Category Archives: North American archaeology

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.


Another Step Closer to Waking the Dead

This has been quite a week for ancient DNA stories.  First, the feature article in Archaeology magazine about the possibility of Neanderthal cloning.  And yesterday,  a research paper in Nature reporting the success of an international team in reconstructing the ancient genome of a 4000-year-old man from northwestern Greenland.

The latter project clearly takes us one step closer towards the ability to clone a Neanderthal,  the subject of my last two posts.   But today,  I’d to focus on the new research from Greenland and what I think is important about it.

The team, led by Eske Willerslev,  a very, very  media-savvy researcher at the University of Copenhagen (whose work I have posted on before), obtained its ancient DNA from a tuft of human hair  excavated by an archaeological team in 1986 from a site in northwestern Greenland.  Willerslev and his colleagues make a strong claim that they have ruled out modern contamination.

The archaeologist who excavated the hair has gone on record stating in the 87 pages of supplementary material posted by  Nature that none of the ethnic Greenlanders on his team touched the sample.   He also affirms that no one who was likely of Asian descent handled the hair later during its storage in the museum.

So the team does indeed seem to be working with an uncontaminated ancient sample.  And Willerslev–an expert on ancient DNA–and his Ph.D. student Morten Rasmussen report that the team has reconstructed 80 percent of the nuclear genome.  Based on this,  the team has learned a number of things.

Number one,  the hair belonged to a man who descended from northern-eastern Siberians who migrated to the New World as early as 6400 years ago.  Number two,  the individual in question had blood type A+, brown eyes,  dark skin,  a predisposition to baldness, a genetic adaptation to polar cold,  and other identifiable traits.

Archaeologists already knew, however,  from decades of painstaking study of artifacts that the early Greenlanders descended from northern Asian migrants.   No surprises there.  What is new,  and I think very exciting,  are all the  details of appearance and physiology that have come to light about this particular  individual– gleaned from just a few hairs.

Archaeology has never been very good at getting down to the level of the individual, particularly in that vast expanse of time we call prehistory.   Excavations of  house floors,  middens,  and shell mounds supply a lot of information on families,  communities and populations.   But they rarely say much if anything about individuals.  And in places like North America,  archaeologists try very hard now to avoid digging human remains–a major source of information about individuals–out of respect for Native American beliefs.

So this new ability to glean a lot of information about an individual from a human hair is bound to come in extremely handy,  and I applaud the Danish team for their success.   But its clear to me that such techniques are yet another worrying step along the road to cloning an ancient human or an ancient hominin.

The Danish led team is trying to calm our fears.  “The genome we’ve reconstructed is no Frankstein’s monster,”  team member Rasmussen told EurekAlert!.  “It’s more like we’ve got the blueprints for a house, but we don’t know how to build it.”

For how long,  I wonder.  How long.

Reconstruction/drawing of Inuk by Nuka Godfredtsen.

Should We Be Repatriating Rock Art?

My cup of  Starbucks Breakfast Blend wasn’t the only thing steaming this morning as I read today’s post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.  It seems that the folks at the Vancouver Museum,  whose job it is to carefully and lovingly preserve its collections for future generations,  are allowing a rare treasure from British Columbia’s Fraser River to crumble and flake into oblivion.  The treasure in question is a massive 5-6 ton boulder once blanketed with petroglyphs. According to the museum,  the art-inscribed boulder once lay in the bed of the Fraser River,  and may have marked an ancient salmon harvesting site.

The petroglyphs are in a dire, near-death state.  In sharp contrast to their striking appearance in a 1930s photograph,  you can barely make them out now.   Partially covered with destructive moss,  the animal figures and other inscriptions are literally disappearing before our eyes–vanishing,  one might add,  as surely as the once bountiful runs of  Fraser River salmon are.  I can’t believe that a museum is allowing this to happen.

But it’s all part and parcel of a much, much larger problem.  Most people,  I’m sorry to say, just don’t value or respect,  much less understand,  ancient rock art. They feel no compunction about prying loose a painted or inscribed boulder from the spot where it was created hundreds or even thousands of years earlier and hauling it off to a museum,  archaeological park or even a private garden.  They think rock art is simply about the art itself–the often mysterious figures painted or inscribed on stone.

But rock art is all about place.    It was created in a specific spot that had great meaning to the ancient artist–a spot, for example,  that looked out on a sacred mountain,  a place where fish were abundant or easy to catch,  or a trail head for a mountain pass or trade route.   For me, there  is nothing more wonderful and exhilarating than coming across a panel of  rock art while I am out hiking with friends.  I love,  of course, to study the inscriptions and photograph them,  and think about what they might mean. But even more than that,  I like to reflect and puzzle over the place itself.   Why did the artists choose that mountain cliff  or this boulder on the beach?  Why there? What made it an important place? What was the artist honoring?

