Archive for the ‘Ethnography’ Category

Petroglyphs of Quadrupeds at Atlatl Rock, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

In 1978 H. Martin Wobst of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst published a short article in American Antiquity entitled “The Archaeo-Ethnology of Hunter-Gatherers or the Tyranny of the Ethnographic Record in Archaeology.”  Despite the evocative title, the article itself is a highly theoretical argument about the proper relationship between archaeology and ethnography that is unlikely to be of much interest outside those fields.  Basically, Wobst argues that the archaeology of hunter-gatherer societies is overly dependent on concepts drawn from ethnographic study of modern hunter-gatherer societies, even though that ethnographic research has inherent limitations in what it can observe about those societies and is further limited by the specific priorities of the scholars who conduct it.  He therefore says that archaeologists should play a larger role in developing theoretical approaches to these societies based on archaeological data, which has its own limitations but is nevertheless better suited to studying certain topics, such as large-scale regional interaction, than is ethnography.  From the perspective of archaeology, Wobst’s article is clearly situated in the processualist tradition, with its emphasis on using archaeological evidence to reconstruct social behavior and contribute to general anthropological theory.

The most interesting part of Wobst’s article, however, is the acknowledgments at the end, which begin with this remarkable dedication:

I would like to dedicate this paper to Provost Dr. Paul Puryear, without whose failing support of Social Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I would have been done much earlier.

It seems that Paul Puryear was indeed in some sort of administrative position at UMass at the time, but beyond that I have no idea what Wobst is talking about here.  Still, it’s a welcome change from the anodyne expressions of gratitude that usually dominate these parts of papers.
Wobst, H. (1978). The Archaeo-Ethnology of Hunter-Gatherers or the Tyranny of the Ethnographic Record in Archaeology American Antiquity, 43 (2) DOI: 10.2307/279256

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Wupatki Pueblo

The paper I discussed earlier on the connection between plow-based agriculture and highly inegalitarian gender roles was based on a theory proposed by Ester Boserup.  Boserup was a Danish economist who had a lot of interesting ideas about the relationship between population growth and agricultural intensification.  She’s best known for arguing that intensification of agricultural production is a response to population growth, rather than a cause of it as Malthus proposed.  The basic idea is that the default mode of agricultural production is extensive, i.e., requiring a lot of land but relatively little labor.  As population grows, however, the amount of land available per person declines, so people need to get more production out of each unit of land.  This generally requires more work, and the amount of production per unit of work declines.  That is, although the overall amount of food produced increases, the amount of food produced for the amount of work expended to grow it declines.  Thus, people will only intensify agricultural production when they are forced to do so by increasing population.

The Citadel at Wupatki National Monument

This model has been very influential, but it has also been criticized on a number of fronts.  Many of these relate to the underlying assumptions, which Boserup didn’t really make explicit.  The model assumes that the amount of land available is fixed, and doesn’t make allowances for other responses to increased population growth such as trade, migration, and conquest.  There have also been a number of cases in which the model doesn’t seem to apply, either because increased intensification does not in fact require more work or because putting more work into intensified agriculture does not in fact increase crop yields.  (Note that these objections come largely from cultural anthropologists based on ethnographic data.)

Rooms at Wupatki Pueblo

A 1999 paper by Glenn Davis Stone and Christian Downum (available here) tries to incorporate the criticisms of Boserup’s model into a recasting of the model that sees it as applicable only under certain circumstances, namely where increased labor is both necessary and sufficient to raise production.  When this is the case, one option for coping with increased population pressure is what they term “Boserupian intensification,” which is basically the process Boserup described in which people work harder and get higher total yields but lower yields per unit of work on a fixed amount of land.  There are other options, however, including migration and trade, for dealing with population growth in this context, and in other contexts where Boserupian intensification is not an option because of ecological conditions those other options comprise the whole set of possible responses.  In conditions where intensification is possible without harder work, due to new technology or innovative techniques, population pressure ends up not being much of a problem.  Examples given in the paper include raised-field agriculture in the Andes and rice paddies in East Asia.  In other conditions, however, such as arid environments where the weather is very unpredictable, intensification through increased labor just doesn’t work to increase yields reliably, and population pressure becomes a very big problem that must be addressed through other solutions.

