Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category


Chaco Petroglyph Panel Showing Abstract “Blanket” Designs

Chapter 11 of Crucible of Pueblos, by Rich Wilshusen, Scott Ortman, and Ann Phillips, is called “Processions, Leaders, and Gathering Places,” but I think a more concise description of its main concern is ideology. Specifically, this chapter looks at changes in the ideology of leadership, power, and community organization during the Basketmaker III and Pueblo I periods, as seen through the archaeology of public architecture, the portrayal of processions in rock art, and the reconstruction of related vocabulary through comparative linguistics. Due to this innovative interdisciplinary approach, I found this one of the most interesting chapters in the book. Some of the argumentation and conclusions strike me as either weak or overly speculative, but overall this is a fascinating example of how approaches from very different disciplines can be skillfully combined to produce a more complete picture of the past.

The overall argument in the chapter is fairly straightforward. The authors argue that there were a series of shifts in Pueblo society from the Basketmaker III to Pueblo I periods:

  • The overall settlement pattern shifted from dispersed hamlets to aggregated villages.
  • The locations for occasional ritual gatherings shifted from symbolically important central locations with public architecture to specific locations within villages that in some cases were likely residences of village leaders who exerted control over rituals they hosted.
  • The social ties that sustained communities shifted from personal relationships between individuals to symbolic relationships between abstract corporate entities to which individuals belonged.

The authors see all of these shifts as being ultimately driven by the rapid increase in population from an intensification of agriculture (the so-called “Neolithic Demographic Transition”). The actual evidence for this transition, and its relationship to agriculture, seems a bit thin to me, but at least on a theoretical level it makes sense, and there’s certainly no question that populations were increasing rapidly in the Mesa Verde region (to which this chapter, like several others, essentially confines itself due to the scarcity of comparable data for other areas) during the period they discuss.

From archaeology, the most important shift the authors discuss is the well-known change from dispersed settlements during Basketmaker III to aggregated villages in Pueblo I. (Again, we’re essentially just looking at the greater Mesa Verde area here, without any discussion of the possible Basketmaker III villages at Chaco Canyon.) One aspect of the Basketmaker III settlement pattern that is particularly important is the presence of “isolated” public architecture of presumed ritual function, which in some cases took the form of “great kivas” and in other cases took the form of “dance circles,” the main distinction being whether the structure appears to have had a roof. These structures are generally thought to have hosted occasional rituals that brought in people from throughout the surrounding area and helped to integrate them as a social “community.” In addition to the actual rituals performed, about which we know little to nothing, these events would have provided opportunities to trade, share information, and find marriage partners, all important activities to ensuring the success of the community and its members.

As people began to gather in aggregated villages during the Pueblo I period, the nature of public architecture begins to change. Great kivas are still being used in some villages, but less and less over time, and some villages don’t have them at all. Instead, it appears that some of the integrative functions of the great kivas are being taken over by U-shaped roomblocks with associated “oversized pit structures” that have features suggesting ritual use but, importantly, not in the same way as great kivas. The U-shaped roomblocks appear to have been at least partly residential in function, and they may have served as the residences of emerging village leaders who used the plazas they partly enclosed, as well as the oversized pit structures, to host community rituals that served many of the same functions previously served by great kivas. Unlike the great kivas, however, which appear to have been communal sites not associated with any particular members of the community, these structures would have been under the direct control of the families or kin-groups that owned them, who would therefore have the opportunity to amass ever more status, power, and wealth. There have been suggestions, repeated here, that these structures were the forerunners of the later “great houses” at Chaco and its outlier communities, which seems increasingly plausible as more is known about them. (It’s worth noting, however, that great kivas reappear at Chaco as well.)

So far so good, and this is about as far as the archaeology can take us. These ideas are plausible, but they’re not new. Where this chapter goes further than others, however, is in incorporating evidence from rock art as well. The specific focus is on rock art depicting what appear to be ritual processions. The authors analyze two specific panels in detail. One, from Comb Ridge in southern Utah, is thought to date to the Basketmaker III period and to depict the sort of gathering of dispersed communities at a central ritual site that was argued above to have been typical of this period. The other panel is from near Waterflow in northwestern New Mexico, and it is argued to date to later, after the collapse of the Pueblo I villages in the Central Mesa Verde region but before the rise of Chaco to the south. This site is at a key point along what may have been one of the main routes between those two areas, which may be important.

I won’t go into much detail about the analyses of the two panels, interesting though they are. The main points are that the Comb Ridge appears to depict at least two groups approaching a round great kiva or dance circle site from different directions, possibly reflecting the joining of two previously separate communities into one. The focus is on long lines of human figures, some of which have elaborate regalia or carry possible ritual objects, which may indicate that they represent specific individuals. Referring to an earlier study, the authors suggest that the focus on these rituals in Basketmaker III rock art represents a shift in ideology from earlier Basketmaker II art that focused on life-cycle rituals and individualistic shamanism to a more communal type of ritual associated with the central sites.

There is very little rock art associated with the Pueblo I villages, and no known procession scenes at all. The authors don’t discuss this fact in any detail, but it seems significant as evidence for a shift in ideology associated with the new ritual forms they describe as indicated by the architecture. Yet another shift appears to be indicated by the reappearance of procession scenes during the Pueblo I/Pueblo II transition as represented by the Waterflow panel. Here, the procession is primarily of animals rather than people, and they are approaching a square divided into halves and decorated with abstract designs. The whole panel has much more of an abstract feel, and it includes symbols of authority known from later Pueblo religion such as twin mountain lions who appear to be guarding the square. The authors interpret the square as representing the community, with the animals approaching it possibly being symbols of corporate groups like clans that make it up rather than known individuals. Of particular interest, the authors suggest on the basis of other rock art evidence that the symbols on the square actually represent a specific community, as there are apparently other symbols like this with various abstract symbols that may depict community in a sort of “heraldry” comparable to the city glyphs known from Mesoamerica. There are also intriguing petroglyphs of human figures with these squares as heads, possibly indicating village “heads” or chiefs. This system doesn’t appear to continue into later periods, at least in this form, though it may be worth taking another look at distinctive rock art motifs found at later sites to see if there is any continuity in the symbolism. The so-called “blanket” motifs found in rock art at Chaco are similar at least in form.

So the overall picture from the rock art evidence is of a shift from showing communities as consisting of groups of individual people who gather at a central location on certain occasions to more abstract depictions of communities as consisting of social categories, rather than individuals. This may reflect a further step in the development of community ideology after the first, apparently failed, experiments with village living during Pueblo I. The elaborate system that developed subsequently at Chaco may have been yet another step.

Turning to language, this is a particularly interesting part of the chapter for me given my linguistic background. It is based on Ortman’s dissertation, subsequently turned into a book, which considered linguistics along with other lines of evidence to understand the cultural makeup of the Mesa Verde region in the later Pueblo III period. While several languages from different families are spoken by the modern Pueblos, here the discussion is limited to the Kiowa-Tanoan language family, the only family that is both primarily spoken by Puebloan peoples and complex enough in structure to analyze historically in any detail. The analysis is based on what terms for culturally important items and technologies can be reconstructed to different stages of the language, and how the presence or absence of certain terms relates to when they were introduced in the archaeological record. So, for example, the (Puebloan) Tanoan languages share some terms related to agriculture with the (non-Puebloan) Kiowa language, but lack shared terms for such items as pottery, beans, and the bow and arrow. Since these items were introduced to the northern Southwest in the Basketmaker III period, it appears that Kiowa broke off from the other languages no later than Basketmaker II. The subsequent divisions within Tanoan look a lot shakier to me, but if they do hold up they seem to indicate that the Towa language split off during Basketmaker III, which would have left the language ancestral to Tiwa and Tewa as having been spoken during Pueblo I, possibly in some of the early villages of the Mesa Verde region. Tiwa and Tewa are said to have split after Pueblo I, which the authors of this chapter suggest indicates that it was the collapse of those villages that caused the split.