By contrast,  nothing makes me sadder than to see a slab of rock art sitting in a museum foyer or archaeological park.  It looks like an orphan to me,  cut off and isolated from everything that once gave it meaning.  It honors no place any longer,  its meaning has been lost,  its beauty and wonder sadly diminished.

I wonder if it isn’t time to start repatriating rock art in museum collections.  Giving it back to First Nations who may still have stories about where it once stood or belonged. Certainly the First Nations would value it more and take better care of it than that Fraser River boulder at the Vancouver Museum.

Today’s photo shows Buffalo Eddy 2 Petroglyphs at Nez Perce National Historic Park.  Photo courtesy of Nez Perce National Historic Park.

The Archaeologist and the Wolf

There’s been a lot of talk around our dinner table lately about a fascinating new book entitled The Philosopher and the Wolf.    Half autobiography, half philosophical meditation, the book explores the intense relationship that University of Miami philosopher Mark Rowlands had with a wolf that he naively adopted as a cub.  As Rowlands recounts it, Brenin the wolf was a superb companion, but as a true pack animal he could not tolerate solitude.

Indeed,  Rowlands could not leave his wolf alone anywhere.  When once he left Brenin in his jeep during a ferry trip,  the frustrated animal began to literally eat his way through the vehicle,   shredding seats and seat belts and gnawing away the roof.  There wasn’t much left of the interior when Brenin was done. So Rowlands learned to take his  wolf with him everywhere,  even into the classroom.

I thought of this anecdote today as I was read an intriguing  news article about the work of archaeologist Jeff Blick.   Blick, who teaches at Georgia College & State University, is an expert on prehistoric dogs.  He has spent much of the past two decades analyzing the skeletons of 112 dogs that he and his colleagues excavated from the Weyanoke site in Virginia.  It is, by all reports,  the largest collection of prehistoric dog skeletons in North America.

Blick, who much prefers cats to dogs in his private life, has learned an awful lot about these 1000-year-old canines.  The dogs were about the size of a modern Shetland sheep dog,  and while some were sacrificed,  at least one was buried at the feet of its owner.   They dined on fish, turkey, and turtle meat,  and they may well have been barkless.  Many of the early Europeans in the Americas commented on the fact that the native dogs didn’t let out barks;  instead they tended to howl like their wolf ancestors.   (And for those of you who have never heard what a wolf sounds like,  please click here.)

Blick is interested in the question of where and how dogs were first domesticated. Some research suggests that eastern Asians were the first to domesticate wolves and that their faithful pets followed them on a long cold trek across Beringia to the New World.  Other research points to an origin in northern Africa.  Blick himself now hypotheses that people in North America and other parts of the world independently domesticated dogs and he is now trying to gather ancient canine DNA to test the idea.

All this of course begs the biggest question of all in my mind.  Why did humans first tame wolves and turn them into dogs?  I’m beginning to think that wolves themselves had at least a small say in the matter.  They didn’t want to be alone.

How Early Wooden Armor Defeated Russian Firearms

As regular readers will know,  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about ancient forms of body armor.  I got started on this  subject last weekend, when I read about new research on the cloth armor that Alexander the Great and his army favored.  But a question from reader Dan Hilborn and a very cool post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology (one of my favorite blogs) have led me to the subject of wooden armor, specifically the armor Tlingit men wore into battle against Russian traders  in the late 18th century.

The Russians coveted furs — primarily the sea-otter fur,  which is the thickest and warmest of any mammal on Earth.  By the 18th century,  these traders had pretty much exhausted the sea-otter populations that once flourished in Siberia’s kelp forests, so they sailed further east along the coast of the Bering Sea,  searching for new kelp forests and more sea-otters.  Along the Aleutian Islands, Alaska and eventually northern British Columbia,  they spied abundant sea-otter habitat

Initially,  the Russians traders sailed into Aleut villages,  taking women and children hostages in order to force the men to bring them pelts.  They did not hesitate to murder their captives if things didn’t go their way.   In 1745,  a Russian group slaughtered 15 Aleuts on the island of Attu,  just to strike terror into the hearts of the villagers.  The Aleut people, in turn,  tried to expel these ruthless invaders from their lands, but Russian firearms and Russian diseases took a terrible toll.

