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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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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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alaskawelcomesign

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

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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

 

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brazosbendtrail

Trail in Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

The big story in the news these days is of course Hurricane Harvey, which has been battering the Gulf coast and adjacent areas of Texas and Louisiana for days now. While it has so far probably done the most damage in Houston, with record rainfall leading to massive flooding in one of the country’s biggest cities, Harvey first came ashore further south, near the small town of Rockport, Texas just north of Corpus Christi. Rockport was very severely damaged by the wind and rain, of course, and has gotten quite a bit of media attention for that.

Rockport has another claim to fame, however, at least for those of us interested in archaeology and prehistory: it is the namesake of the Rockport Phase, an archaeological complex that existed on the central part of the Texas coast in the late prehistoric period and is generally thought to be directly ancestral to the Karankawa people who occupied the same area at European contact. The Karankawa are among the better-documented of the many cultural groups that occupied the Gulf Coast, partly because of the detailed account of them left by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was shipwrecked in this area in 1528 and spent several years living with the natives here and further west as he made his way back to his Spanish compatriots in Mexico. Archaeological research over the past few decades has both confirmed some aspects of this and other historic accounts and added additional information about the culture history of this area.

The Rockport Phase is characterized by a distinctive type of pottery, gray in color with thin, hard walls and a sandy paste. It can be plain (i.e., undecorated), incised, or, most distinctively, decorated with the black asphaltum found in the Gulf area and associated with its extensive petroleum deposits. The beginning date for the Rockport Phase varies in the literature but is in the range of AD 1000 to 1250; the variation is probably due to the fact that Rockport is clearly continuous with the previous Late Archaic culture of the same area. In general, however, the Late Prehistoric period on the coast is defined by the appearance of the bow and arrow and pottery, both of which seem to have reached the central coast around AD 1000 from the north. (Note that this makes at least the beginning of Rockport roughly contemporary with Chaco Canyon far to the west.) As noted above, Rockport is also clearly continuous with the historic Karankawa, and Rockport pottery has been found on some early historic sites.

While pottery is often associated with agricultural people, agriculture was never practiced on the prehistoric Texas coast or, indeed, most of the interior areas of prehistoric Texas. The Rockport people, like their neighbors in all directions, were hunter-gatherers, and they appear to have had a subsistence system based primarily on the rich aquatic resources of the coastal estuaries but with seasonal movements inland to hunt terrestrial game and gather plant resources including pecans and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.

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Warning Sign, Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

The stone tool assemblage of the Rockport Phase, at least from around AD 1250 on, was very similar to that of the inland groups in central and southern Texas, all of which were part of the Toyah Horizon distinguished by the use of Perdiz arrow points. This widespread lithic complex is generally thought to be associated with the hunting of bison, which appear to have rapidly spread south from the southern Great Plains into central and southern Texas during the thirteenth century AD, possibly in response to a drying trend beginning a couple centuries earlier that expanded the grasslands favored by bison. Despite Rockport use of this lithic complex and the presence of bison bone in some Rockport sites, however, stable isotope studies of human remains from cemetery sites on the coast that are contemporary with Rockport have not shown evidence that bison was a substantial part of the diet, which seems to have been heavily based on fish and other marine resources. More research may clarify this apparent clash of different types of evidence.

Speaking of those cemeteries, they area also unusual among hunter-gatherers but quite common in prehistoric Texas, in both coastal and interior areas. Cross-culturally, use of cemeteries rather than isolated burials by hunter-gatherers tends to be associated with “packing” into small territories due to high population densities, as well as with “intensification” of production of subsistence resources, especially aquatic ones. Some archaeologists have proposed theories linking intensification, which includes but is not limited to the development of agriculture, to increased population density due to highly productive resources in certain areas, which also leads to packing into smaller territories. Some of these theories further predict that this will mean less use of terrestrial hunting and increased use of aquatic resources where they are available, and plant resources where they are not.