Entrance Sign, Wupatki National Monument

Stone and Downum illustrate their proposal through an examination of Wupatki.  This is a very arid part of northern Arizona with similar climatic conditions to Chaco Canyon.  Like Chaco, it was also (rather mysteriously) a major population center in prehistoric times.  Wupatki’s heyday came mainly in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries AD, a little later than Chaco’s in the eleventh and early twelfth.  Many years ago Harold Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona proposed that the rise of Wupatki was a response to the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano in 1064, which covered the area with volcanic ash that served as a natural mulch and greatly increased local fertility, leading to a massive influx of population.  This theory has been challenged more recently but it seems to still have a large number of adherents, and Stone and Downum seem to be among them.  They take the idea of increased fertility from the volcanic ash for granted and look at what happened once people started to move into the Wupatki area.  There have been proposals that the increased population pressure from immigration led to intensification of agriculture at Wupatki in a classic example of Boserupian intensification, but Stone and Downum look carefully at the evidence and conclude that there is very little evidence of any intensification.  Instead, they argue that the vast majority of the Wupatki area is totally unsuitable for intensification; there are very few places where any kind of irrigation or floodwater farming can be practiced, and for the most part the only way to grow anything is to extensively dry-farm the open spaces.  Thus, intensification was not an option, and other options for dealing with population pressure must have been pursued.

Dry Land Farming Sign at Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

The strategy they see as most likely is political consolidation to secure claims to land.  Since the necessity of extensive agriculture made holding on to as much land as possible a necessity, coming up with effective means of demonstrating and enforcing land rights was a high priority.  They see the most likely way this would have happened is the formation of political units organized along ethnic lines.  It is always difficult to recognize ethnicity in the archaeological record, but Wupatki has long been known as a “frontier” area occupied by people of three distinct archaeological “cultures”: Kayenta Anasazi, Sinagua, and Cohonina.  These presumably don’t correspond exactly to “ethnicities” in the modern sense, but there are notable differences in material culture among the three, and Stone and Downum identify two main clusters of settlements including large, impressive pueblos.  One of these, centered on Wupatki Pueblo, seems to show Sinagua affiliations, while the other, centered on the Citadel, shows more Cohonina affiliations.  The place of the Kayenta Anasazi in all this is unclear.  They don’t seem to have a cluster of their own, and Kayenta-affiliated sites are spread all over the area.

Wall at the Citadel, Wupatki National Monument

Stone and Downum see the construction of large, aggregated pueblos as a sign of group power intended to impress others with the legitimacy of the group’s claims to land and other resources, and they suggest that relatively few people might have actually lived in the pueblos themselves despite being affiliated with them politically.  For this system to work, the groups’ land claims had to be backed with the credible threat of coercive force, and there is indeed some evidence of violence at Wupatki that may reflect occasional instances when this force needed to be shown.  (There is an interesting parallel here to a more recent article on a different part of the Southwest which I will discuss at some point.)

Wall at Wupatki Pueblo

To illustrate the plausibility of their interpretation of Wupatki, Stone and Downum rely on analogy to contemporary ethnic groups in central Nigeria.  This is an area where Boserupian intensification is in fact possible and some groups have dealt with population pressure through intensification.  Other groups, however, have responded instead by organizing along ethnic lines to defend their land claims through the threat and occasional application of violence.  Stone is a sociocultural anthropologist and this part of the paper is based on his fieldwork in the area.  This is a good example of what (sociocultural) anthropology can contribute to interdisciplinary scholarship.  Ethnography produces an enormously rich, textured body of qualitative data that can be used to test hypotheses and models to explain social phenomena.  Those models can come from anthropology itself, of course, but they can also come from other disciplines, such as economics in this case.  Downum is a Southwestern archaeologist, and his role in this paper seems to be in providing the data about Wupatki.  Much of the data comes from an extensive survey of sites within Wupatki National Monument which has greatly increased the amount of information available about this interesting but poorly understood area.