This is an interesting approach to trying to align the linguistic and archaeological records, and I’m glad people are looking at it. It doesn’t seem to add much to the other two lines of evidence in this specific case, however, and there are some potential issues that make it hard to apply in general. For one, it can be hard to tell if the inability to reconstruct a term to a given protolanguage truly indicates that the item it represents was not present during the period when that protolanguage was spoken, especially in a small language like Kiowa-Tanoan. Terms can be lost in daughter languages in many ways, with the ultimate result being the same in the present language as if it had never existed. However, this is a much more productive approach to the problem of correlating linguistics with archaeology than some others that have been tried, like glottochronology, and it’s definitely worth pursuing to see what insights it can provide.

Another problem, however, is that there are several other Pueblo languages not related to Kiowa-Tanoan, and this type of analysis doesn’t, and can’t, say anything about when and where they might have been spoken. A better approach to try to address the diversity of languages among the Pueblos is to look at loanwords, both between different Pueblo languages and between them and non-Pueblo ones, and try to see what can be inferred about when certain items were introduced to speakers of a given language based on that. There have been some studies along these lines that have given some interesting insights and more work would be useful.

Overall, this chapter is a really interesting approach to trying to correlate different types of analyses to complement each other and get a better answer to a specific question about the past than any one type of analysis individually. At the end the authors call for more work like this, and I second that call. The specific conclusions arrived at in this publication may or may not hold up under further study, but the process it demonstrates for getting them will be helpful in moving forward and getting more complete and reliable answers.


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Kachina Fast Tax, Winslow, Arizona

Kachina Fast Tax, Winslow, Arizona

As I mentioned in the last post, I don’t think the linguistic relationships among the modern Pueblo languages shed much light on the details of the relationships between ancient and modern Pueblo groups. However, that’s not to say that linguistics is totally useless in addressing this issue. There’s another type of linguistic evidence which has received less attention from researchers but has a lot of potential here: contact linguistics, especially loanword studies.

Due to the close historical connections and cultural similarities among the Pueblos, they form what linguists call a “Sprachbund”: a linguistic area where borrowing of both words and other linguistic features is common among unrelated (or distantly related) languages. Oddly, however, there hasn’t been a whole lot of study of this phenomenon among the Pueblos. Individual loanwords from one Pueblo language to another have been pointed out in descriptive accounts of the specific languages, and instances of unusual lexical or grammatical influence from one Pueblo language to another have been noted. There has been some research on loanwords from Spanish and English into various Pueblo languages (e.g., Hopi), mostly in the 1950s and 1960s when the process of acculturation was a major topic of anthropological interest. Nevertheless, there has still never been a systematic, comprehensive study of linguistic contact between Pueblo languages. My discussion here will therefore have to be limited to pointing out individual instances of contact that have been noted in the literature and suggesting possible implications for prehistoric relationships.

Known examples of loanwords tend to relate to ceremonial  concepts, and often are from Keres into other languages. For example, and of interest for the question of the origins of the kachina cult, the word kachina itself is apparently a loan from Keres into Hopi. That’s not necessarily evidence that the Keres originated the kachina cult, but it could be interpreted as evidence that they transmitted it to the Hopi, which would argue for an eastern rather than western origin for the cult. On the other hand, the Zuni word for “kachina,” koko, is apparently a loanword from a Piman language, which would seem to argue for a western origin of the cult, possibly even outside the Pueblo world itself. Teasing apart the implications of the various terms associated with the kachina cult in different languages would be a promising way to try to address the issue of origins, but it would be a huge and difficult task, and as far as I know no one has attempted it yet.

Similarly, I’ve previously mentioned Jane Hill’s argument from alleged Uto-Aztecan loanwords in Proto-Kiowa Tanoan that agriculture was introduced to the Southwest by migrants from the south speaking a Uto-Aztecan language. In that case the evidence for borrowing is more tenuous and less widely accepted than in the kachina case, but it’s still an interesting approach that could be fruitful if applied more broadly to both this and other puzzles of Southwestern prehistory.

It’s not clear if either of these examples sheds much light on Chaco or its relationship to the modern Pueblos, however. The introduction of agriculture, however it happened, was thousands of years before the era of the Chaco Phenomenon (although recent evidence has shown that agriculture at Chaco itself began much earlier than previously thought). The kachina cult, on the other hand, is generally thought to have originated in the post-Chacoan era, perhaps as one of many societal responses to the chaotic conditions in the aftermath of the decline of Chaco. There are some archaeologists who see some form of the kachina cult as having existed at Chaco, in which case the linguistic evidence about kachinas would be more important for understanding it, but I haven’t been convinced by their arguments.

So what can loanword and other linguistic contact evidence tell us about the relationship between Chaco and other prehistoric sites and the modern Pueblos? Given the limited research along these lines so far, not much. As I said above, though, there is still a lot of potential for studies of this issue, so I wanted to highlight it as a separate line of evidence from the more commonly used evidence from linguistic relationships.
Dockstader, F. (1955). Spanish Loanwords in Hopi; A Preliminary Checklist International Journal of American Linguistics, 21 (2) DOI: 10.1086/464324

Hill, J. (2008). Northern Uto‐Aztecan and Kiowa‐Tanoan: Evidence of Contact between the Proto‐Languages? International Journal of American Linguistics, 74 (2), 155-188 DOI: 10.1086/587703

Shaul, D., & Hill, J. (1998). Tepimans, Yumans, and Other Hohokam American Antiquity, 63 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694626

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Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Sandia Mountains from Kuaua Pueblo, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Given the diversity of languages spoken by the modern Pueblos, and the diverse archaeological “cultures” of Pueblo prehistory (as described in the previous post), one obvious line of inquiry in making connections between past and present focuses on language. Specifically, the fact that some Pueblo languages are part of larger families and others are not seems to open the possibility of some Pueblo groups being relative newcomers to the Pueblo lifestyle, which leaves others as more likely to be the direct descendants of the prehistoric groups who inhabited sites like Chaco and Mesa Verde.

There have been several attempts to reconstruct Pueblo culture history along these lines, but I’m not going to discuss them in detail because I think the whole approach is unlikely to work. A closer look at the specifics of the relationships involved shows why.

There are two Pueblo language groups whose languages are part of larger families: Hopi and Tanoan. The Hopi language belongs to the very large Uto-Aztecan family, stretching from the Great Basin south into Mexico and beyond. The Tanoan family is part of the Kiowa-Tanoan family, along with the single language Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The other two Pueblo languages, Keres and Zuni, are isolates not known to be related to any other language (including each other).

Starting with Hopi, at first glance this seems like a good candidate for a language spoken by a mobile hunter-gatherer group, like the modern Numic speakers of the Great Basin, who only settled down to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle relatively recently. However, it’s important to note that Hopi forms its own branch of the Uto-Aztecan family (or possibly of the Northern Uto-Aztecan subfamily, the existence of which is a matter of dispute). It is no more closely related to Numic than it is to, say, the Piman languages spoken by the O’odham agriculturalists of southern Arizona. Depending on how the overall Uto-Aztecan family is reconstructed, it may even be equally close to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It’s not possible to assign specific dates to divisions of language families, but on a qualitative level, Hopi is sufficiently divergent from the rest of its family that it is very unlikely that its speakers entered the Pueblo culture area in the past few centuries. Archaeologically, there is abundant evidence that modern Hopi society emerged from the amalgamation of many different groups from different parts of the Southwest who migrated to the Hopi mesas in the post-Chacoan period, and the same impression is given by Hopi oral history. Which of these groups spoke the language ancestral to modern Hopi is impossible to determine from archaeological evidence, of course, but it’s reasonable to think at least one of them did, and had been speaking it while practicing a basically Pueblo lifestyle for many centuries before that.

Turning to Tanoan, the archaeology is a lot murkier but the general point still stands. The relationship to Kiowa suggests the possibility that the Tanoan-speakers only entered the Southwest fairly recently, presumably from the Plains. In a small language like this is it is even harder to quantify divergence than it is in large language like Uto-Aztecan, but again, the Tanoan languages are quite different from Kiowa. They are so different, in fact, that it wasn’t until the 1950s that the relationship between the two was established to the general satisfaction of historical linguists. The oral history of these groups is also murky, but what is known of Tanoan traditions doesn’t seem to point to origins outside the Southwest, and Kiowa traditions also don’t seem to record any knowledge of a relationship to any of the Pueblos. Who moved where when is hard to determine in this case, but nothing about the linguistic evidence points to a particularly recent adoption of Pueblo culture by Tanoan speakers. The eastern Pueblos, including the Tanoans, do show a lot of evidence of Plains cultural traits, but this is most likely a result of close contact with the Plains during the late prehistoric and early historic period, for which there is plenty of evidence.

