Archive for January, 2013

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fremont River, Utah

Fremont River, Utah

Many of the prehistoric cultures of the Southwest are routinely described as “mysterious,” most often in popular accounts and tourist information but also sometimes in the more serious archaeological literature. This is certainly true in a sense, in that a lot of information about any given ancient society, especially one without writing, is gone forever and cannot be recovered even by the best archaeological techniques. The various archaeologically defined prehistoric Southwestern “cultures” actually vary quite a bit in how mysterious they are in terms of the big questions: where they came from, what happened to them, and which, if any, modern societies are their descendants. The irony is that the culture which is most often popularly described as “mysterious,” the Anasazi, is actually one of the least mysterious in these terms. While the details remain obscure, and connecting any given prehistoric site to its most likely modern descendant communities is currently not possible (and may remain so forever), on a large scale at least some of the answers are pretty clear: the origins of the Anasazi remain a bit murky but there is evidence that at least some developed out of preexisting Archaic groups, with others possibly descending from immigrant groups from further south, and it’s very clear that the Anasazi as a whole are ancestral to the modern Pueblo peoples. This is one of the main reasons that the term “Anasazi” is currently deprecated in certain circles in favor of “Ancestral Puebloan.” The latter term is certainly accurate, and I think it is useful in some contexts, but in this post I will stick to “Anasazi” in its traditional archaeological meaning, for reasons that will become apparent later on.

In contrast to this clear progression of Anasazi to Pueblo, many of the other prehistoric cultures have no obvious connections to any modern groups. The Mogollon of east-central Arizona and southern New Mexico are certainly quite different from the Apache groups that occupied these areas historically, and there is no archaeological consensus on what happened to them and who their descendants might be. The same is true of the Hohokam of southern Arizona; the modern group occupying their territory is the O’odham (Pima and Papago), and there have been arguments both for and against the idea of cultural continuity between the two groups.

The most mysterious ancient culture in the Southwest, however, might be the Fremont of Utah. Both the beginning and the end of the Fremont phenomenon have been subject to vociferous debate since the culture was first defined, and while there seems to be a general consensus at this point on where the Fremont came from, there is still vociferous debate on where they went. Understanding the issues here requires a brief discussion of the history of Fremont research and the different theories that have been proposed for who the Fremont were and what happened to them. The following discussion is based largely on the summary in an important 1998 review article by David Madsen and Steven Simms; there have certainly been new developments in Fremont research since them, and some criticism of Madsen and Simms’s approach, but the article remains influential and widely cited in recent work on the Fremont.

There was some sporadic archaeological work in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries at sites that would later be considered Fremont, most notably Neil Judd’s work in the 1910s in southwestern Utah, before his more famous work at Chaco Canyon in the 1920s. This work generally interpreted the sites in question as similar to the Anasazi/Pueblo sites further south but relatively crude and backward, leading to the notion of a “Northern Periphery” of the Anasazi culture area. The Fremont culture was first defined, however, by Noel Morss in 1931 based on excavations along the Fremont River in south-central Utah. Morss considered these sites not as “peripheral” to the Anasazi sites to the south but as a different and equally developed culture, showing some Anasazi influence but also many distinctive traits. He defined his Fremont culture fairly narrowly, however, and excluded the sites further west excavated by Judd and others. Morss’s position was not very popular over the next couple decades, however, and all of these sites continued to be widely considered part of a “Northern Periphery” of the Southwest, often termed “Puebloid” to emphasize that they were both similar to and different from true Pueblo sites to the south. In the 1930s the work of Julian Steward added to this mix a large number of sites in northern Utah around the Great Salt Lake. While Morss and others had interpreted the sites in southern Utah as the result of a society which relied on both corn agriculture and foraging of wild foods for subsistence, Steward separated his sites into a sedentary, agricultural “Northern Periphery” culture and a mobile, foraging “Promontory” culture, which were apparently contemporaneous.