San Francisco Peaks from Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument

I think the arguments in this paper are pretty plausible.  There are some questions about the application of the theory to Wupatki, but it seems to fit as well as any other explanation I’ve seen for the processes of aggregation and abandonment that marked this period of Southwestern prehistory.  The basic idea is that aggregation occurred because of political consolidation, which came about to secure land claims in the face of population pressure and inability to intensify production.  Along with this consolidation came increased conflict, and ultimately that conflict and poor climatic conditions led to abandonment.  This is similar to the model I have proposed for the role of warfare in spurring aggregation and abandonment, although there I focused more on warfare specifically as a response to resource scarcity rather than political consolidation as the response and warfare as the result of that.  This is really a difference of emphasis, however, and the basic idea is very similar.  What Stone and Downum’s theory doesn’t explain, however, is the widespread nature of the aggregation and abandonment processes across the northern Southwest, even in places with much better ecological conditions such as Mesa Verde where intensification would presumably have been an option in a way it wasn’t at Wupatki.  They acknowledge this, and make no claim to explain anything beyond the specific local situation, but it’s an issue that is worth thinking about in evaluating theories like this.

Interior Room at Wupatki Pueblo

Since I’ve been talking a lot lately about disciplinary issues in academia, it’s worth noting that this paper seems to be to be pretty much entirely a cultural anthropology paper.  It uses archaeological data, and one of the authors is an archaeologist, but the overall analysis lies squarely within the realm of (sociocultural) anthropology.  It’s well-done, too, and quite serious and empirical.  I suspect its authors are probably among those who consider themselves “scientific anthropologists” and are outraged by the American Anthropological Association’s moves toward removing “science” from the definition of the field.  I wouldn’t call this science, though.  There’s no hypothesis testing or statistical analysis, and the analysis is basically comparative and qualitative.  It doesn’t go so far in that direction as historical papers like Robin Ganev’s, which I discussed in the previous post, but it’s nowhere near as scientific as the economics paper on plowing that I discussed in the post before that.  What I take from this is that scholarship doesn’t need to be scientific to be serious.  Indeed, in a paper like this one of the main advantages is to take a more “scientific” theory like Boserup’s and evaluate it from a more qualitative perspective to define the unstated assumptions behind it and the conditions under which it applies.  I still maintain that anthropology is not a science, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile or doesn’t count as serious scholarship.
Stone, G., & Downum, C. (1999). Non-Boserupian Ecology and Agricultural Risk: Ethnic Politics and Land Control in the Arid Southwest American Anthropologist, 101 (1), 113-128 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1999.101.1.113

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Plow at Lost City Museum, Overton, Nevada

Most if not all cultures have gendered divisions of labor, but the specifics of what counts as “women’s work” versus “men’s work” vary considerably from one culture to another.  There are some broad generalizations that apply pretty widely cross-culturally; hunting tends to be a masculine task, for instance, and childcare a feminine one.  When it comes to more complicated tasks of more recent origin, however, the gender designations can seem pretty arbitrary.  This is particularly obvious when it comes to agriculture, which developed several times in different parts of the world with different crops.  In many societies tending crops is a feminine task, perhaps because it is similar to gathering wild plants, which is often a responsibility of women.  This was historically the case, for example, among the indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands of North America, where women tended the fields while men were responsible for hunting, war, and diplomacy.  In other parts of the world, on the other hand, such as most of Europe, agriculture was traditionally considered a masculine pursuit, and men tended the fields while women stayed at home and took care of cooking, cleaning, and childcare.