That leaves Keres and Zuni, about which nothing can be said about external relationships. It is likely that both groups have been culturally Pueblo for a very long time, but there is no way to tell based on the linguistic evidence whether they have been so for longer than their neighbors to the east (Tanoan) and west (Hopi).

So basically, I think linguistic relationship is a dead end in determining historical connections between ancient sites and modern Pueblos. That’s not to say that linguistics is entirely useless, however. There are other, more subtle aspects of the linguistic relationships among Pueblo groups that may well have historical value. That’s a topic for another post, however.

Hopi Buttes from Homol'ovi Ruins State Park

Hopi Buttes from Homol’ovi Ruins State Park

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Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

Northwest Corner of Pueblo del Arroyo

As a first step in evaluating the connections between prehistoric and modern Pueblo societies, it’s necessary to define exactly which societies we’re talking about here. This post is a brief overview of the prehistoric cultures and modern ethnolinguistic groups in question. As noted below, these are not necessarily equivalent units, and failing to recognize this has been a frequent problem with previous reconstructions of Southwestern culture history.

On the ancient side, we are primarily dealing here with  a handful of “branches” within the overall Anasazi “root.” (See my previous post on lesser-known prehistoric Southwestern societies for more on the “root and branch” system that has traditionally been used to organize Southwestern prehistory.) These branches inhabited various parts of the drainage of the San Juan River prior to AD 1300; how far back they go before that is unclear. These are the traditional branches:

  • Chaco Branch: The primary center of this branch is of course Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico, but it extended over the entirety of the southern San Juan Basin and further south into the drainage of the Rio Puerco of the West. There are various distinctive characteristics of this branch prior to about AD 1200, when it seems to converge with the Mesa Verde branch before disappearing entirely.
  • Mesa Verde Branch: While Mesa Verde proper is historically the area of main research focus for this branch, recent research has shown that it was much more widespread, extending thoughout much of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The exact nature of its relationship with the Chaco branch is still unclear, but there has been increasing evidence for cultural similarity and historical connections between the two. There is a clear pattern of alternating population concentration implying migration between north and south on a scale of centuries prior to the depopulation of the entire area before AD 1300.
  • Kayenta Branch: Located in northeastern Arizona, this branch shows some clear cultural differences from Chaco and Mesa Verde, but certain sites do show evidence of influence from Mesa Verde especially during the Tsegi Phase from AD 1250 to 1300. The cliff dwellings of Navajo National Monument and Canyon de Chelly are probably the best known Kayenta sites.

On the modern side, there are 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, plus several on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona and a few communities of Pueblo ancestry in the vicinity of El Paso, Texas. They belong to six known linguistic groups, listed below.

  • Hopi: This language belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family, one of the more widespread and well-documented families of North and Central America. As the name implies, the family includes both the Great Basin hunter-gatherers of the Numic subfamily (Ute, Paiute, and Shoshone) and the complex agricultural Aztecs of the Basin of Mexico, as well as many groups in between. As a result, this family is among the best examples in the world of a lack of correlation between language family and economic orientation. The Hopis fall in between the extremes of the Numa and the Aztecs, and their language forms its own branch of Uto-Aztecan sufficiently different from the others to make it very difficult to draw any culture-historical conclusions. The three Hopi mesas (unimaginatively named “First,” “Second,” and “Third” in English) have distinctive dialects that further complicate the situation.
  • Zuni: Today this is just a single pueblo, speaking a language generally considered an isolate unrelated to any other. Prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 there were several Zuni pueblos, however. In addition to language, there are several other aspects of Zuni culture that tend to distinguish it from the other pueblos, although there are also enough similarities to Hopi to distinguish the two as “western” pueblos in contrast to those further east.
  • Keres: This is another language isolate, but spoken by several historically autonomous pueblos that still retain separate identities and speak slightly different dialects of a single mutually intelligible language. The Keres pueblos form a “bridge” in some respects between the western and eastern pueblos. Acoma and Laguna tend to pattern more with Hopi and Zuni, while Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Cochiti, and Santo Domingo are located further east and tend to have more similarities to the Rio Grande Pueblos.
  • Tanoan: This (sub)family is located entirely in the Rio Grande Valley and is divided into three languages/subfamilies, which are in turn related to a fourth language, Kiowa, spoken on the Great Plains. The Tanoan subfamilies are:
    • Tiwa: This subfamily is in turn divided into Northern and Southern divisions, which occupy the extreme north and south portions of the modern Pueblo domain. Northern Tiwa is spoken in Taos and Picuris, while Southern Tiwa is spoken at Sandia and Isleta in the vicinity of modern Albuquerque. Tiwa was also spoken historically at Ysleta del Sur near El Paso, Texas, which was founded by Southern Tiwas displaced during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. There is some evidence that the Piro pueblos south of the Southern Tiwa also spoke a language closely related to Tiwa, although this language is poorly documented and is now extinct.
    • Tewa: This subfamily occupies the portions of the northern Rio Grande valley near modern Santa Fe, in the pueblos of San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Pojoaque. A closely related dialect was also spoken further south in the Galisteo Basin until approximately 1700, when the remaining residents of that area moved to the Hopi area of Arizona and founded the pueblo on First Mesa known as Hano (or Tewa), which continues to speak a dialect of the Tewa language to this day.
    • Towa: Today this language is spoken only at Jemez Pueblo on the western edge of the Rio Grande region, but until the 1830s it was also spoken at Pecos on the eastern edge. When the pueblo of Pecos was abandoned its remaining inhabitants moved to Jemez, where their descendants still form a distinctive segment of the population.

So that’s the present situation. The picture is complicated, and it’s hard to figure out what the historical events that resulted in this arrangement would have been. The fact that Tiwa occupies both the northern and southern ends of the Rio Grande culture area, while Towa occupies the eastern and western peripheries and Keres occupies both a core part of the center of the region and an area further west that is more similar culturally to Hopi and Zuni, makes it difficult to fit the known facts into a simple scheme of migration or cultural diffusion. Clearly the story must be more complicated, and digging into those complexities will be the purpose of the following posts in this series.

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Kuaua Pueblo, Coronado State Monument, Bernalillo, New Mexico

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Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

Kivas in East Plaza, Pueblo Bonito

It’s quite clear that, in a general sense, the modern Pueblo people of New Mexico and Arizona are the cultural descendants of the ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) groups of Chaco Canyon and other parts of the northern Southwest no longer occupied by people of Puebloan culture. Indeed, as the previous post explains, the descendants of the Chacoans are much easier to identify than those of pretty much any other prehistoric society in the Southwest. Nevertheless, the modern Pueblos are quite diverse in many ways. While they all have similar material culture, which is what most clearly shows their relationship to prehistoric sites like Chaco, the Pueblos speak six different languages belonging to four completely unrelated language families, and the linguistic divisions correspond generally (but not perfectly) to differences in other aspects of culture, such as kinship systems, sociopolitical structures, and religious practices.

With so much diversity, it’s reasonable to hypothesize that some modern Pueblo groups have closer connections to particular ancient sites than others. Demonstrating any specific connections has been frustratingly difficult for scholars so far, however. The immense upheavals of the Spanish colonial period led to significant changes in many Pueblos that make it difficult to trace their histories back into the prehistoric period, and archaeology has demonstrated considerable evidence for prehistoric upheavals that similarly obscure continuities of culture and population. Adding to the difficulty are the facts that the Pueblos have long had very similar material culture to each other, which makes it difficult to tell different ethnolinguistic groups apart archaeologically, and that the extensive migrations of the late prehistoric period seem to have involved rapid change in material culture as well, obscure whatever small differences had existed among different Pueblo groups.