By the 1950s a consensus began to emerge that all of these cultures, except maybe Promontory, were really regional variations of a single overarching culture which became known as “Fremont,” following Morss but expanding his terminology significantly. The sites in western Utah (the eastern Great Basin) excavated by Judd and later researchers were acknowledged to be different in some ways from those further east on the Colorado Plateau and were described by some as “Sevier Fremont” (after the Sevier River, along which many of the largest sites were located), but the overall unity of “Fremont” as a cultural unit equivalent to “Anasazi” or “Hohokam” became widely accepted.

Now that some consensus had emerged on the unity of Fremont culture, attention turned to who these Fremont people were, where they had come from, and what happened to them. Most researchers decided that they had developed in situ out of preexisting Archaic foraging groups (which would explain the evidence for continued foraging) with the adoption of some cultural traits diffused from the Anasazi (such as pottery and agriculture). There were some dissenting voices, however, such as James Gunnerson, who argued that the Fremont developed from the immigration northeastward of Virgin Anasazi groups from the Virgin heartland in southwestern Utah and southern Nevada, and that the Fremont proper and Sevier Fremont developed subsequently into the Utes and Shoshones, respectively, who occupied the equivalent parts of Utah in the historical period. The latter part of this reconstruction was quickly shot down by Albert Schroeder and others, who pointed out how different Ute and Shoshone material culture was in the archaeological record from the preceding Fremont levels.

A more influential dissent came from Melvin Aikens, who argued based on work in the Great Salt Lake basin in the 1960s that Steward’s Promontory culture was part of the Fremont complex, which itself was neither indigenous or the result of Anasazi migration north but rather the result of migration south, from the northwestern Plains, by groups that probably spoke Athabascan languages and later moved back out onto the Plains and became the Apaches and Navajos. Gunnerson had previously argued that the Promontory culture might have been Athabascan, as Steward himself had previously suggested, by pointing out similarities between Promontory and the Dismal River culture of the central Plains, which has been widely associated with the historic Na’isha (“Kiowa Apaches”). Gunnerson saw Promontory as a late incursion from the Plains roughly contemporaneous with Dismal River, which dates to the seventeenth century, while Aikens argued based on some of the same evidence that all of Fremont, including Promontory, stemmed from a much earlier migration from the Plains and ended with a migration back out. This was an elegant solution to both the origin and demise of Fremont, which by this point had become dated to about AD 500 and 1400 respectively, but it never achieved any wide acceptance among either Fremont or Plains archaeologists. For one thing, in addition to the resemblances to Dismal River, and the general Plains cast of certain Fremont traits (bison hunting, use of moccasins rather than sandals, the “shield-bearing warrior” rock art motif), Aikens appealed to alleged evidence from physical anthropology that skulls from Fremont sites resembled types associated with the Plains rather than those of the Southwest or Great Basin. This reliance on a typological approach to skull morphology was already considered old-fashioned, as George Armelagos pointed out in a response to Aikens. Madsen and Simms consider the real virtue of Aikens’s hypothesis that it stimulated research into regional variation within the recently defined Fremont “culture.”

This research quickly showed that variation was considerable, and in fact it was extremely hard to assemble a list of traits that characterized all Fremont groups without including any other cultures. Nevertheless, regional “subcultures” were soon defined: the Parowan, Sevier, and Great Salt Lake variants in the Great Basin and the San Rafael and Uinta variants on the Colorado Plateau. Many of the differences between these groups seemed to be primarily ecological in nature, given the very wide variety of environmental situations these groups found themselves in. In concert with the ascendance of the “New Archaeology” in American archaeology generally during the 1970s, Fremont archaeology came to focus extensively on adaptations to local environmental conditions, and new evidence of continuity in many areas between preceding Archaic groups and later Fremont variants led to a continued acceptance of an in situ origin for Fremont with the diffusion of Anasazi traits northward and their acceptance to varying degrees by indigenous foragers who still kept many of their previous practices, including a  heavy dependence on foraging in addition to horticulture.

