I’ve recently been looking a bit into the important issue of the migration of Athapaskan-speaking groups ancestral to the Navajos and Apaches into the Southwest. Although this is one of the most obvious examples of long-distance migration in prehistoric North America, surprisingly little is known about it. There’s basically no archaeological evidence establishing when it happened or what route(s) it took, which seems to imply either that the durable aspects of Athapaskan material culture changed so much over the course of the migration as to obscure any continuity or that there was so little durable material culture to start with that nothing recognizable from it has survived in the archaeological record. Linguistics, which is the source of basically all of the evidence that the migration took place at all, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to say about the details either. The main other source of information is ethnography, which is actually a pretty rich (if someone underutilized) source since many Athapaskan groups in both the Subarctic and the Southwest have been extensively documented by ethnographers.
One interesting contribution from this perspective is an article from 1983 by Richard Perry of St. Lawrence University, an expert on the Western Apaches. In this article Perry attempts to use comparative ethnographic data on modern Athapaskan peoples to reconstruct the culture of the speakers of Proto-Athapaskan as completely as possible. He models his methodology explicitly on the comparative method used in historical linguistics, looking particularly for aspects of culture shared by widely dispersed Athapaskan populations but not by non-Athapaskan groups in between. His ultimate goal is to use the knowledge of Proto-Athapaskan culture gained by this method to analyze the changes unique to particular Athapaskan groups, but in this paper he focuses purely on the commonalities in order to gain a sound basis for later study of differences. He relies most heavily on specific cultural beliefs and practices shared by Athapaskan groups at the far ends of the family’s range, i.e., in Alaska and the Southwest, and he relies particularly heavily on similarities between the Tanaina of the Anchorage area at the northern end of the Athapaskan range, whose language is apparently the most divergent of all the Athapaskan languages despite the close proximity of several other Athapaskan groups, and the Apaches at the far southern end of the range, whose language is also very divergent. The idea behind this is that if a given practice is shared by Athapaskan groups that are both widely separated physically and, judging by the divergence of their languages, isolated from each other for a long time, it is likely to date back to the period before the groups separated, which in this case would have to be the Proto-Athapaskan period.
His results are interesting and pretty convincing, although I think he could have gone into more detail about how the commonalities he identifies among Athapaskan groups differ from the practices of non-Athapaskan groups. For the most part the idea that the other linguistic groups didn’t share these traits is simply implied, and while this is plausible and I have no reason to doubt it, I think it would have been better to have it spelled out a bit more. The commonalities he finds are primarily in the more abstract aspects of culture, which is unsurprising given the wide geographic range of the language family and the very different ecological settings and resulting material cultures of the various groups. The southern groups in particular, both the Apacheans in the Southwest and the Pacific Coast Athapaskans in northern California and southern Oregon, seem to have been strongly influenced by neighboring societies in their material culture and, to a somewhat more limited degree, in their social systems and ideologies. The major similarities Perry finds, however, apparently set these groups apart from their neighbors, although as I noted above it would have been nice to see this stated and supported more explicitly.
The most important similarity Perry finds among the Athapaskans is a general belief that all objects in the world have powers that are not inherently good or bad but that can become dangerous to people under certain circumstances and must therefore be respected. This is basically a sort of animism, and it lies behind much of the religion and ideology of the Athapaskan-speaking groups. It is such an all-encompassing concept that it applies even to abstract qualities, one of which is “femaleness,” as Perry calls it. This “femaleness” is considered so potentially powerful if particularly concentrated that many of the Athapaskan groups, especially in the north, have highly elaborated forms of menstrual seclusion and female puberty rites, as well as important taboos surrounding childbirth. Perry considers these practices sufficiently important that he discusses them separately from animism in general, although he notes that they are strongly linked to more general animistic ideas. Also based ultimately on animism but discussed separately are ideas about death and the human soul, which Athapaskan groups consistently divide into two parts, one identified with the breath and another associated with the shadow. One of these, which among most but not all of the groups is the shadow, is thought to remain around a dead body after the other departs at death, which leads to very elaborate taboos concerning dead bodies and anything associated with them. Many groups abandon or destroy houses where people have died, and destruction of a dead person’s possessions is also common. Perry also mentions a few other aspects of culture that are fairly common across the Athapaskan spectrum, but the core of his reconstruction effort relies on the three related ideological factors of animism, “femaleness,” and the bipartite soul.
This is all plausible enough, but it’s not a whole lot to hang a reconstruction of a culture on. Perry seems to realize this, and before getting to the comparative portion of the paper he gives a “framework for reconstruction” in which he looks at various types of data to see what conclusions can be drawn about the likely circumstances under which Proto-Athapaskan was spoken. For dating he relies on rather dubious glottochronological approaches that put the breakup of Proto-Athapaskan sometime in the last few centuries BC. This is a very slim reed given the problems with glottochronology (which Perry, to his credit, does acknowledge), but it is consistent with the archaeology, at least in the sense that there don’t seem to be any sites that can be plausibly linked to Athapaskan-speakers until the first few centuries AD. As for the place, Perry agrees with the common viewpoint that puts Proto-Athapaskan in Alaska, which has the greatest concentration of different Athapaskan languages, and he speculates that the Alaska Peninsula/Cook Inlet area, near present-day Anchorage, is a plausible choice for the specific location. For one thing, this is the area occupied historically by the Tanaina, which as mentioned earlier are the most divergent Athapaskan group linguistically, and though Perry doesn’t say this explicitly the assumption behind his model seems to be that the Tanaina stayed behind when the rest of the speakers of the protolanguage left, presumably moving east. It’s also close to the historic homeland of the Eyak, whose language is generally considered to be related to but not part of the Athapaskan family.
Another advantage Perry sees in putting the Proto-Athapaskans on the Alaska Peninsula has to do with a distinctive characteristic of most Athapaskan-speaking groups: their flexibility in adopting subsistence strategies and general lack of specialization. In general, Athapaskan groups have been remarkably adaptable to different ecological surroundings, which was likely a considerable asset on the long migration of the Southwestern and Pacific Coast Athapaskans in particular. Although it’s not really clear how much can be concluded about culture history from this, Perry sees it as consistent with all the groups descending from a group occupying the very diverse territory of the Alaska Peninsula, where the maritime resources of the Cook Inlet are in close proximity to the very different resources of the nearby mountains, streams, and lowlands. Using all these resources would have required a considerable amount of seasonal mobility and a flexible social structure, and these are also common characteristics of ethnographic Athapaskan groups. Although there are some notable exceptions, most Athapaskans historically have been characterized by a decentralized social structure based on widely scattered and largely autonomous small kin-based units, which nevertheless keep in contact with each other and may coalesce for certain specific purposes at times. Most of these societies are also noteworthy for a large degree of individual autonomy, which is useful in a context of unpredictable and widely scattered resources that can be most effectively exploited on an ad hoc basis by individual hunters or gatherers. He also notes an interesting tendency for Athapaskan groups to live in close proximity to mountain ranges, although here I think he’s going a bit far in trying to tie this tendency back to a mountainous Urheimat for the whole family.
Given the lack of secure dates, the archaeological upshot of all this is pretty limited. It’s interesting, though, to see how many strong continuities there are among the Athapaskan groups, given their very large and non-contiguous geographical range. More important than any of this ethnographic data, of course, are the very strong linguistic connections, but the ethnography adds a crucial independent line of evidence in trying to piece together the very complicated and confusing Athapaskan puzzle.
PERRY, R. (1983). Proto-Athapaskan culture: the use of ethnographic reconstruction American Ethnologist, 10 (4), 715-733 DOI: 10.1525/ae.1983.10.4.02a00060