On account of these difficulties, for a long time Southwestern archaeologists and anthropologists were often reluctant to try to reconstruct culture history in enough detail to connect specific ancient sites with specific modern Pueblos. In recent years this reluctance has decreased, however, and there is now a fair amount of interest in these questions, spurred in part by the requirements under NAGPRA for demonstrating cultural affiliation of modern groups in ancient sites. It’s interesting to compare this trend to the last period of considerable interest in this topic, which was similarly spurred by the effort in the 1950s to settle Indian land claims. In any case, archaeologists today have proposed various models of Southwestern prehistory to account for the distribution of modern Pueblo peoples.

With this context, and inspired in part by some interesting questions asked by commenter J. R. Barnett, I’ve decided to do a series of posts addressing this issue and the types of evidence available to address it. I’ll be focusing heavily on linguistic evidence, which is of particular interest to me personally as well as being of considerable importance in defining cultural differences among the Pueblos. I will, however, also discuss the evidence from archaeology, physical anthropology (including DNA studies), sociocultural anthropology, and oral traditions. In doing some reading on these topics recently, it’s been apparent that there really is quite a lot of relevant evidence out there. While we will surely never be able to recover every detail of the story, it’s worth taking a serious look at the available evidence to see what we can find out.

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

Apparent Kiva at Abo Pueblo, Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument

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Sign Describing Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Sign Describing Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

The Great Basin and northern Colorado Plateau were occupied at the time of European Contact (generally between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for this region) by a variety of relatively small groups of hunter-gatherers, all of whom spoke closely related languages belonging to the Uto-Aztecan language family. By the early twentieth century these groups had become of considerable interest to anthropologists due to the harshness of their physical environment and the apparent simplicity of their social structure.

The most influential ethnographic studies of these groups were those conducted by Julian Steward among the Western Shoshonis in the 1930s. Steward developed a model of Western Shoshoni society in the Great Basin that emphasized the constraints imposed by this harsh environment and the consequent need for small group size and frequent movement in search of subsistence resources. Steward focused heavily on the political structure of Western Shoshoni society, which he divided into two fairly different forms of social organization: “village” and “band.” “Village” groups he characterized as small groups of people who generally aggregated in small villages during the winter at favored locations and dispersed into even smaller family groups in the other seasons to gather scattered resources. Each village group roamed through a territory which was not sharply defined but typically consisted roughly of a single valley, but the groups were fluid and people and families frequently moved from one to another for a variety of reasons such as resource availability and kin or trading ties.

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Office, Lone Pine, California

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Office, Lone Pine, California

“Band” groups, on the other hand, were larger and generally found in areas of greater concentration of resources than is typical in the arid Basin. The Owens Valley Paiutes were the preeminent example of this type of organization, as Owens Valley was teeming with resources and was divided into a number of band territories which were carefully guarded and defended by their resident bands. (This may seem incongruous to anyone who has been to Owens Valley recently and seen how dry and desolate it looks, but the story of how it got that way is of course a famous one.) Some of the Shoshoni groups in nearby valleys had similar social organization to the Owens Valley Paiute, but Steward considered band organization in most of the rest of the Basin to be a post-Contact phenomenon associated with the introduction of the horse and extensive cultural influence from the Plains buffalo-hunting cultures further east.

Steward considered all the cultures he documented in the Great Basin to be of relatively recent origin and the result of influences from many directions, some of them post-Contact (most obviously the case with horses). Archaeologists, however, were very impressed with the way the social models he outlined, especially the “village” one, evidenced a very close relationship between the resources of the land and the social structure of the people living in it. This seemed like a description of society at its most basic in a harsh environment, which might be a reasonable model for prehistoric societies who inhabited similarly harsh locations, including the Great Basin itself. As more discoveries came to be made extending knowledge of North American prehistory in what is now known as the Archaic period, especially in the deserts of the Southwest, archaeologists began to interpret them in light of Steward’s ethnographic data. In the 1950s this approach was codified by Jesse Jennings of the University of Utah into the concept of a “Desert Culture” that looked basically like Steward’s “village” societies and existed throughout the desert Southwest from the end of the Paleoindian period until the adoption of agriculture in some areas and until Contact in others (the latter being the societies Steward studied).

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

Paiute Brush Shelters, Pipe Spring National Monument

The idea of a relatively unchanging culture limited by ecological conditions and lasting for thousands of years was especially attractive to the “New Archaeologists” who emerged on the scene beginning in the 1960s and were very concerned with deriving general conclusions about social processes from the archaeological record using the scientific method (which led to them eventually being known as “Processualists”). Unlike in many areas where the cultural record was clearly very complicated and many different societies with different economies had followed each other over the millennia, here was a case where a single social model had endured for almost the entirety of the archaeological record, in some areas right down to the ethnographic present. Environmental and archaeological data could be gathered and compared to each other to test various hypotheses derived from explicit theories based on the baseline data established by Steward and Jennings. Most of the other variables that tended to confound such theory formation and hypothesis testing in other areas were held constant here by the harsh environment and the resultingly simple and stable societies that were adapted to it.

As a result, the Great Basin by the 1970s became the site of several major archaeological research projects sponsored by prominent institutions seeking to capitalize on this opportunity. They collected an enormous amount of useful data that shed important light on both general anthropological questions and the culture history of the Great Basin itself. The region was a triumph of processual archaeology and a showcase of its potential.

Datura Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

Datura Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

There was a nagging problem with all this, however. The archaeology and ethnography (which were generally treated as basically the same) of the region painted a picture of remarkable cultural stability, but the linguistic evidence pointed in a very different direction. Explaining how requires some backtracking and explanation of the linguistic situation at Contact.

As I said earlier, it was apparent to anthropologists by the late nineteenth century that the languages spoken by the Basin groups were closely related to each other and more distantly related to many other languages of western North America (including Mexico) within what came to be known as the Uto-Aztecan language family. The internal structure of this language family was much harder to establish than its existence, however, and there’s actually still no consensus among linguists about how it should be divided. In 1925 Alfred Kroeber of the University of California proposed a division whereby most of the languages north of the US-Mexican border constituted a “Shoshonean” family that was subdivided into four branches. The branch consisted of the groups occupying the Great Basin and adjacent portions of the Colorado Plateau was known as “Plateau Shoshonean,” a label that stuck for decades afterward, and was divided into three branches itself. Steward in the 1930s kept Kroeber’s basic division of both the overall Uto-Aztecan family and the Plateau Shoshonean subfamily, although he gave the sub-branches different names. These three branches, with their general areas of occupation, are:

  • Northern Paiute (Steward), Mono-Paviotso (Kroeber); from Owens Valley northward through western Nevada to southeastern Oregon
  • Shoshoni (Steward), Shoshoni-Comanche (Kroeber); from Death Valley northeastward through eastern Nevada and northern Utah to western Wyoming, with the Comanche as an offshoot that migrated in the eighteenth century to the southern Plains
  • Southern Paiute (Steward), Ute-Chemehuevi (Kroeber); from Panamint Valley and possibly southern Death Valley eastward through southern Nevada and southern Utah to western Colorado

The overall division of the linguistic groups and their general territories have not been controversial, and this three-part scheme continues to be the standard way to divide up these languages. Looking at a map of the territorial distributions, an interesting fan or wedge shape is very evident. Each of the three subdivisions extends from one or more isolated valleys in eastern California at the western edge of the Great Basin (the narrow end of the wedge) out across the Basin and, in some cases, beyond (the wide end of the wedge). Steward and Jennings didn’t have much to say about this distribution, but it would later become a crucial point of evidence in a very different interpretation of Basin prehistory that directly challenged the long-term and unchanging nature assumed in the Desert Culture framework.

Yucca Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

Yucca Sign, Pipe Spring National Monument

In the 1950s a linguist named Sydney Lamb conducted extensive linguistic fieldwork among speakers of these languages and came up with much better data than Kroeber or Steward had been able to secure. He published an important paper in 1958 reporting on his resulting conclusions about the internal relationships of the languages and the implications for the prehistory of the region.

