case the focal point seems to have been the area now occupied by the city of Victoria. This area is occupied in modern times by speakers of Salishan rather than Wakashan languages, so there may not be any connection to the astronomical pattern. It is intriguing, however.

The 1947 article focuses largely on the excavations of the mounds in the late nineteenth century by an early settler named James Deans, who reported much of his work in brief letters to a local newspaper though he did write at least one longer unpublished report. Many of them were later excavated in the 1890s by the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, with Deans’s assistance. This expedition was a groundbreaking and highly influential project, with its results including the mound excavations extensively published in reports by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which at the same time was also sponsoring the Hyde Exploring Expedition excavations far away at Chaco Canyon. The presence of prehistoric mounds in the Northwest Coast was hardly obscure, that is to say. And yet it seems to have been largely forgotten in the modern archaeological literature of this region, or at least rarely seems to rate even a mention in a review article.

Part of this puzzling lack of continued attention to the mounds was likely due to the fact that virtually all of them have since been destroyed by urban and agricultural development, so unlike in other areas known for mounds there’s no longer anything to see. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were. I suspect that the other factors I mentioned above also played a role, however.

While mounds in other areas often have archaeological associations, there is no evidence that I can see that these burial mounds did, though again they have not been studied from this perspective. Another of Deans’s letters to the newspaper provides evidence for a different sort of prehistoric phenomenon which also seems to have disappeared and been forgotten. These are straight, paired stone alignments, of considerable age and consistent orientation to 12 degrees north of east. This is the sort of thing that may indeed have had an astronomical function, although that azimuth is not particularly meaningful as far as I can tell. Sadly, when Deans wrote in 1872 they were already mostly destroyed so there is presumably no way of studying them now.

I don’t really have a point here as I’m continuing to study all this, but it sure is fascinating. You just never know what’s out there.

 

Sunny California

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California Welcome Sign

Today is the summer solstice, on which I tend to write about archaeoastronomy. This time I’d like to briefly discuss an area with a rich heritage of Native astronomy that seems to get relatively little discussion: California.

California is known in anthropological circles for the astonishing variety of cultural and sociopolitical groups that traditionally inhabited this climatically favorable, highly productive area. Although these groups were all devastated to varying degrees by the influx of Anglo settlers in the nineteenth century, and some were also heavily affected by earlier Spanish colonization starting in the late eighteenth, most of them are fairly well documented ethnographically due to the extensive “salvage ethnography” pioneered by Alfred Kroeber and his students at Berkeley in the early twentieth century. There is therefore a rich base of data in which to look for evidence of Native astronomical observations, and a paper published in 1979 by Travis Hudson, Georgia Lee, and Ken Hedges does just that, in addition to reporting some early archaeoastronomical observations at California archaeological sites. The paper focuses specifically on solstice observations, which tend to be among the most important astronomical practices in many cultures.

The authors’ review of the literature shows that observation of the solstices was widespread in Native California. The vast majority of groups they investigated had some record of solstice observation, and most of those that did not may just not have had it documented. Only two groups were associated with definite statements that they did not observe any solstices, and even these might be due to mistaken information.

The winter solstice was by far the most commonly observed, with relatively few groups also observing the summer solstice and none observing summer but not winter. This ties in to a widespread pattern of keeping a calendar that often began with the winter solstice. A general geographic pattern held that Southern California groups were more likely to observe both solstices, while Northern California groups tended to only observe the winter one. This is in keeping with broader geographic patterns, with Southwestern groups generally observing both solstices but Northwest Coast groups focusing on the winter. There are many other cultural patterns connecting these two parts of California to these adjacent culture areas as well.

In addition to the ethnographic data, the authors report on several observations of potential solstice observation alignments at archaeological sites, mostly those involving rock art. These again showed a general pattern of most often aligning with the winter rather than the summer solstice. In some cases the rock art associated with these observation points contained apparent solar imagery, and in a few cases the authors even suggest that some of the rock art symbols represent the actual horizon line along which the sun was observed. This is a fascinating suggestion that I have not seen made of any other area, so it may be distinctively Californian if it holds up. They include examples of other rock art of similar form that may also be interpreted this way, although it has not been tested for alignments.

All in all, this is a fascinating introduction to the astronomy of a culture area that doesn’t get as much attention in this respect as others like the Southwest and Plains. While this was an early paper in the development of archaeoastronomy and not all of its conclusions may hold up, it is still an excellent starting point. Happy solstice!