Eventually,  the Russians worked their way southward into Tlingit territory.  Like many Northwest Coast peoples,  the Tlingit fished the bountiful rivers and coasts of their territory and hunted sea lions and other sea mammals.  They had a rich, complex culture,  with chiefs,  nobles and even slaves.   To settle grievances with their neighbors,  they embarked on raiding parties from time to time,  outfitting themselves in armor made from the one of the most bountiful materials in their territory:  wood.   Tlingit men carved alder into slats and rods,  then lashed these pieces together to form  sturdy, lightweight armor.

The  Smithsonian Institution holds several really spectacular examples of the traditional Tlingit armor.  I particularly love the Tlingit battle helmet beautifully carved from a very hard spruce burl.  The helmet itself is shaped like a very fierce-looking (and tattooed) man’s head and would have been worn atop the fighter’s head. According to the Smithsonian notes,  “it would have been “impossible to split open with a club.”  (The two images accompanying this blog show other Tlingit armor from the collection of  a Spanish museum.)

But back to my story.  After seeing images of Tlingit war gear,  I began to wonder how effective it was  in battle against the Russians and their firearms.   I knew that the Tlingit had put up a very strong  fight against the Russians, even capturing their settlement,  New Archangel,  on Sitka Island in 1802.  But an account of one battle  in Carl Waldman’s book, Atlas of the North American Indian,   really caught my attention.

In their attack on Russian-led forces in Prince William Sound,  writes Waldman,  the Tlingit  “wore animal masks to protect their faces as well as chest armor of wooden slats lashed together with rawhide strips,  which actually repelled Russian bullets.”  (The italics are mine.)

I would never have  guessed that well-made wooden armor could deflect a bullet.  It looks to me as if we don’t give early armorers nearly enough credit.

Sugar: A Short Bittersweet History

Wealthy Europeans of the Renaissance adored dessert time.  Indeed their cravings for sweet cakes and marzipan, plum pies and mince tarts far outstripped supplies of the chief ingredient—refined sugar.  To keep up with the vast demand and turn fields of  sugar cane into bags of white sugar, European mill owners required timber to fuel their boiling vats: by the early 16th century, sugar masters from Italy to Madeira had all but exhausted the most easily accessible forests.

The first Spanish colonists to land in the Caribbean understood this problem perfectly, and when their quest for gold failed in Jamaica, they turned to sugar in 1515 to make their fortunes.  In Jamaica’s earliest settlement–Sevilla la Neuva–Francisco Garay, a former slave trader and minor member of the Spanish nobility, imported a sugar master,  constructed a large mill to process newly planted sugar cane and forced Jamaica’s indigenous Taino villagers to do all the hard labor.

Simon Fraser University archaeologist Robyn Woodward and her team are now excavating the industrial quarter of Seville la Neuva,  uncovering traces of a tragic history that ended in the decimation of the Taino .   To read more about this new research,   please see my newly posted article on the Smithsonian magazine website.

Cloth, a Body Armor of Choice?

I think it’s safe to say that the ancient world is absolutely full of surprises.  While most of us have long envisioned Alexander the Great donning a gleaming bronze cuirass for battle,  new research presented last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America reveals that one of the greatest military generals in history and his soldiers favored a much humbler form of body armor–cloth.

Gregory Aldrete,  a historian at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay,  and his student Scott Bartell, became interested in Alexander’s armor after collecting more than two dozen different classical descriptions of a type of cloth armor known as linothorax, made of linen.  The Greek historian Plutarch, for example,  describes Alexander’s gear on the day  he headed into the famous Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C. and decisively defeated the forces of the  Persian king Darius III. Alexander, says Plutarch,  wore “a breastplate of folded (or doubled) linen.”

Intrigued by this,  the two historians set out to replicate linothorax.  They scrambled to find linen made from hand-harvested and woven flax,  and then painstakingly glued the layers of linen together with two types of glue available in the ancient world –one made of rabbit skins and the other from flax seeds. The two historians then set up a kind of ancient firing range,  shooting arrows and thrusting swords at the linothorax.  “The laminated layers function like an ancient version of modern Kevlar armor,” Aldrete told a reporter from Discovery News, “using the flexibility of the fabric to disperse the force of the  incoming arrow.”

What I find particularly fascinating is the fact that soldiers in both the Old and New World developed cloth armor.  Aztec warriors,  for example,  wore a kind of quilted cloth-armor jacket or tunic known as ichcapuipilli for combat against the Spanish invaders.  This battle gear consisted pieces of unspun cotton sandwiched between two layers of cotton:  the armor measured nearly two fingers in thickness and, according to Ross Hassig’s fine book, Aztec Warfare,  was capable of deflecting both arrowheads and atlatl darts.