At the end of the 1970s Madsen challenged the whole idea that “Fremont” denoted a coherent cultural unit. He pointed out the impossibility of defining it based on traits, and proposed instead that there were two or three separate cultures lurking inside the concept. He reserved the term “Fremont” for the Colorado Plateau variants (San Rafael and Uinta), reducing the concept to more or less Morss’s original formulation, and redefined the Great Basin variants as a separate culture called “Sevier.” The major distinction he proposed for these two was in subsistence. He saw the Fremont as being primarily corn agriculturalists who did some hunting and gathering, while the Sevier were more focused on wild resources and farmed only supplementarily. This conclusion was based largely on his own research at Backhoe Village in the Sevier valley, a large, permanent site which he interpreted as having an economy based primarily on gathering of wild cattails rather than corn agriculture. In general Madsen’s Sevier were more like other Great Basin foraging groups than Fremont archaeologists had generally assumed, with a heavy emphasis on the resources in wetland areas surrounding lakes and relatively little use of agriculture. Madsen also held out the possibility of a third culture in the Great Salt Lake area with Plains affinities, much as Aikens had argued, although he refused to give it a name. (It’s not clear why he didn’t use Steward’s name “Promontory” for this culture, which seems to overlap to some extent with Steward’s concept.) Responses to Madsen’s proposal were skeptical, and it has not been any more influential than Aikens’s Plains theory. It’s noteworthy that in his 1998 review article written with Simms Madsen shows that he has grudgingly backed off of this division and accepted the Fremont concept at least as a scholarly convention.

In the 1980s the idea of “adaptive diversity” became influential in Fremont studies. Simms was one of the major figures in this shift, which emphasized the idea that the well-known mix of farming and foraging within the Fremont phenomenon may have involved shifts between the two lifestyles even in the lifetimes of individuals. An article published by Simms in 1986 demonstrated the existence of ephemeral structures similar to ethnographic Great Basin wickiups associated with Fremont material culture, and in his 1998 review article with Madsen the implications of this approach are spelled out in more detail. Basically, the idea is that the Fremont complex may have included full-time farmers, full-time foragers, and individuals shifting between the two subsistence strategies either routinely or over the course of a lifetime in response to changing environmental conditions. Thus, the defining characteristic of Fremont subsistence is not a single approach but a flexible attitude. This focus on individual behavior in response to changing circumstances is what Madsen and Simms mean by a “behavioral approach” to the Fremont complex. Given how influential their article seems to be in contemporary Fremont studies, this approach seems to have been more successful than the earlier attempts to redirect Fremont researchers by Aikens and Madsen.

That said, it’s not like there’s nothing to criticize in this approach. For one thing, it interprets the Fremont primarily through a frame of reference developed through studies of hunter-gatherers. The Fremont certainly did hunt and gather to some extent, but they also definitely farmed, and it’s not totally clear that the former is a more appropriate context than the latter for understanding Fremont societies. It certainly aligns Fremont studies with archaeological research in the Great Basin rather than with the very different tradition in the Southwest (with which it was aligned during the “Northern Periphery” period). This might be appropriate; after all, part of the Fremont region is in fact in the Great Basin, and if the Fremont did develop out of a local Archaic base that would also associate them with the Great Basin. As I noted in the previous post, however, this approach sets the Fremont apart from the Southwest and makes events in the Fremont region hard to line up with concurrent events further south, which is problematic because there is reason to think there may be connections between the two regions. This becomes even more of an issue when it comes to the question of what ultimately happened to the Fremont, which I have barely touched on in this post. That’s a subject that probably deserves its own post, though.
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. (1956). Plains-Promontory Relationships American Antiquity, 22 (1) DOI: 10.2307/276168

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

Judd, N. (1917). Evidence of Circular Kivas in Western Utah Ruins American Anthropologist, 19 (1), 34-40 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1917.19.1.02a00070

Madsen, D. (1979). New Views on the Fremont: The Fremont and the Sevier: Defining Prehistoric Agriculturalists North of the Anasazi: Reply American Antiquity, 44 (4) DOI: 10.2307/279114

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

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

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