This type of theory has been tested in Texas and found to largely but not completely explain the distribution of cemeteries and other signs of packing and intensification. In the Rockport area, which clearly had a relatively high population density and depended heavily on the aquatic resources of the estuaries, the theory seems to work. It also works for the Rio Grande Delta area to the south, where the populous Brownsville Complex had its own type of pottery as well as various cultural influences from and trade ties to the Huasteca region of northeastern Mexico to the south. It doesn’t really account for the presence of cemeteries and other signs of intensification in the more sparsely populated areas of central and western Texas, however, where hunter-gatherer populations are thought to have been much lower. Clearly more research on this issue is required. Many of these characteristics are associated with “complex” hunter-gatherers such as those of the Northwest Coast, but I doubt any anthropologist would describe even the higher-density groups on the Texas coast as complex in that sense.

It doesn’t get as much attention as some other areas, and it certainly isn’t as flashy as the ruins in the Four Corners region, but the archaeology of Texas is actually quite interesting. The University of Texas has a great website called Texas Beyond History that provides a lot of information in an easily accessible. It wasn’t a major source for this post, but it’s still definitely worth checking out. We’ve been seeing a lot about Texas in the news lately, but there’s much more to it if you dig a little deeper.

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Texas Flag and Sundial, Brazos Bend State Park

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Tijeras Pueblo Overlook

I’ve written some posts before on the interesting recent research being done on the analysis of DNA and stable isotopes to study the genetics and subsistence of the turkeys of the prehistoric Southwest. A recent short paper adds an interesting dimension to this research, by looking at these issues in a sample of turkey remains from a site on the fringe of the Pueblo world, near its interface with the Plains.

The site in question is Tijeras Pueblo, in the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The researchers were interested primarily in looking at the stable isotope chemistry of these turkeys to determine whether they primarily ate maize or wild plants, to try to determine how they were raised. In addition, they looked at the DNA of a subset of them to see if they belonging to a previously identified genetic line of domestic turkeys identified in the prehistoric Southwest, or to a separate line associated with modern wild turkeys. In theory, one might expect that turkeys that ate maize belonged to the domesticated line and ones that ate wild foods belonged to the wild one.

In fact, however, what they found was more complicated and interesting. The turkeys fell into two groups which were quite distinct in their chemistry: one that seemed to have eaten maize and another one that seemed to have eaten wild plants. However, the latter group did not have chemistry quite the same as that of the modern wild turkey specimens they compared it to, and was instead somewhat “intermediate” between the maize-fed ones and the wild ones. This suggested to the authors that these turkeys may have been free-ranged, eating a mix wild plants, some maize, and perhaps also insects, and that some of this free ranging may have been in the cornfields for pest control. Similar husbandry practices are documented in the modern Pueblos but had not previously been identified prehistorically.

Even more interesting, however, was the genetic data. Despite the sharp distinction between subsistence strategies implied by the chemical evidence, almost all of the tested specimens belonged to the domesticated ancient Southwestern lineage, and not the wild one. This suggests that the difference in husbandry practices did not correlate to separate origins of the turkeys, but to something different.

Comparisons to specimens from other areas shed some light on possible reasons for this pattern. The researchers compared these turkeys to some from the Albuquerque area, from the Gallina area, and from Arroyo Hondo Pueblo to the north in the Northern Rio Grande area. Since Tijeras Pueblo is at a relatively high elevation where maize agriculture is somewhat marginal, it might be expected that this environment explains part of the difference in turkey husbandry. And when compared with the nearby but much lower Albuquerque samples and the more distant but comparably high-elevation Gallina ones, there is some evidence for this: the Albuquerque samples grouped with the maize-fed Tijeras ones, and most of the Gallina samples grouped with the free-range Tijeras ones. However, the Arroyo Hondo samples, though also high-elevation, showed a much more maize-based pattern, so there is something more than environmental difference going on here.

The authors suggest that the position of Tijeras Pueblo on the eastern fringe of the Pueblo world, at its interface with the very different cultural world of the Plains, may account for the diversity of the turkey husbandry types shown in their data. Conversely, Arroyo Hondo was further within the Pueblo world, while the Gallina region was culturally distinct in ways that are still poorly understood. The authors recognize, however, that further research will be necessary to flesh out the context of these results. In any case, this is a very interesting paper that adds another little bit to our knowledge of the past.