Lamb’s work confirmed Kroeber’s three-part division of Plateau Shoshonean, but undermined the notion of “Shoshonean” itself as a basic division of Uto-Aztecan. Instead he considered the “Shoshonean” subfamilies to be independent branches of Uto-Aztecan, and proposed new names for them to indicate this. “Plateau Shoshonean” thus became “Numic” after the word for “people” in the languages in question. In subsequent research the related term “Numa” has also become popular as a collective noun referring to speakers of these languages.

Entrance Sign, Death Valley National Park

Entrance Sign, Death Valley National Park

Within Numic, Lamb found that each of the three subfamilies consisted of two languages, closely related to each other but not quite mutually intelligible and quite distinct from the languages in the other subfamilies. In each case one of these languages was spoken in the eastern California valleys at the southwestern end of the subfamily’s distribution and the other was spoken over the vast area to the north and/or east that made up the remainder of the distribution, with little variation over these huge areas.

Based on this distributional evidence, combined with some tentative glottochronological dates that Lamb prefaced with appropriate skepticism about the validity of glottochronology, Lamb concluded that the Numic languages had originated in the valleys of eastern California and had spread from there across the Great Basin quite recently, perhaps around 1000 years ago. Importantly, the subfamilies were apparently already distinct at this point, and their speakers seem to have moved in similar ways and directions but independently, which implied that there was some common force drawing them further into the Basin (or, perhaps, out of California). Lamb tentatively suggested that access to bison might have been part of the motivation for the migration, but without going into detail. The most important point, however, is that Lamb concluded that the linguistic uniformity of the Great Basin Numic languages suggests strongly that Numic speakers, including Steward’s famous Western Shoshoni whose culture was the basis for Jennings’s Desert Culture, were recent immigrants into most of the Basin, and not the surviving remnant of a widespread Desert Culture that had existed there for thousands of years. He acknowledged that this conclusion was in sharp contrast to the archaeological consensus, but put it out for discussion nevertheless.

Sign at Border of Ute Mountain Indian Reservation

Sign at Border of Ute Mountain Indian Reservation

Initially, at least, archaeologists didn’t buy it. They were quite confident of the validity of their Desert Culture model, and the subsequent rise of processual approaches only intensified the split between linguistic and archaeological interpretations of Great Basin prehistory. Not all linguists agreed with Lamb either, and various papers by both linguists and archaeologists in the succeeding decades proposed alternative explanations for the distribution of the Numic languages. Overall, though, most linguists came to be convinced by Lamb’s evidence that his interpretation was the most plausible, and by the 1980s even archaeologists began to be convinced.

Note that when I say “archaeologists” here I’m referring specifically to archaeologists who specialized in the Great Basin, especially those who focused on the western part of the Basin where Steward had done his work. Those archaeologists who studied the eastern Basin and the Colorado Plateau, many of whom were more associated with Southwestern archaeology, had much less trouble accepting the idea that the Numic-speakers were recent arrivals in the Basin, as they obviously were in the Plateau. The ethnographic literature on the Utes and Southern Paiutes contains various references to the remains of the Fremont associating them with the Hopis rather than with Numic-speakers, and Steward himself recorded a tradition among the Northern Paiutes that the area around Lovelock Cave had been inhabited by non-Paiutes fairly recently. Remember that Steward considered the cultures he studied to be relatively recent, which is consistent with a recent Numic spread and inconsistent with Jennings’s Desert Culture theory.

Owens Lake, California

Owens Lake, California

The first major theory based on a recent Numic spread to be proposed by archaeologists was that of Robert Bettinger and Martin Baumhoff of UC Davis, who published an important paper in 1982 making their case. They argued that Lamb’s Numic spread could be explained through a processual model. Under this model the pre-Numic cultures of the Basin were said to be based heavily on the hunting of big game, especially bighorn sheep, while the Numic cultures were based on a more intense gathering of small seeds, a lower-ranked resource that was more effort to get and process but more reliable as a source of calories. Bettinger’s own fieldwork had been focused mostly on Owens Valley, which he concluded had been where the Numic speakers had developed this focus on seeds out of necessity given the density of resources and population (recall that Steward had also argued that this was an area of more elaborate cultures than most of the Basin, for the same reason). Bettinger and Baumhoff argued that population pressure stemming from the adoption of this strategy was the impetus for the Numic groups to begin to spread out into the rest of the Basin, where their more effective seed-based economic strategy allowed them to out-compete the pre-Numic groups, who were unable to adapt to a similar strategy fast enough to compete effectively because of societal inertia. Climatic changes that reduced the availability of game may have played a role as well. They supported this idea of a discontinuity by pointing to differences in rock art and artifacts between earlier and later periods in the Great Basin archaeological record, especially the increased presence of specialized seed-beating equipment in the later period, presumably Numic.

The Bettinger-Baumhoff hypothesis immediately aroused considerable controversy, and in the next few years many objections to it were raised, mostly by archaeologists but occasionally by linguists as well. Bettinger and Baumhoff responded to some of these objections in follow-up papers, and overall their arguments have sparked a serious and generally productive discourse on the prehistory of the Great Basin and how to reconcile the archaeological and linguistic evidence. Over time the general trend has been toward increasing evidence of a variety of types in favor of some sort of recent Numic spread, and more and more archaeologists have begun to accept the reality of it. DNA evidence demonstrating a major discontinuity between at least some pre-Numic human remains and modern Numic groups has added an important independent line of evidence for a Numic spread, and additional intensive research in Owens Valley has further clarified the archaeological picture there and given more context to cultural changes (such as the adoption of pottery) that may have played a role in the origins of the spread.

Kaibab Paiute Housing Development from Pipe Spring National Monument

Kaibab Paiute Housing Development from Pipe Spring National Monument

So that’s the history of research into Numic prehistory in a nutshell. My take on it is that Lamb was clearly totally right that there was a Numic spread and that it was relatively recent (though his specific glottochronological dates are of course unreliable), and that Bettinger and Baumhoff may have been correct about its nature but that there remain some weak points in their theory. I think the archaeological reluctance to accept the idea of a Numic spread is due to a number of factors that have been problematic in the history of Americanist archaeology throughout the twentieth century but are particularly extreme in this case.

For one thing, there has long been a tradition of archaeologists projecting ethnographic data on post-Contact Native American groups uncritically back into the past. This was particularly common in the early twentieth century before it was widely accepted that the Americas had been occupied more than a few thousand years, and in that context it was at least understandable that Native cultures would have little time-depth. With the extension of the archaeological record further back in time and the development of more accurate and precise dating techniques, it became less justifiable to use ethnographic analogy and the Direct Historical Method so straightforwardly, but it has continued to some extent throughout the US, and the perceived harshness of the Great Basin environment and the relatively extensive ethnographic record there has made this tendency particularly pronounced there.

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

The “New Archaeologists” of the 1960s and 1970s defined their approach explicitly in contrast to previous generations’ overreliance on specific ethnographic data and naive projection of it back into prehistory. In many parts of the US this meant a major shift, but again the specific characteristics of the Great Basin made the New Archaeological method look a lot like old-fashioned culture history. The apparent lack of change in the Basin’s archaeological record over millennia had meant that the culture history was interpreted as a story of stasis ending up with the ethnographic Numa, and this story of ahistoricality was easily translated into a story of consistent adaptations to a harsh and severely limiting environment. In both cases there was not actually any evidence strongly in favor of continuity of population (as opposed to adaptation), but that was a reasonable null hypothesis and, as often happens, over time it expanded from that to an unstated assumption. Bettinger and Baumhoff’s theory was presented very explicitly in the terms of processual archaeology but was nevertheless very controversial because of this assumption.

