Tag Archives: Anthropology

Museum Curios or Objects of Spiritual Healing?

Two days ago,  I suggested that the Vancouver Museum seriously consider repatriating a petroglyph-covered boulder in its collections to the tribal group in whose territory it was found.  The art on the boulder appears to be deteriorating badly in the museum courtyard as moss and water erode the stone,  obliterating figures that were clear as a bell in the 1930s.  I argued that repatriation would be a good solution to this problem,  for I believe that tribal group in question would have a much greater interest in taking care of the art.

But there’s also a moral argument to be made here.  I don’t think that national, provincial or city museums are the right places for objects of great spiritual importance to aboriginal peoples,  objects that still have a tremendous meaning today. These items, in my opinion,  really need to go back to the tribal group from which they came.   Imagine the outcry,  for example,  if an Egyptian museum held part of the manger of Christ in its collections and would not return it to the Vatican on request?

My views on this matter were strongly shaped by an experience I had while I was working for what is now the Royal Museum of Alberta back in the 1970s.  At the time, the museum held a collection of sacred medicine bundles once owned by healers and spiritual leaders in the Blackfoot Confederacy,  the Niitsitapi.

The museum bought the bundles back in a time when residential schools and other modern ills had badly eroded the traditional culture of the Niitsitapi.   But in the 1970s,  a few people in these tribes were actively reviving traditional spiritual practices.  They wanted their bundles back, because these sacred objects were absolutely essential to age-old spiritual practices.  The museum, however,  stubbornly refused to part with them.

Finally,  however,  four members of the Kainai Nation (part of the Niitsitapi) arrived at the museum one spring day and asked if they could take the Longtime Medicine Pipe Bundle  outdoors for prayer,  as was tradition.  As a young research assistant,  I watched them carry the bundle out past the security cameras and guards.  Outside, they walked in a procession around the museum,  with the museum director and a few other  staff members following.

As they passed the parking lot,   the  Kainai delegation broke into a run toward a waiting pickup truck.  They swiftly clambered in with the bundle  and drove away.  As I later learned,  one member of the delegation had dreamt a few weeks earlier that he could spirit away the bundle from the museum:  today the Kainai talk about how this man cast a charm over the curators.

Many of the Kainai have now returned to their traditional spiritual practices,  and I have heard that the bundle is a very cherished part of those practices.    Clearly, the museum should  have restored the bundle to the Kainai when they asked for it.

I have often heard aboriginal people talk about the sacredness of the rock art.  Isn’t it time that  museums think about giving it back to the people who rightfully own it?

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The Most Ancient Mariner

When did land-loving humans first trust their fates to simple rafts and begin exploring the world by water?  Most archaeologists would say some 50,000 years ago,  when anatomically modern humans sailed from island southeast Asia to Australia.   But Thomas Strasser, an archaeologist at Providence College in Rhode Island, dropped a bombshell last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. Strasser reported that he had found several hundred double-edged cutting tools on the island of Crete that dated to at least 130,000 years ago.  Some,  said Strasser,  looked very much like the hand-axes that Homo erectus wielded in Africa 800,000 years ago.

Strasser now proposes that the ancient hominins voyaged out of Africa by primitive boat,  island-hopping from Crete to Europe.  “We’re just going to have to accept that,  as soon as hominids left Africa,  they were long distance seafarers and rapidly spread all over the place,”  Strasser told Science News reporter,  Bruce Bower.

This new evidence sounds immensely intriguing,  and I would certainly like to know much more.  But I think that we are still a long way from seeing Homo erectus as a seafarer.   Other evidence for such primeval ocean voyaging,  after all,  is very thin.   Let me briefly recap.  In 1998,  a team led by Michael Morwood,  an archaeologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia,  excavated  stone tools on the island of Flores in Indonesia (the same island that produced the so-called “Hobbit” remains of Homo floresiensis) that dated to some 800,000 years ago.  This was the time period when H. erectus was roaming southeast Asia.

How did the ancient hominin get to Flores?  Morwood himself suggested that they might have held on to logs as simple flotation devices, and kicked their across the narrow strait separating Komodo from Flores.  But a more flamboyant researcher, Robert Bednarik,  an independent scholar who heads The First Mariners project, proposes that H. erectus sailed there by raft.   To demonstrate that such a voyage is indeed possible,  Bednarik and several associates built a bamboo raft with paleolithic stone tools, and then sailed successfully on it from Lombok to the neighboring island of Sunbawa in a ten hour and twenty five minute crossing in rough seas.