Why would this be?  Is it mere chance that agriculture developed different gender associations in different societies, or is there some pattern?  A recent draft paper by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn takes a look at one hypothesis, originally advanced by Ester Boserup, to explain cross-cultural differences in the gendering of agriculture.  Boserup proposed that cultures in which farming is done primarily by men tend to farm with plows, while those in which agriculture is done by women use other agricultural techniques.  Furthermore, she argued that these two types of agrarian societies tend to differ systematically in other ways as well, particularly with respect to gender roles.  In plow societies women tend to stay at home and tend to household tasks while men are out working in the fields, and in many cases they develop highly elaborated systems of gender role differentiation with men in a clearly dominant role.  This has historically been the case especially in the Near East and most of Europe, as well as in other areas such as northern India.  In places without plow agriculture, however, societies tend to have less rigid gender role definition and more flexibility in acceptable economic activity for women.  This is the case in most of Africa, the Americas, and southern India.  Strikingly, these differences in economic role for men and women in plow societies seem to persist even when societies industrialize: men take the manufacturing jobs outside the home instead of working in the fields, but women still stay at home rather than working.  Very recently this has begun to change, especially in the wealthiest societies, but there is some evidence that the pattern has been surprisingly persistent.

Roswell Seed Company, Roswell, New Mexico

The proposed mechanism behind this is that plow agriculture, unlike other techniques, requires considerable physical strength to push the plow, which makes it more suited for men, who are on average physically stronger than women.  Once they have gained a predominant role in agriculture, which is the mainstay of the subsistence system, men go on to become dominant in other parts of society as well, and cultural norms begin to reinforce male superiority on an ideological as well as an economic level.

An interesting idea, to be sure, but is it true?  This is what Alesina, Giuliano, and Nunn set out to determine, using elaborate statistical techniques.  This paper is an example of an increasing trend among some economists of analyzing anthropological questions using the sophisticated quantitative techniques that are standard in economics but vanishingly rare in anthropology.  Archaeologists do use statistical techniques quite a bit these days, but the stuff in this paper blows away anything I’ve seen in archaeology, and sociocultural anthropologists hardly seem to use statistics at all.  This paper is an example of what serious quantitative social-science research looks like as applied to the subject matter usual addressed by anthropologists, and the difference between these techniques and those used by anthropologists shows why anthropology is not a science.  That’s not to say that these techniques are necessarily better than those used by anthropologists.  In fact, I think there are a lot of drawbacks to this kind of research.  Regardless of whether this kind of research is useful or not, however, I just don’t see any way to avoid the conclusion that it’s fundamentally different from what anthropologists do.

Aztec Feed & Supply, Aztec, New Mexico

Be that as it may, this is a very impressive paper.  The authors start from the assumption that plow agriculture works better for some crops than for others.  Plows are expensive, as are the draft animals necessary to pull them, so societies are unlikely to adopt the plow if they can grow enough food on the land available to them more easily.  This will be the case if the land is suitable for growing crops that don’t need plowed fields to grow effectively.  These include tree crops, roots, and tubers, as well as some grains such as corn, millet, and sorghum.  Other grain crops, such as wheat, rye, and barley, require extensive preparation of the land by plowing before they will grow effectively.  The idea, then, is to identify the parts of the world suited for “plow-positive” and “plow-negative” crops, then to identify the traditional agrarian societies that have historically inhabited these areas and to check that their agricultural techniques corresponded to the crops to which their land was suitable.  Using several databases of ethnographic documentation and soil suitability data, the authors confirmed that this in fact the case.  They then used some fairly ingenious analysis with geographical information systems to calculate percentages of the population whose ancestral ethnic groups used the plow in countries around the world and compared these percentages to replies to worldwide surveys of attitudes toward gender roles and statistics on women’s participation in the workforce.