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Entrance to Room 33, Pueblo Bonito

A fascinating and important article about Chaco was published last week in Nature Communications, an open-access offshoot of the venerable journal Nature (already a good sign). Since it’s open-access, the full text of the article is available free online here.

The researchers behind the article, based mainly at Penn State and Harvard but also including Steve Plog at the University of Virginia and a couple of people at the American Museum of Natural History, sequenced the mitochondrial genomes of several of the people buried in Room 33 at Pueblo Bonito in an attempt to determine if they were related. This addresses a number of outstanding issues in the interpretation of the Chaco Phenomenon, particularly those revolving around the political economy of Chaco and the degree to which it was a hierarchical society. They also radiocarbon-dated the remains and did some additional genetic analysis to confirm the sexes of the people and try to determine any close genetic relationships among them.

The results were striking. All of the tested remains had identical mitochondrial genomes, indicating that they were all related through the maternal line, which in turn suggests strongly that Chaco was a matrilineal society in which this particular maternal lineage had an enormous amount of power and wealth that led it to have the most elaborate burials in the history of Pueblo societies. The radiocarbon dating suggests in addition that people from this lineage continued to be buried in the special crypt in Room 33 throughout the florescence of Chaco, starting in the early ninth century AD and continuing until the early twelfth century. (What exactly happened then remains obscure.) The DNA sex determinations matched those previously determined through osteological analysis 100% as well.

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Old Bonito from Above

These results, which are based on carefully controlled analyses and seem very solid, are not exactly surprising, but they do provide apparent confirmation of certain models of Chaco and apparent falsification of others. Specifically, they support models involving robust social hierarchy and inequality, with some lineages having more authority than others and one at the top. Most recent evidence has pointed in this direction, but this study is a particularly strong support for it. Also, they provide support for the idea that Chacoan society was more like the ethnographic Western Pueblos, which are matrilineal and structured around kin groups known as “clans” that derive their power and status from their control of esoteric religious knowledge, than the Eastern Pueblos, which are patrilineal and structured around non-kin-based groups known as “societies” that derive their power and status from similar bases. (If this distinction seems fairly minor, that’s because it is. But in attempting to reconstruct historic societies it’s important.)

It’s important to note that while these results do provide support for a matrilineal model of Chaco, that’s very different from saying they support a matriarchal one, as some media coverage I’ve seen has either implied or stated explicitly. Reckoning descent through the mother’s line is very different from having women run things with men in a subordinate position. The former is quite common cross-culturally, while I’m not sure if the latter exists at all in the ethnographic record. The fact that several of the people buried in Room 33 appear to have been related maternally doesn’t negate the fact that the two most elaborate burials were both of men, and in general there’s no reason to think that Chacoan society wasn’t strongly patriarchal, and plenty of reason to think it was.

Finally, from a methodological perspective this is a particularly interesting paper. The authors say that it appears to be the first use of genomic analysis to determine family relationships in a prehistoric society (i.e., without the availability of written records to check the results). I’m not completely sure that’s correct, but this has certainly not been a common type of study. In discussing DNA evidence a while back, I mentioned that in the Southwest it had mostly been used so far just for determining mitochondrial haplogroups, which provide some useful information but not nearly as much as can be provided by genomic analysis, which at that time hadn’t really been used at all in the Southwest. This paper marks the first major use of this type of analysis in the region, and it shows how powerful it can be. Now that the precedent has been set, it can be used in other contexts to see where this particular matrilineage shows up elsewhere in Southwestern prehistory both before and after Chaco, as well as to address other issues of kinship and identity within Chaco.
ResearchBlogging.org
Kennett, D., Plog, S., George, R., Culleton, B., Watson, A., Skoglund, P., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Stewardson, K., Kistler, L., LeBlanc, S., Whiteley, P., Reich, D., & Perry, G. (2017). Archaeogenomic evidence reveals prehistoric matrilineal dynasty Nature Communications, 8 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms14115

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