The generally ahistorical approach of the processualists is now less dominant in American archaeology than it was in 1982, and this is probably a factor in the increasing acceptance of a Numic spread among archaeologists. I find it a fascinating story both because it sheds light on the dynamic nature of prehistory and relationships between linguistic and cultural groups and because it illustrates important trends in the intellectual history of American archaeology in particularly vivid fashion. It’s also a story that seems to be more or less completely unknown among the general public, which is unfortunate, and I’d like to make more people aware of it. This post is a start.
Bettinger, R., & Baumhoff, M. (1982). The Numic Spread: Great Basin Cultures in Competition American Antiquity, 47 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280231

Jennings, J., & Norbeck, E. (1955). Great Basin Prehistory: A Review American Antiquity, 21 (1) DOI: 10.2307/276104

Kaestle, F., & Smith, D. (2001). Ancient mitochondrial DNA evidence for prehistoric population movement: The Numic expansion American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 115 (1), 1-12 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1051

Lamb, S. (1958). Linguistic Prehistory in the Great Basin International Journal of American Linguistics, 24 (2) DOI: 10.1086/464442

Steward, J. (1937). Linguistic Distributions and Political Groups of the Great Basin Shoshoneans American Anthropologist, 39 (4), 625-634 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1937.39.4.02a00070

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Entrance to Alaska Ferry Terminal, Bellingham, Washington

The same special issue of the journal World Archaeology that I was discussing in the previous post has an article looking specifically at the relationship between linguistic and archaeological evidence in the study of the prehistory of North America. It is by M. Dale Kinkade and J. V. Powell, two linguists who specialized in the languages of the Pacific Northwest, so while the paper consists in part of a survey of the distribution of language families across the continent and ideas about their prehistory, the discussion of the Northwestern families is more in-depth than the others, and the case study that forms another section is on a specific region on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. That bias aside, it’s a very good article summarizing the state of knowledge as of its publication in 1976, and there have been few major breakthroughs since then (with one major exception that I’ll discuss in a later post), so most of it still holds up quite well.

One of the best parts of the paper is its discussion of methodology, particularly the reasons that historical linguistics can’t provide actual dates for events in the past the way archaeology can. This is now widely accepted by almost all linguists, but this was not always the case, as Kinkade and Powell note:

The most notable attempt to devise a procedure for dating linguistic prehistory is lexicostatistics. Developed in the 1950s  by Swadesh and others, lexicostatistics is based on three assumptions, all of which are, unfortunately, invalid. These premisses [sic] are:

  1. A basic core vocabulary of 200 (or 100) words are less subject to change than other parts of the language, these words including terms for the same items in all languages.
  2. The rate of retention of vocabulary items in the basic core vocabulary is constant through time.
  3. The rate of loss is the same in all languages.

Note the similarity between these assumptions and those underlying radiocarbon dating, which I don’t think is a coincidence. I suspect there’s an interesting project here in the history of science looking at the influences on Swadesh as he was developing his ideas as well as the factors that led his theories to become quite popular among both linguists and archaeologists in the 1950s. By the early 1960s an increasing number of critics were pointing out the flaws in Swadesh’s approach, although there were still a significant number of adherents of glottochronology well into the 1970s (including some of the contributors to this same special issue). In any case, since then linguistics as a discipline has soundly rejected glottochronology, so Kinkade and Powell’s discussion of it here feels prescient rather than dated.

Having rejected glottochronology, Kinkade and Powell stick to the more “traditional” ways of linking historical linguistics to the more general study prehistory, primarily by looking at the distributions of established language families and to some extent loanword patterns, placenames, and the distributions of certain important lexical items. They discuss each language family considered fairly well-established (although a few on their list were and still are controversial) and summarize the proposals for its Urheimat. Some of these are obvious and not at all controversial, such as the placement of Athapaskan in Alaska. Others, such as Uto-Aztecan, have been subject to such fierce debate that there is really no consensus about where the proto-language was spoken or even what evidence is most useful to decide that. Kinkade present a map with what appear to be their preferred guesses for where each protolanguage was spoken, but the number of question marks on it indicate how uncertain they are about many of those guesses.

The final section of the paper is an in-depth discussion of the linguistic evidence bearing on the question of the occupation of the Ozette Village site on the Olympic Peninsula. All evidence clearly indicates that in late prehistory this site was occupied by the Makah people who still inhabit the general area, but Kinkade and Powell point to several lines of evidence, especially placenames and oral traditions of both the Makah and the Quileute people who live to the south of them, suggesting that the general area was occupied in earlier times by speakers of a Chimakuan language related to Quileute (which is not related to Makah). Since there are deposits at Ozette going back very far, this suggests in turn that while the most recent inhabitants of the village spoke Makah, this may not have been true of their predecessors. Kinkade and Powell don’t go into much detail about how they think this linguistic change may have occurred, but what they do say suggests that they see migration of Makah speakers from the north having physically displaced Chimakuan-speakers. Given the evidence they present, however, to me it looks at least equally likely that the change was the result of assimilation of Chimakuan-speakers to the Makah language and culture. The Makah and Quileute are apparently very similar culturally, and there seems to be some evidence that it was the Makah who were considered the more prestigious group.

Overall, this paper is a very useful summary of the state of research into the prehistory of language families in North America as of the mid-1970s, and since this hasn’t been a very active field of study since then it’s still a pretty good guide to the issues. This subject could really use a lot more attention and especially cooperation between linguists and archaeologists, as it has quite a lot of overlooked potential to shed light on the past. There are some signs that this potential is beginning to be explored, but there’s still plenty more to be done with it.
Kinkade, M., & Powell, J. (1976). Language and the prehistory of North America World Archaeology, 8 (1), 83-100 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979654

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Linguistics Building, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Sorry for the extended hiatus; I’ve been busy with various things. I’ll have more on the Mississippians at some point, but for now I want to  discuss a more general issue: the relationship of historical linguistics to archaeology in attempting to reconstruct past events. Both disciplines provide ways to study past events beyond the reach of historical scholarship in the traditional sense, which is based on written documentation. (I would argue that in many cases oral tradition provides an additional line of evidence, similar to written history in many ways, useful for understanding the prehistoric past, but that is a controversial position and I’m not going to defend it in detail right now.) What makes linguistics and archaeology particularly powerful is that they are independent lines of evidence, which means that tentative conclusions drawn from one can be compared to the evidence from the other to see how well they coincide. This provides a much more robust and reliable reconstruction of past events than would be possible based on either line of evidence alone.

And yet, despite the potential interpretive power to be gained from using linguistics and archaeology in tandem, this integration is rare, and both linguists and archaeologists have a tendency to ignore each other’s work most of the time and, when they do acknowledge it, to use it in a very uncritical and superficial manner that doesn’t come close to unlocking the full power of real integration. Back in 1976 the journal World Archaeology published a theme issue with several papers exploring the potential for integrating linguistics and archaeology, and it’s a sign of how little this integration has progressed that some of these papers are still useful summaries of the issues and the state of research.

The introductory paper in the issue, and the one I will primarily focus on in this post, is by Christopher Ehret of UCLA, and it provides a general overview of the types of historical inferences that can come from historical linguistic research. He notes that most research up to that time had been oriented toward just one of these types: those inferences that can come from evidence of genetic relationship between languages, which is to say, the knowledge that a given group of languages descends from a single “proto-language” presumably spoken by a single socio-cultural group at some point in the past. These are certainly useful, in a general way, but there are real limits to how much can be learned just from knowing which languages are related in a given region. Looking at the reconstructible vocabulary of the proto-language can give some important information about the culture that spoke that language that can, at least in theory, be correlated with archaeological evidence to pinpoint which archaeological “culture” corresponds to the speakers of that proto-language. Two other papers in this issue address different aspects of this kind of research in different context and with different language families: Robert Blust’s paper on Proto-Austronesian shows how information gained in this way can supplement the archaeological record by providing evidence for the presence of certain items of material culture and social institutions that are not recoverable by archaeology because of their perishable or intangible nature, while J. P. Mallory’s survey of research along these lines on Proto-Indo-European mostly points out the difficulty of attributing cultural items for which there are reconstructible words to a single culture when the proto-language being reconstructed may not actually represent a single language or its speech community.

Moving beyond these issues, however, Ehret points out that there is more to historical linguistics than determining which languages are related and what words can be reconstructed for various proto-languages. A potentially much more productive line of evidence for culture history, and yet one that has seen remarkably little research, is loanword studies. Languages may adopt words from other languages for a variety of reasons, many of them quite important for understanding political and economic relationships between societies at various points in the past. Furthermore, loanwords are often (though not always) easy to identify either in currently spoken languages or in the reconstructed proto-languages from which they descend. Ehret gives various examples from his own research in Africa to illustrate how loanword studies can give substantial insights into cultural relationships and history.