The results confirmed Boserup’s prediction: countries with higher percentages of people from plow cultures had lower numbers of women working outside the home and gender attitudes among both men and women more focused on male superiority.  To make sure these results were really associated with plow use rather than something else they controlled for a wide variety of potential confounding variables, and the results were still quite robust.  They also did a separate analysis of workforce participation among female immigrants and daughters of immigrants to the US, to control for the possibility that institutional structures in countries with histories of plow use rather than cultural factors were causing the effects on women’s workforce participation there.  The results remained the same, with female immigrants from plow cultures less likely to work than other immigrant women and the same effect for daughters of immigrants, with the effect strongest when both parents were from the same ethnic background.

Bullock's Feed & Seed, Artesia, New Mexico

These results aren’t definitive, of course.  The paper is certainly pretty rough, although more in the writeup than the data.  Also, with any statistical analysis like this there is always the possibility of additional factors that the authors missed that could be causing these effects.  In this case, however, the authors did a very good job of considering and controlling for a wide variety of possible confounding factors.  This paper is a good example of how interdisciplinary research can work well.  In this case the data and many of the crucial assumptions behind the analysis came from anthropology, while the analytical tools came from economics.  This kind of research won’t replace traditional anthropological research, but it is a useful supplement to it.  Multiple lines of evidence are always good when evaluating complicated questions such as those that arise in studying human societies.

To bring this back to the usual subject matter of this blog, another possible factor in whether or not a society uses the plow is of course the presence or absence of draft animals.  The general lack of draft animals in the Americas was probably one contributing factor to the lack of plow agriculture.  We’ve seen a similar explanation advanced for the lack of wheeled vehicles in the Americas as well.  However, given that maize and other indigenous cultivated plants like potatoes and manioc don’t require use of the plow, it’s likely that the crop-based explanation advanced by this paper is more important in explaining the non-plow nature of American agriculture.  Regardless of why, however, it is certainly the case that the Americas did not develop plow cultures like those of the Old World, with their extreme gender inequality and ideology that a woman’s place is in the home.

Tractor Brewing Company, Los Lunas, New Mexico

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Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico

There’s been a flurry of activity in the past few days reacting to the American Anthropological Association‘s removal of the word “science” from its mission statement.  I’m not an anthropologist myself, but my perspective is that this change is appropriate to how the discipline has developed and what it currently is.  Whether or not anthropology was ever “really” a science (and it’s important to note that the common cultural understanding of the words “anthropology” and “science” has changed quite a lot over the past century), it is today not a science in any common sense of the word.

The traditional “four-field” division of anthropology into sociocultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics was in my view never more than an historical accident, and these “subdisciplines” have never had a whole lot in common other than the vague concept of “culture” tying them loosely together.  I think people who have been saying that sociocultural anthropology, with its increasing tendency toward more humanistic and less scientific methods, has becoming increasingly hegemonic within the discipline are correct, and that this is not really a problem.  To an increasing extent, anthropology today just is sociocultural anthropology, and as trends within sociocultural anthropology cause it to move away from the other subfields the most natural result is for the increasingly disjointed discipline to break up.  The more “scientific” subfields could easily just become separate disciplines.  Linguistics did this decades ago as part of the major shift in the discipline inaugurated by Chomsky’s theories in the late 1950s, and the few linguists who are still associated with anthropology departments generally practice a type of linguistics more in line with anthropology than is typical of most linguists.  Archaeology, in particular, could easily do the same thing.  There are already independent archaeology departments at BU and Simon Fraser, and the establishment of new departments at other universities is quite conceivable and would, I think, be a good thing for the discipline of archaeology, which I don’t think has much of a connection to the discipline of anthropology these days.  Archaeologists like Mike Smith are up in arms about this change and some are even threatening to leave the AAA over it, which I think is all to the good.  If archaeologists feel anthropology is no longer scientific enough for them, they should leave anthropology and set out on their own.  Then we can have a discussion over the separate and, to me, more interesting question of whether archaeology is a science.