Inca soldiers,  too,  wore a form of cloth armor.   The attire couldn’t protect its wearer against cannon fire or Spanish steel swords,  but  it clearly had some advantages.   It was comfortable,  lightweight, and probably very cool in the heat of mid-day.  So some 16th century Spanish soldiers themselves adopted it, wearing cotton armor into battle in the Andes.

Clearly,  there is more to cloth than meets the eye.

Mammoth DNA in Ancient Dirt

What can a pinch of dirt from the  Alaska permafrost tell us about the extinction of mammoths and prehistoric horses?  An awful lot,  says an international team of researchers headed by James Haile,  a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen.  By sequencing ancient mitochondrial DNA from soil samples and dating the soil,  Haile and his colleagues concluded that both mammoths and ancient horse species were still grazing Alaskan meadows some 7600 to 10,500 years ago–at least 2500 later than other research suggests.   Their findings have just appeared in an online paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

Haile and several of his colleagues have a long-standing interest in the subject of ancient DNA,  and whether this fragile molecule  can really survive degradation over thousands of years in geological layers.   Remember,  we are not talking about ancient DNA encased in animal teeth or bone:  Haile and his colleagues are searching for ancient molecules from urine and faeces in the soil.

Here’s what Haile’s team did in this new study.  They collected permafrost core samples from the tundra near Stevens Village, and dated the layers in the core by two methods:  C14 dating and optically simulated luminescence.  Then the team sequenced the ancient mitochondrial DNA in the layers.  In the stratum dated between 7600 and 10,500 years ago, they discerned the ancient DNA of woolly mammoth,  prehistoric horse, moose,  and snowshoe hare.   In upper layers dated to more recent times, they found moose,  hare, and the like, but no trace of woolly mammoth or prehistoric horse.

Team member Eske Willerslev, an ancient DNA expert at the University of Copenhagen, sees this as the beginning of a whole new era in our studies of the ancient megafauna and their mysterious demise.  “With ancient DNA analysis,”  Willerslev said in a prepared statement, “we are completely independent of skeletons, bones, teeth, and other macrofossil evidence from extinct animals.  This greatly increases the possibility of finding evidence of the existence of a species through time.”  Indeed,  the team has coined a new term for this:  they now talk of identifying “ghost ranges” for the  animals.

All this sounds extremely interesting and exciting.   And if  Haile, Willerslev and their colleagues have it right,  researchers will definitely need to rethink their theories about the demise of the mammoths and other large megafauna. The team’s new proposed extinction dates would not mesh in any way with the arrival of human hunters in the Americas or with a proposed comet strike.

But I confess I am skeptical.  The validity of dirt DNA, for example,  still seems to be a hotly contested issue among ancient DNA experts.   Researchers are still debating, for example,  the authenticity of ancient human DNA extracted from fecal material found Paisley Cave in Oregon, evidence that was used to advance the case of Pre-Clovis humans in the New World.

Big claims require big evidence.   Haile and his colleagues have now put out the idea that researchers can abandon the quest for skeletal evidence and simply take soil samples to pinpoint the demise of the mammoths. Let’s see other research teams duplicate his findings.

Smallpox Blankets

Over the years,  I have come across numerous references to an insidious  form of germ warfare that some Europeans  employed to defeat Native Americans:  smallpox blankets.  Historians suggest that the practice may have begun as early as the 1530s,  when  Spanish conquistador Francesco Pizarro handed out bedding of smallpox victims to the Inca inhabitants of Peru,  believing that the “miasma”  that caused the disease still clung to the fabric.

One of the most clearly documented conspiracies to employ this weapon comes from the letters and papers of Lord Jeffery Amherst,  the British commander-in-chief for America in 1763.  His hardliner policies against Native Americans in the Great Lakes region had sparked  Pontiac, the chief  of the Ottawa tribe,  to rise up against the British troops.   Amherst wanted victory at any cost.  To defeat the tribes,  he approved the use of smallpox blankets to,  as he said,  “Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Some historians have questioned whether smallpox can indeed be spread from blankets. But some studies clearly suggest that it can.  In Vectors of Death: The Archaeology of European Contact,  University of New Mexico anthropologist Ann Ramenofsky notes that “although the virus is most frequently transmitted through droplet infection, it can survive a number of years outside human hosts in a dried state.”

All this comes to mind thanks to a fascinating recent post on the Northwest Coast Archaeology blog.  There you will find a partial transcript of an interview that CBC radio interviewer Imbert Orchard conducted in 1969 with Solomon Wilson,  a Haida elder from Maude Island Village on Haida Gwaii  in northern British Columbia.   In this interview,  Mr. Wilson recounts a story he had heard from an elder about smallpox blankets and the spread of disease on the Northwest Coast.   It’s definitely worth checking out.