It’s important to note, however, that while most of what Ehret says in this paper about general methodology is unexceptionable, his own conclusions about African prehistory are quite controversial and one of his faculty pages at UCLA even has this remarkable paragraph:

His linguistic works include A Comparative Reconstruction of Proto-Nilo-Saharan (2002), Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (1995), and The Historical Reconstruction of Southern Cushitic Phonology and Vocabulary (1980). He has also written monographic articles on Bantu subclassification, on internal reconstruction in Semitic, on the reconstruction of proto-Cushitic and proto-Eastern Cushitic, and, with Mohamed Nuuh Ali, on the classification of the Soomaali languages. These reconstructions have not been well received, and are not followed by other linguists.

Evidence for the controversy engendered by Ehret’s interpretations comes in the very same special issue for which he wrote this introductory paper. One of the other papers, by the archaeologist D. W. Phillipson, addresses the Bantu language family and the potential for both linguistics and archaeology to shed light on the issue of when and how Bantu-speakers spread across much of southern and eastern Africa. Phillipson notes Ehret’s interpretations but disputes them in detail on various points. This is obviously a one-sided account, but Phillipson’s arguments seem pretty strong to me. I don’t know much about this issue, of course, and it’s quite likely that research has progressed a bit since 1976 in any case, so I’m not going to draw any conclusions about who was more right.

Africa is actually an interesting case here because it seems that historical linguistics has played a much bigger role here than elsewhere in developing hypotheses about prehistory (probably due at least in part to Ehret’s work). This is in contrast to the Americas, where linguistics and archaeology have mostly operated separately and the latter has been more dominant in developing historical hypotheses. I think the African model offers a potentially productive route for Americanists to take in trying to come up with more detailed reconstructions of culture history, although the many controversies over the proper interpretation of African prehistory show that this more integrated approach is by no means a cure-all.

I’ll have more on the potential implications of all this for North America later. For now I just want to introduce the topic.

Blust, R. (1976). Austronesian culture history: Some linguistic inferences and their relations to the archaeological record
World Archaeology, 8 (1), 19-43 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979650

Ehret, C. (1976). Linguistic evidence and its correlation with archaeology World Archaeology, 8 (1), 5-18 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979649

Mallory, J. (1976). Time perspective and proto‐indo‐European culture World Archaeology, 8 (1), 44-56 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979651

Phillipson, D. (1976). Archaeology and Bantu linguistics World Archaeology, 8 (1), 65-82 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979653

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Ortega Hall, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Tim De Chant at Per Square Mile has an interesting post discussing an article by Ruth Mace and Mark Pagel in which they did a statistical analysis of the distribution of Native languages at European contact in North America and found that the density of languages correlates inversely with latitude (when controlling for land area) and directly with habitat diversity (even when controlling for latitude). You can see Tim’s post for more details on how they actually did the analysis. Here I just want to point out a few considerations that aren’t really addressed in the article, interesting though the result is.

First, I should note that the article itself seems fine for what it is. I don’t see any glaring problems with the statistical analyses, and the authors are clearly aware of the potential issues with their data. They don’t try to push the statistics too far, which is a welcome change form how studies like this often go. Furthermore, I suspect the conclusions they reach do in fact reflect a real phenomenon despite the issues I raise below. As they point out, species distributions are generally known to follow a similar pattern, with more species per land area closer to the equator and in areas with more diverse habitats, all else being equal. It makes intuitive sense that this would be true for human cultural groups as well; more ecological niches to exploit should tend to result in more specialization and therefore more groups, generally at higher population densities, within a given area when these conditions obtain than when they don’t. Since there is also a general tendency for different cultural groups to have different languages (for a variety of reasons), in the aggregate language density should also show these patterns.

That said, I have some concerns about the data underlying this study. The language distributions they discuss appear to come from an atlas of the world’s languages published by a trade publisher and presumably intended for a popular rather than a scholarly audience. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it makes me really want to know how the authors of that atlas got their data. Mace and Pagel don’t discuss this issue at all, merely taking the data from the atlas as given, but it’s important to note that determining these distributions is a much more difficult problem than it seems at first sight.

Sign for Ortega Hall, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico

First of all, defining where one language begins and another begins can be tricky. In cases where totally unrelated languages border each other, it’s pretty easy, but in cases where large areas are covered by closely related, contiguous languages, as is the case for many parts of North America, the difference between a series of related languages and a chain of dialects within a single language becomes very important, and this can be very difficult to determine, especially for poorly documented languages such as those spoken in many parts of North America. There are reasonably consistent ways to do this, but for a study like this I’d really like to see them spelled out to know which decisions are behind the data being analyzed.

Furthermore, this distribution of languages is apparently intended to represent the situation at “European Contact,” but Mace and Pagel don’t specify what they mean by that. Contact came at different times in different parts of North America, which is a rather large area. The linguistic situation in 1500 was really quite different from that at 1800, but both of these are reasonable dates for initial contact in different parts of the continent. Since contact came at different times in different places (i.e., it was “time-transgressive”), just mapping the situation in each subregion whenever contact occurred there, which is what I suspect the authors of this atlas did, creates a highly artificial construct when viewed at a continental scale. Trying to control for this and fix language boundaries at a single point continent-wide would be really quite difficult and require either a lot of guesswork or some sort of way to account for the effects of European colonization, depending on which time point you chose. Nevertheless, the kind of analysis Mace and Pagel are doing here really requires a single time point to make sense.

Like I said above, I don’t think this is a terrible paper given what it tries to do, and I suspect that its conclusions do actually point to a real pattern despite the important methodological shortcomings mentioned above. Without more detail on the underlying classification that was the basis for the statistical analysis, though, I don’t see it as being all that useful in actually establishing the reality of that pattern.
Mace, R., & Pagel, M. (1995). A Latitudinal Gradient in the Density of Human Languages in North America Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 261 (1360), 117-121 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1995.0125

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Sign at Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory

In 1898 Washington Matthews, the US Army physician who was one of the earliest and best recorders of ethnographic information on the Navajos, published an article in the Journal of American Folklore entitled “Ichthyophobia.” It’s an interesting piece of scholarship for a number of reasons, not least its florid Victorian prose style. Matthews begins thus:

By the term Ichthyophobia I mean, of course, fear of fish; but I do not mean that proper fear, based upon actual knowledge, which the native diver of certain tropic seas feels, who will not venture into deep water lest he be torn to pieces by sharks, nor that equally rational fear that leads us to discard tainted fish, which so often proves poisonous as an article of food. I refer to the fear which results from superstition, and which prohibits all fish as an article of food; in short, to the taboo of fish.

He soon goes on to explain the background to his interest in this issue:

In the year 1866, after I had spent about twelve months on the Upper Missouri among some of the most primitive tribes then within our borders, I came on to Chicago, and there made the acquaintance of a gentleman who had recently returned from New Mexico, having spent a year or more among the Navaho Indians. Oddly enough the gentleman’s name was Fish, although this fact, like the vernal blossoms, had nothing to do with the case, since the Indians did not fear him. In comparing notes of our experience among the Indians, he asked me, “Do the tribes of the Upper Missouri eat fish?” “Of course they do,” I said. “Is there any one in the world who will not eat a good fish if he can get it ?” “Yes,” he replied; “the Navahoes will not eat fish; they will not even touch a fish, and I have known them to refuse candies that were shaped like fish.” At the time, although I had every reason to believe that my friend was a truthful person, I was half inclined to believe that his was a “fish story” in more senses than one, or that he had made some error in observation. But that was in the days of my youthful ignorance. I knew not then the extent and nature of the customs of taboo. I did not realize that I was myself the victim of taboo practices just as unreasonable as that of the Navaho fish-haters.