Sign for Anthropology Building, University of New Mexico

Physical anthropology, the most scientific of the subfields, is a trickier case since there are no independent departments (as far as I know) and the word “anthropology” is right there in the name, but some sort of closer affiliation to biology or human physiology programs would make sense, and I can also conceive of new departments of primatology or some such being established, which would also take care of the odd and (to me) rather disconcerting fact that much of the research done in physical anthropology is actually not about humans at all but about other primates.

The new mission statement not only gets rid of the word “science” but also downplays the four-field concept, instead referring to a variety of research approaches, some associated with completely separate disciplines such as economics and history.  To the extent that research from these perspectives, as well as from the perspectives of the traditional anthropological subfields, intersects with research in sociocultural anthropology, it makes sense to consider them part of the mission of anthropology as a discipline.  There is no longer much reason to privilege the anthropological portions of certain disciplines as subfields of anthropology while leaving research within other disciplines that may be equally anthropological isolated from anthropology as a discipline.

Now, as it happens I’m not actually all that interested in the sorts of things sociocultural anthropologists have been doing recently, so if the discipline does start to formally dissolve the way I’ve sketched out here I probably will not be keeping a close eye on developments within the remnants of anthropology.  Instead, as with other disciplines with which I have no particular connection, I will deal with it only as it intersects the subjects that I am interested in.  But that’s okay with me.

Anthropology Building, University of New Mexico

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Starbucks, New Brunswick, New Jersey

My post on the atlatl found at the mouth of the Skagit River north of Seattle seems to have led one reader to ask about it in a forum for modern atlatl makers and users.  The responses are interesting.  One respondent linked to an article from the 1960s with more detailed information which is available free online.  This article, by Charles Borden, has some very good pictures of the atlatl, which was at some point acquired by the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, which has even better pictures and more information on its website.  Borden’s analysis focuses mainly on the iconography of the elaborately carved figure, which he puts in the context of ethnographically known imagery from various Northwest Coast cultures representing sea monsters and other mythological creatures with similar characteristics to the one on the atlatl.  He argues, not entirely convincingly, that it represents an early form of the important creature known as the Sisiutl, which is usually represented as a two-headed snake but which can take on other forms as well.  Whether or not he is right about that particular identification, Borden does make a convincing case that the atlatl fits easily into the artistic traditions of the Northwest rather than being an import from elsewhere.  He also argues that it is likely very old, and tentatively suggests that it may be contemporaneous with the Locarno Beach site in Vancouver, which produced an atlatl hook made of antler.  The Locarno Beach site defined the Locarno Beach Phase, which now seems to be dated to around 3500 to 2500 radiocarbon years before present.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the Skagit River atlatl was apparently later radiocarbon dated directly and assigned to the Marpole Phase, which dates to around 2000 to 1500 radiocarbon years before present.  (According to the UBC Museum website the exact date was around 200 AD.)  Borden was therefore off by quite a bit in suggesting that the atlatl was contemporaneous with Locarno Beach, but of course he had less information to go by than is available now.

Also, John Palter recently commented on a post in which I discussed an article of his on atlatl weights, pointing to a more recent article in which he bolsters his theory that they were associated with flexible atlatls by discussing the attitudes of modern atlatl users toward the advantages of flexible, weighted atlatls over more rigid types.  As with the forum discussion on the Skagit River atlatl, this shows the interesting insights on atlatl use that can come from the large corps of amateur atlatl users and their extensive experimental experience with atlatls.  This is a very different approach to learning about atlatls than the abstract study of surviving ancient specimens more typical of archaeologists, and I think the two approaches used together can be quite complementary. I’ve mentioned this issue before with regard to interpretation of an atlatl petroglyph.