 

Ancient Alaska

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Welcome Sign at Alaska/Yukon Border

I’ve lived in Alaska for almost seven years now. It’s a really interesting place in a lot of ways, and right now is a fascinating time to be here. People often think of it as being extremely different from the Southwest, but there are actually a lot of similarities, and there are a number of parallels especially between New Mexico and Alaska that make the two feel pretty similar to me.

One major difference, however, is the status of archaeology and understanding of prehistory in Alaska versus the Southwest. Southwestern archaeology has been going on in earnest for over a hundred years and has led to quite detailed understanding of many aspects of the region’s prehistory. The findings of archaeologists, especially at iconic sites like those at Chaco Canyon, have also been well incorporated into the region’s self-understanding and sense of identity. While the mythology of the Southwestern “mystique” has a lot of problems and doesn’t always accurately reflect what is now known about the historical and prehistoric record, there is no denying the importance of archaeology there.

Alaska is a very different story. While the region’s obvious importance to theories about the peopling of the Americas from Asia has led to a long history of archaeological interest, the research that has been conducted over the years has been frustratingly difficult and its results highly fragmented and confusing. Part of this is because of the remote location and poor preservation of archaeological remains in many parts of the state, but those factors don’t come close to explaining all of it. It seems like the prehistory of Alaska is just very complicated and doesn’t easily fit any of the straightforward theories people have come up with for its role in continental or hemispheric events.

That said, part of the issue is the relatively small amount of research done in Alaska to date, and that does indeed reflect in part the region’s remoteness and the difficult conditions for both preservation and research. As a result, the archaeological literature on Alaska is frustratingly thin and largely technical and specialized, with a relative lack of the sorts of introductory, popularized accounts that are a dime a dozen in the Southwest. One good introduction, however, that I have recently come across is Ellen Bielawski’s In Search of Ancient Alaska.

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Welcome Sign, Utqiagviq (Barrow), Alaska

This book is definitely a very general introduction, and it doesn’t go into very much detail at all about the various archaeological cultures that have been identified or the theories about how they relate to each other. It is however a good starting point, especially for the absolute beginner. It is primarily organized by culture area, according to the general schema used by modern Alaska Native institutions like the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which is a reasonable approach to organize the archaeological data.

There is also a chapter on the archaeology of the very early inhabitants of the state, which is probably of the most interest to general readers outside Alaska due to its relationship to the peopling of the Americas. What this chapter shows, however, is both how little we actually know about these early inhabitants and how hard it is to relate their remains to either comparably early people elsewhere or to later people anywhere. This is an accurate reflection of the state of knowledge on this, despite how frustrating it seems.

I don’t have much more to say about this book, but I do recommend it as a general introduction to a topic that I find very interesting even though it is so poorly understood. I would really like to be able to write more about Alaskan prehistory the way I write about Southwestern prehistory, and I’ve tried to some extent, but the data currently just isn’t there for the same level of discussion and interpretation.

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Russian Orthodox Church, Ninilchik, Alaska

Dreaming Rocks

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Petroglyphs above Una Vida

I often peruse used bookstores and particularly look at their sections on archaeology, anthropology, history, Native American studies, and other subjects of interest to me. Some bookstores are better than others in these subjects, and my main local one is pretty good. A while back I saw a book there on the subject of Native American rock art that I had not seen before: Painted Dreams by Thor Conway. I recently got around to reading it, so I thought I’d give a brief review here.

Overall, it’s an odd book. It purports to cover all of North America, and has many pictures of rock art from all over the continent. However, Conway is an archaeologist by training who seems to have spent most of his career in Canada, particularly in northern Ontario but also to some extent in British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces, and he has also spent a lot of time in California. The rock art traditions he focuses on reflect this experience, with by far the most attention given to the Great Lakes region and a fair amount to the Chumash tradition of southern California.

Conway mentions other regions briefly from time to time, but based on his discussion of the Southwestern rock art tradition his understanding of it seems pretty shallow. His discussion of the “Kokopelli” figure, for example, is very superficial and doesn’t engage at all with the complex and contentious scholarly disputes over this figure.

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“Supernova” Pictograph

That said, within the narrower regional scope of his expertise, Conway has some interesting things to say about the rock art of the Great Lakes Algonkians, especially the Ojibwe. He talks extensively about his relationship with two Ojibwe shamans, and their words, quoted extensively throughout the book, give shape to his interpretations of the meaning of rock art. Based on this, his interpretations of the meaning and importance of rock art are very heavily focused on its spiritual role, and particularly its relationship to dreaming and the vision quest, both of which are very important among many Algonkian tribes.