Fourteen years later I found myself a neighbor of these same Navaho Indians, and one of the first subjects I proceeded to investigate was the fish taboo, of which I had learned years before. I found that my friend, Mr. Fish, had told me the truth,  but had not expressed his case as strongly as he might have done. I found that the Navahoes not only tabooed fish, but all things connected with the water, including aquatic birds. Speaking of the Navaho repugnance to fish with the landlady of the Cornucopia Hotel (a slab shanty) at Fort Wingate, she related the following as a good joke on the Indian. She employed  a young Navaho warrior to do chores around her kitchen. The Navaho warrior has no pride about the performance of menial labor. He will do almost anything at which he can earn money, and this one would do any work for her but clean fish. He would eat, too, almost anything in her kitchen except fish. Noticing his aversion to the finny tribe, she one day sportively emptied over his head a pan of water in which salt fish had been soaked. The Indian screamed in terror, and, running a short distance, tore in haste every shred of clothing from his body and threw it all away. She learned that he afterwards bathed and “made a lot of medicine” to purify himself of the pollution. He never returned to work for her, so this little trick cost her a good servant.

Anthropologists don’t write like this anymore, which seems like a pity to me. That aside, while Matthews certainly shows his fair share of nineteenth-century racism in what he writes here, he goes on to draw an interesting conclusion that is in some ways well ahead of his time:

Our philanthropists wonder at the reluctance of Indians to send their children to a distance to school, and think it is but foolish stubbornness. They cannot realize that, in addition to many practical and sentimental reasons, there are long-cherished religious scruples to be overcome—reasons which are the most potent of all—and, among these, not the least is that they know their children will be obliged to violate tribal taboos. The Navahoes have heard from returning pilgrims that the boy who goes to the Indian school in the East may be obliged to eat geese, ducks, and fish, or go hungry; or that, if  he eats not at first of these abominations, he may be ridiculed and chided till he changes his customs.

“What foolish scruples!” we say, and yet fail to realize that we all refuse certain edible and wholesome articles as food for no good reason that we can assign. What civilized father would send his child to a distant boarding-school where he might be obliged to eat stewed puppy? Yet I have been informed by those who have tasted it that it is a very palatable dish. But we can find a better illustration of our case than this: There are many among the most cultured of our Christian communities who, for religious reasons, refrain on certain days and at certain seasons from articles of food which at other  times are eaten. Such persons would not willingly send their children to places where they would be compelled to disregard these fasts. We may all understand and approve the sentiments which actuate them; yet we seem unable to extend an equal consideration to savages who are, perhaps, actuated by equally worthy motives. Often among the Navahoes children returning from eastern schools fall into feeble health. Their illness is almost always attributed to the violation of taboo while they were away from home, and costly healing ceremonies are performed in order to remove the evil effects of the transgression.

Matthews was unusual in his generation, even among anthropologists, in taking Indians seriously as people and trying to look at things from their perspective. He is best known for his extensive documentation of Navajo legends and ceremonial practices, including sandpainting designs. His success at eliciting this information was likely due in part to his status as a physician and a sense among the medicine men he talked to that he was in some sense engaged in the same trade as they were, that of healing. His respectful attitude toward his informants, evident in his discussion here of their concerns about the possible effects of boarding school on their children, likely also played a role.

Although Matthews clearly considered it important to emphasize to his audience that the Navajo taboo on eating fish is not some absurd result of “savages” being “irrational,” the main point of his article is to look into how this taboo may have arisen. He notes that the Apaches have a similar taboo, and quotes at length a then-recent article by one P. C. Bicknell, who had recently explored the mountains of east-central Arizona, inhabited by the Western Apaches, and had noticed the same taboo among them and inquired into the reasons for it.  Bicknell eventually got an explanation that the Apaches had long ago, when there was not enough food for everyone in the region, made an agreement with the Mohave and Yuma tribes who lived along the Colorado River to the west. Under this agreement, the Apaches would eat no fish, while the river tribes would eat no venison, and therefore everyone would have enough to eat. Neither Bicknell nor Matthews found this explanation convincing, and Matthews uses it as another example of the parallels between Indian and Anglo-American society:

The story here related, which is wisely discredited by Mr. Bicknell, may have been coined for the occasion; but it is more likely that it has been current for some time among the Indians. White men are not the only ones who are importunate to know the why and the wherefore. The inquisitive small boy whose business in life it is to ask questions exists among the savage as well as among the civilized; and there are boys of older growth who pester their seniors for explanations. To satisfy the mind of the inquirer with something in accord with his mode of thought, with the grade of philosophy which he has reached, is the aim of the man, in all ages of the world, who would gain and retain a reputation for wisdom. Milton’s Adam explains everything to Milton’s Eve according to the philosophy of Milton’s time. Modern science has its myth-makers, no less than the wild Apache.

Matthews does however find a possible clue to the actual origin of the taboo among both Navajos and Apaches in another of the explanations given to Bicknell. One of the Apaches he asked, who apparently had very limited proficiency in English, just said “all same water.” Bicknell interpreted this to mean that fish is just as insubstantial and tasteless as water, but Matthews considers this implausible, since if the Apaches have been avoiding fish for generations they presumably don’t actually know what it tastes like. He sees this instead as an indication that it is the association of the fish with water, which is so scarce and precious in a desert land, that accounts for its avoidance. He checks in with Frank Cushing, the preeminent expert at the time on the Zunis, to see if they have a similar taboo, and receives a reply which he quotes:

The Zuñis, like the Navahoes, will not, under any circumstances, eat fish or any other water animal. The reason is this: Abiding in a desert land, where water is scarce, they regard it as especially sacred; hence all things really or apparently belonging to it, and in particular all creatures living in it, are sacred or deified. But, in the case of the fishes, they eat water, chew it, and are therefore, since they also breathe water and the currents or breaths of water, especially tabooed. The Zuñi name for the Isletas is Kyas-i-ta(w)-kwe, Fish Cannibals, because they ate fish formerly.

Matthews considers this ample confirmation of his own conclusions regarding the Navajo avoidance of fish, which seems to be a common (but not universal) trait of Southwestern groups. Furthermore, he notes that the northern Athapaskans, who speak languages quite similar to those of the Navajos and Apaches but live far to the north, in generally well-watered areas of Canada and Alaska, do not have any sort of taboo on fish consumption. To ensure that he hasn’t missed something on this topic he checks with Franz Boas, the towering figure in American anthropology who had done extensive fieldwork among the Northern Athapaskans. Boas replies:

The northern Athapascan tribes have no taboo against fish; on the contrary, they almost subsist on fish for a considerable  part of the year.

Indeed, salmon in particular is hugely important to the diet of many of the Athapaskan groups in Alaska to this day. Matthews draws the reasonable conclusion from all this that the Navajos and Apaches likely acquired their fish taboos after reaching the Southwest, probably under the influence of the Pueblos, although the arid environment itself may have played a role directly as well.

Many years after Matthews’s paper, Herbert Landar presented further thoughts on the linguistic implications of all this. He notes that Navajo basically has only one word for “fish”: łóó’, a generic term referring to all fish.  This echoes the situation in Hopi and Zuni, both of which only have one general “fish” term, but is quite different from the extensive inventory of terms for various fish found in northern Athapaskan languages. These languages do tend to have terms cognate to the Navajo one, and these terms usually refer either to fish in general or to salmon or whitefish specifically. They also have a wide variety of terms for other specific fish and aquatic creatures, cognates for which are apparently totally missing in the southern languages. Landar concludes from this, in keeping with Matthews’s conclusion (though rather oddly he does not cite Matthews’s article) that “a prehistoric southwestern fish taboo led to the truncation of the Apachean fish vocabulary.”

At the time Landar was writing in 1960, the Alaska Athapaskan languages were still not very well documented compared to those in Canada and the Southwest. It was not until the establishment of the Alaska Native Language Center in 1972 that extensive, systematic documentation of all these languages began. The data collected by the ANLC has greatly increased both the ease and the reliability of the kind of comparative study done by Landar, which in his case given the material he had to work with was necessarily very tentative.  As far as I know no one has yet looked at this exact issue using that data, but it would be interesting to see exactly how many “fish” words each Athapaskan language has and how specific they are. Be that as it may, however, the conclusions reached by Matthews and Landar using much less information are likely to stand the test of time.
Landar, H. (1960). The Loss of Athapaskan Words for Fish in the Southwest International Journal of American Linguistics, 26 (1) DOI: 10.1086/464559

Matthews, W. (1898). Ichthyophobia The Journal of American Folklore, 11 (41) DOI: 10.2307/533215

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