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Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, California

In November of 1793 a British naval expedition commanded by Captain George Vancouver arrived at the small Spanish settlement of Santa Barbara on the coast of California.  Vancouver’s primary mission was to explore and map the poorly understood northwest coast of North America, building on the more preliminary information provided earlier by Captain James Cook.  He was quite successful at this, and the detailed maps produced by his expedition greatly enhanced British understanding of this area, which was becoming very important geopolitically as a result of its potential resources and increasing competition among Britain, Spain, and Russia to claim it.  When he arrived at Santa Barbara he was headed south, having spent the spring and summer exploring the area around the island that now bears his name and bound for Hawaii to spend the winter.  He anchored off of Santa Barbara for eight days to rest and resupply, and his men took advantage of the opportunity to trade with the local Spanish and Chumash inhabitants.  Mission Santa Barbara was only a few years old, having been established in 1786, and the presidio where Spanish soldiers were garrisoned was only four years older than that.  Although the Chumash had been in contact with the Spanish since the Cabrillo expedition of 1542, the permanent Spanish presence in their territory dated only to the establishment of Mission San Luis Obispo in 1772, and at the time Vancouver’s expedition stopped by they were only just beginning to move to the missions and experience the profound and complicated cultural changes that would result.

Chamber of Commerce, San Luis Obispo, California

George Goodman Hewett, Surgeon’s First Mate on Vancouver’s flagship, HMS Discovery, was among the members of the expedition who did some trading with the locals at Santa Barbara.  Hewett apparently had a strong interest in the customs and lifestyles of the various peoples the expedition encountered, and he collected from them various items of material culture whenever possible.  Over the course of the four years that the expedition ended up taking he acquired a substantial collection.  While the greatest number of items in the collection were from the places the expedition spent the most time, particularly Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, the items from Santa Barbara were (and are) of particular interest to later anthropologists, since Hewett collected them at a time when traditional Chumash culture, now known primarily from the very detailed but nevertheless retrospective ethnographic fieldwork of John Peabody Harrington in the early twentieth century, was still mostly intact and only beginning to be affected by missionization and Spanish contact.  Hewett’s collection remained in his family until 1891, when it was acquired by the British Museum, where it remains.  A description of some of the most significant items was published by Charles H. Read in 1892.

Hill, San Luis Obispo, California

Read’s description included two atlatls.  One is an elaborately carved example from southeast Alaska, where use of the atlatl is known to have persisted into modern times, perhaps because of its usefulness in fishing and maritime hunting compared to the bow.  The other is from Santa Barbara.

First Bank of San Luis Obispo, San Luis Obispo, California

The Santa Barbara atlatl, as it has been known ever since Read’s publication, is very odd for a number of reasons.  For one thing, just at the outset, the idea of the atlatl being used at Santa Barbara in the late eighteenth century is odd.  California is one area where the replacement of the atlatl by the bow and arrow, whenever it happened, is widely agreed to have been complete by long before then.  While atlatl hooks have been found in early archaeological contexts in various parts of the state, including the Chumash area, there is no evidence of atlatl use from later prehistoric contexts, and the copious ethnohistoric and ethnographic literature on the Chumash nowhere mentions the atlatl, whereas the importance of the bow and arrow is discussed many times.  Read was not in a position to know any of this, of course, since this understanding of the culture history of the area came long after his time.

San Luis Surf, San Luis Obispo, California

Furthermore, the form of the atlatl itself is odd.  While archaeological and ethnographic examples from North America, including the Alaskan ones from the Hewett collection, are typically long and thin, the Santa Barbara specimen is short and thick.  While most atlatls are about half a meter long, this one is only 15 cm long, and nearly as wide.  Furthermore, while North American examples typically have either attached leather finger loops or none at all, this one has two large holes carved out of the wood itself.  The wood seems to be a local type, and no one has questioned the authenticity of the specimen or Hewett’s account of its origin (Read notes that Hewett’s record-keeping was pretty good by the standards of his time), but it’s all very odd and hard to explain.  If it represents a survival from a local atlatl tradition, this tradition is suspiciously absent entirely from both the archaeological and ethnographic records.  While it’s true that atlatls, being made of wood, rarely survive archaeologically, this one does have a bone hook, so if it represents a survival of an ancient atlatl type that continued in use after the adoption of the bow and arrow it would be reasonable to expect at least one similar bone hook to survive somewhere, and this still doesn’t address the lack of ethnographic evidence.