So such a voyage is indeed possible in a simple raft.   But most archaeologists working on the subject of coastal migration have been exceedingly reluctant to buy into the idea of seafaring H. erectus.  When I interviewed half a dozen of the world’s leading experts on the subject two years ago while working on an article on ancient seafaring for Discover magazine,  most suggested that that ancient hominins likely floated to Flores accidentally,  after being blown out to sea in a storm.

A major sticking point for many is the cognitive ability of H. erectus.  Many researchers believe that only modern humans possessed the necessary technological creativity to build a raft and the requisite intellectual ability to navigate at sea.   But if Strasser’s new findings are accepted (and you can be sure that people will be looking very carefully at both the stone tools themselves  and at the proposed dates), then it could be a whole new ballgame.    I personally will be following this research with great interest.

Arsenic and the Beginning of Mummification

Archaeologists have long puzzled over the artistically preserved bodies of nearly 200 ancient humans found along the Pacific coast of northern Chile and southern Peru.  The bewigged and clay-covered remains, known as the Chinchorro mummies, resemble statues and date back 7000 years, making them the earliest artificially mummified bodies in the world.   Later societies who practiced mummification tended to be politically and socially complex and reserved the privilege for adult elites.   But the Chinchorro were different.   They lived in a relatively simple society of fishers and seal and sea- lion hunters, and they started out mummifying young children.   Why?

Research from an international team led by anthropologist Bernardo Arriaza of the University of Tarapaca in Arica, Chile, currently sheds new light on the Chinchorro people and supplies a possible explanation.  By analyzing hair samples from 46 mummies from northern Chile, the team found that the Chinchorro ingested toxic levels of arsenic—a poison known to produce high rates of miscarriages and infant mortality—in their drinking water.  Arriaza now theorizes that world’s oldest mummies were created by grief-stricken Chinchorro parents who suffered repeated losses of their children and who wanted to preserve their infants’ bodies and keep them above ground in shrinelike areas.   This very early mummification practice, says Arriaza, “is an emotional response to an environmental contaminant.”

Excavators stumbled on the first Chinchorro mummies in Arica, Chile, in 1917, and subsequent studies by paleopathologists and physical anthropologists have revealed much about their preservation.  The Chinchorro created their earliest mummies of children,  including fetuses, by removing bacteria-ridden internal organs, packing body cavities with soil, strengthening limbs with sticks, coating the face with reddish-black clay, and adorning the head with a human-hair wig.   Moreover, analysis has shown that they repeatedly repainted some of the clay masks to cover nicks and dents, strongly suggesting the mummies remained above ground, most likely in a shrine, for years after death.  Eventually Chinchorro morticians extended the practice to adults, until they stopped making mummies in this distinctive style around 1700 B.C.

Arriaza began examining the possibility of arsenic poisoning among the Chinchorro in 2007, after reading about the toxic effects of this poison on human fetuses and infants.   Arsenic occurs naturally in geological formations in many parts of the world, and as water weathers these strata, it carries the poison into local rivers.  This hazard came to public attention in Chile in the 1960s, after the city of Antofagasta started drawing much of its water from a river that turned out to be laced with 860 micrograms of arsenic per liter— 86 times higher than World Health Association’s current provisional guideline.  During the peak exposure from 1958 to 1965, infant mortality rates in Antofagasta soared by an estimated 18 to 24 %.

Arriaza suspected that the Chinchorro had suffered a similarly high infant mortality for exactly the same reason.  The four earliest Chinchorro mummies—all children—came from the Camarones River Valley, where water tested as high as 1300 micrograms of arsenic per liter.  So Arriaza collected hair samples from both Chinchorro and Pre-Inca mummies excavated from ten sites in northern Chile with the help of heavy equipment for sale collected by mutual international support, – whose water all tested above the WHO guidelines for arsenic,  and then sent the samples to Dulasiri Amarasiriwardena, a chemist at Hampshire College in Amherst, for mass spectrometry testing. The mean arsenic values in hair from all ten sites pointed strongly to the chronic poisoning of the Chinchorro and other ancient peoples.

Many researchers may have assumed that environmental contamination was a major problem only for later industrial societies, but the new findings strongly suggest that this is far from true.  “You can’t smell arsenic or taste it,” says Arriaza.  “So the Chinchorro had no way of knowing they were being poisoned.”

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.