So there is some interesting content here, at least for someone without much knowledge of the Great Lakes region (like me). I’m not sure it really hangs together well as a book, though. The organization is not particularly intuitive or cohesive, and while it’s clearly pitched at a popular rather than scholarly level, I’m not sure how useful it would be as a general introduction for someone without any previous knowledge at all. It feels a lot like a vanity project. It’s not actually self-published, but it is published by a small regional press that clearly didn’t put a whole lot of effort into editing the text.

So yeah, not an awful book, but not one I’d particularly recommend either. I don’t regret buying or reading it, and it could well be worthwhile to someone with a particular interest in the rock art of the Great Lakes and its relationship to the spiritual traditions of the tribes in that area.

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Pictographs at Lower Scorpion Campground, Gila National Forest

 

A Wedding on Kodiak

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Kodiak, Alaska

In 1805, while visiting the Russian settlement on Kodiak Island as part of the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe, the Russian naval commander Yuri Lisianski observed among the local Alutiiq Natives the presence of individuals known as “schoopans” who had male genitalia but were brought up from childhood as girls, performing women’s work and marrying men. This was a highly honored role in Alutiiq society, and an example of the widespread “berdache” or “Two Spirit” tradition of the Americas that I have discussed before. Lisianski noted that the schoopans “even assume the manners and dress of the [female] sex so nearly, that a stranger would naturally take them for what they are not,” and continues in a footnote:

As a proof of how easily this mistake may be made; it once happened, that a toyon [rich man or “chief”] brought one of these unnatural beings to church to be married to him, and the ceremony was nearly finished, when an interpreter, who came in by chance, put a stop to the proceedings, by making known to the priest, that the couple he was joining in wedlock were both males.

This anecdote caught my attention in part because it is strikingly relevant to modern political debates over the rights of trans people, especially the so-called “bathroom bills” that have cropped up in various places over the past few years. Here in Anchorage, we have one of these measures, Proposition 1, on the municipal ballot right now in our first vote-by-mail election. Election Day is on Tuesday, April 3, but ballots have already been mailed and voting is going on right now.

I’m strongly opposed to Prop 1, which is highly discriminatory against the trans community and serves no real public purpose. Beyond its discriminatory nature, the very premise of Prop 1 is fundamentally absurd in ways highlighted by Lisianski’s story that would render it totally unenforceable and perhaps even cause the sorts of “problems” it purports to solve.

Many of the arguments for Prop 1 and similar measures rely on the assumption that gender is not just an “immutable” biological characteristic on a deep level, but one that is impossible to affect even superficially. Prop 1 seems to take it as a given that a trans person using the “wrong” bathroom under the law will be easily identifiable because they will look to any bystander like their “biological” gender.

This is however not true at all. As with the population as a whole, there is a lot of physical variation among trans people, but many look well within the physical norms of their preferred gender and fit in much better in the bathrooms they prefer to use than in those they don’t. That is to say, trans women really are women, in many cases even physically, visually, to strangers who don’t know anything more about them than how they look. And similarly, trans men really are men.

Indeed, if we are judging gender the way most of us do in practice, by how people look rather than by careful inspection of their genitals or birth certificates, Prop 1 would likely lead to, if anything, a massive increase in the number of “men” in women’s restrooms, because trans men who look like and lead their lives as men would be forced by the terms of the law to use women’s restrooms. In other communities that have adopted laws like this trans men have posted pictures to social media showing what this looks like; it looks like a man in a women’s restroom. If seeing that is what people who support Prop 1 are concerned about, voting for it is certainly not going to help.

The greater visibility of trans issues in recent years may make the idea of gender diversity seem new and strange, but there is actually a long history of different concepts of gender in many societies around the world. The berdache or Two Spirit tradition, present in many indigenous societies of the Americas, including some in Alaska, is one of the most striking examples of a socially accepted, often high-status role for individuals who do not conform to a strict gender binary typical of European societies.

I’ve been digging into the ethnographic and ethnohistoric data on berdaches in Alaska Native societies specifically, which don’t seem to have gotten a whole lot of attention in the anthropological research on gender diversity. The data are spotty and difficult to interpret to an even greater degree than for many other societies, but there are a lot of fascinating nuggets in there like Lisianski’s anecdote about the wedding. I’m thinking of doing a research project to synthesize the existing data, maybe in blog posts here but maybe in a more formal venue. It’s a fascinating topic with a lot of relevance to issues today, which makes it of particular interest to me. Stay tuned.