Street Signs, San Luis Obispo, California

Nevertheless, the Santa Barbara was generally accepted as an unusual but indigenous type of atlatl until 1938, when the prominent California archaeologist Robert Heizer published an article looking at the issue and coming to a quite different conclusion.  Heizer pointed out the lack of any other evidence for this type of atlatl as well as all the oddities of the Santa Barbara specimen compared to other examples, and went a step further by noting that it bore a striking similarity to the atlatls still in active use at that time by the Tarascans of western Mexico (remember them?).  These also have paired finger-holes carved out of the wood, and have the same widening of the body of the atlatl around the holes.  The dimensions are still different; the Tarascan examples are much longer and thinner than the Santa Barbara one.  There is still a remarkable similarity, however, and Heizer goes on to point out that the Spanish were known to use Tarascans and other Indians from previously colonized parts of Mexico as settlers on the frontier, particularly in the northwest, which is where the expeditions that colonized California in the 1770s are known to have started.  Although there is no direct evidence that the Spanish soldiers and missionaries in California were accompanied by Mexican Indians, given typical Spanish practices it would not be a surprise.  This, combined with the striking similarities between the Santa Barbara atlatl and Tarascan ones, leads Heizer to propose that the Santa Barbara example is not a survival at all, but a reintroduction of the atlatl to the area from Mesoamerica, where it remained in use long after the Spanish conquest.  The Santa Barbara one is clearly of local manufacture, however, which suggests that this process did not simply involve Tarascans bringing their own atlatls to California, although that was presumably part of it.  Rather, once the Mexican Indians were there, they apparently showed the Chumash the use of the atlatl, which they used for fishing and hunting in maritime settings, and the Chumash (who were a coastal people very oriented toward the sea) were sufficiently impressed to copy it themselves.  Since it apparently did not become established securely enough to be noticed or mentioned by either the Spanish or later ethnographers, the Chumash don’t seem to have ultimately decided to adopt it as a core part of their culture or subsistence system, but they do seem to have at least tried it out.  Indeed, Hewett may have encountered the Chumash at a time of experimentation connected to the changes associated with the transition to mission life, and his acquisition of the atlatl may have preserved a moment in time, a tentative embrace of foreign technology that was ultimately rejected and that would therefore otherwise be unknown to history.  Along the same lines, it’s worth wondering why the Chumash were willing to part with this obviously unusual and presumably rare item when all the other things they gave Hewett were rather typical and plentiful items such as bows.  Was whoever tried to copy the Mexican atlatls, or whoever had tried to use the copy made by someone else, displeased with how the experiment had turned out and eager to get rid of the item when a foreigner interested in buying random things showed up?  There’s no real way to tell, of course, and it’s also possible that atlatls like this were used successfully for a while around this time then abandoned for some other reason.  This item is, however, an intriguing window into a complicated past, and it shows that it’s important to look carefully at the stories behind artifacts before constructing theories based on their characteristics.
Heizer, R. (1938). An Inquiry into the Status of the Santa Barbara Spear-Thrower American Antiquity, 4 (2) DOI: 10.2307/275985

Read, C. (1892). An Account of a Collection of Ethnographical Specimens Formed During Vancouver’s Voyage in the Pacific Ocean, 1790-1795 The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 21 DOI: 10.2307/2842277

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Chuska Mountains from New Mexico Highway 371

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.

Jicarilla Apache Camp at Salmon Ruins Museum, Bloomfield, New Mexico

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.

Mural of Apaches, Artesia, New Mexico

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.

"Apache Indians" Sign, Artesia, New Mexico

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.

Office of Wilbur A. Tso, M.D., Farmington, New Mexico

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.

Navajo Trading Company, Farmington, New Mexico

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.

Collapsed Hogan, Shonto, Arizona

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

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