Category Archives: Arizona

The Ancestral Journey of the Navajo

For years,  anthropologists and archaeologists  have puzzled over the origins of two famous aboriginal groups in the American Southwest:  the Navajo and Apache people. The traditional  languages spoken by the Navajo and the Apache differ strikingly from those of their neighbors,  so much so that if you look at a linguistic map their homelands stand out like islands in a great sea.

But their languages  are very closely related to the mother tongues of aboriginal people living in the subarctic in northwestern Canada and Alaska:  indeed they belong to the same Athapaskan family.  Moreover,   linguists have long suggested that the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache people splintered off from their subarctic cousins roughly 1200 years ago.  This begs a fascinating question.   What might have prompted the ancestral Navajo and Apache to abandon their homeland in the northern forests and  journey thousands of miles south to a very unfamiliar desert?

Some years ago,  University of Alaska archaeologist William Workman proposed a possible answer.   He suggested that the eruption of the  White River volcano in southern Alaska around 1200 years ago could well have driven out both game and human hunters.    Ash from the volcano blanketed a region of some 250,000 square kilometers:  in some parts it reached 1.5 meters in thickness.  All this, observed Workman, could well have forced the region’s Athapaskan speakers  to search for a new homeland in the south.

Yesterday,  a team led by Simon Fraser University researcher Tyler Kuhn shed new light on the dire nature of this eruption.  In a new online paper in Molecular Ecology,  Kuhn and his colleagues compared ancient DNA from caribou bones from the Yukon that dated before and after A. D. 1000.  As the team discovered, the caribou living there before the White River eruption were genetically different from the caribou that resided there after.

In other words,  a big change occurred in the local caribou population around the time of the White River eruption.   The old herds vanished,  and later new caribou herds moved in–quite likely as the land greened and grasses,   sedges, willows and the like took hold once again.

All this strongly suggests that Athapaskan hunters  in the area would have struggled to  survive after the eruption.  And indeed,  archaeological evidence from the Yukon points to a major human transition as well.  Before the eruption, the local hunters  relied on throwing darts as their main weapon.  After the ash fell, however,  the inhabitants favored bow and arrows.

We are still a long way from definitive answers,  but I’d say that it is looking more and more as if immense volcanic ash clouds, sunless days and a terrible  famine   changed the course of North American prehistory,  pushing ancestors of the Navajo and the Apache peoples far to the south.


Soma, Ephedra and Journeys to the Next World

For the last few days  I have been reading a superb book  about a harrowing journey that 26 undocumented Mexican migrants took  in May 2001 across the Sonora Desert in hopes of reaching Arizona,  and last night it got me thinking, strangely enough,  about soma,  an ancient intoxicating ritual drink mentioned frequently in the Vedas and other sacred texts in Iran.  What’s the connection?  Well,  bear with me.  I think you’ll find this interesting.

The book in question is Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway,  and it’s a riveting account of the perils that this ill-prepared group of Mexican men and boys faced on their lethal trek through the Arizona desert.  As Urrea points out, many of the guides who accompany such parties into the desert insist that their charges pop fistfuls of ephedra-based diet pills.  The pills,  says Urrea are  a “chemical prod to speed up their walkers….A dose of eight pills at a time really gets them hustling. ”

The mention of ephedra really caught my attention.  There are several species in the genus Ephedra,  but they are all unprepossessing, shrubby,  desert-loving plants and several species contain an important stimulant– ephedrine–that produces an adrenaline-like rush in strong doses, and,  in some reported cases, a state of hallucination.

I have been reading a lot in recent weeks about ephedra,  for these plants are found in lavish quantities in the 4000-year-old  graves of Bronze-Age mummies  in the deserts of China’s remote Tarim Basin. As some of you will know,  the Tarim Basin mummies are very famous and controversial,  largely because they are  European in appearance and in the technology they possessed.  (Think plaid woolen clothes.)  As such,  they clearly indicate contact between East and West far earlier than previously believed.

Now here’s the thing.  The fact that archaeologists have uncovered so much ephedra in these graves suggests that it served a very important ritual purpose,  most likely to spur on the spirit of the deceased as it took the long,  dangerous  journey to the next world.

Could the Bronze-Age inhabitants of the Tarim Basin have brought knowledge of ephedra from lands to the west,  such as Iran?  And could ephedra have been one of the plants used to brew soma,  the sacred drink that ancient priests and others imbibed in order to journey to the other world?

Two American researchers,  David Stophlet Flattery and Martin Schwarz,  lay out in minute detail the available scientific evidence for soma in their 1989 book,  Haoma and Harmaline:  The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallocinogen.  Researchers have long debated possible  ingredients.   But after detailed study,  Flattery and Schwarz concluded that ephedra was one of the key ingredients in the fabled drink.

There are dissenters and doubters of course.   But I think there is something very poignant here.  Illegal Mexican migrants swallow ephedrine pills by the handful today in order to get to a place they think of as the promised land.   But the ephedrine does them no good at all.

Each year, the American border patrol finds hundreds of their bodies lying out in desert.

Frank Lloyd Wright and His Desert Camp

A few weeks back,  I had the great pleasure of touring Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s school and winter camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was a surprisingly raw, blustery day, and I joined one of the tours that wend frequently through the sprawling desert complex.  As I am sure you know, Frank Lloyd Wright, was one of America’s greatest architects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century,  a genius of concrete and glass and light,  and his winter camp, though roughhewn and experimental looking,  did not disappoint.

Wright died in 1959,  but his spirit was  still very much alive at Taliesin West.  At one point in the tour,  for example,  I briefly spied,  through the glass windows of a room off-limits to the public, a stooped, elderly figure swiftly fleeing like a startled bird into some hidden room.   I later learned that he was a member of The Fellowship,  one of Wright’s aged former students who resides at Taliesin West.   Like the British aristocrats who open their castles and estates to the public in order to pay the upkeep,   the Fellowship does not care much for tourists.  But the steep entrance fees provide Wright’s fellows with one of the most beautiful and elite retirement homes in North America.

I found many things about Taliesin West fascinating.  Wright’s students, for example, had to be a hardy,  self-sufficient lot.   When the newest students arrived at the camp, their first assignment was to design and build a shelter in the nearby desert,  where they would live while attending Wright’s school.   Some of these shelters grew quite elaborate over time,  as their builders added more space,  but none possessed much in the way of creature comforts.  I can imagine that some future archaeologists will have a great deal of fun digging what remains of these imaginative shelters.

When Wright purchased the land for Taliesin West in the 1930s,  it possessed an unparalleled view of a desert wilderness,  precisely what he was looking for.  So he designed the complex so that it would face out into the sweeping desert below. Civilization soon caught up with Taliesin West,  however:   someone built a home in its sightlines,  and the residential lights at night apparently threw Wright into a state of despair.

But he was not easily defeated. He did not want to pick up and start afresh somewhere else, so he reoriented the entire complex so that it would look out upon a mountain that rose in the opposite direction.

I’m posting below a wonderful little YouTube video taken in 1933 of the Taliesin Fellowship. It was filmed by a former student in Spring Green, Wisconsin, where Wright and his proteges spent their summer.