Tag Archives: First Nations

Fear and Loathing in the Caribbean

I think there are few more fascinating reads around than the early 16th century narratives of European adventurers in the Americas.    Most of these travelers had sized up their financial prospects at home and found them grimly wanting as younger sons of nobility or aspiring merchants.  So they signed up for long dangerous sea voyages in small sailing ships to lands few of their friends or family had ever heard of and fewer still could really imagine.

My overall impression is that these early travelers spent a good deal of their time in the Americas quaking in their boots.   Yes,  they had their swords and arquebuses and Spanish mastiffs,  but in the early decades of contact,  before smallpox and European diseases swept across the land and turned thriving villages into ghost towns,   these would-be colonists were hugely outnumbered.   In Jamaica alone,  for example,  the early Spanish sailors encountered some 60,000 Taino. Read more…

Reclaiming the Lost DNA of Ancient Languages

Imagine for a moment that you are 80 years old (easier for some of us,  I admit, than others.)   Now imagine that you are the last person left on earth who can speak English.   No one can sit down and chat companionably with you in your mother tongue.  No one can laugh at your jokes or puns or understand what it means to “grin like a Cheshire cat.”  You are  alone, and all the cultural knowledge embedded in the English language will be lost when you die.

That,  of course,  is the predicament of many elderly speakers of aboriginal languages around the world.  The  Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, calculates, for example,  that in the United States alone,  42 percent of the 300 or languages once spoken by  aboriginal people are now extinct. And it’s not just words, grammar and syntax that are being lost:  it’s “the DNA of a culture,”  as Bruce Cole,  a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the U.S.,  once put it so aptly . Read more…

Signs of Respect

As regular readers will know,  I  recently fumed here over the poor conservation of a petroglyph-covered  boulder at the Vancouver Museum,  after reading a troubling post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.   I questioned the wisdom of removing such boulders and slabs from the  places where they were created and installing them in  museums.  I then suggested that the Vancouver Museum repatriate the damaged boulder in question.

Since then,  Northwest Coast has posted more on this disturbing state of affairs, and recently  I received a great email on these issues from George Nicholas, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University and the director of Intellectual Property issues in Cultural Heritage. George is kindly guest-blogging on this today. -HP


I think the notion that rock art is about more than the images is something that has been largely ignored, certainly by the public, but also by many archaeologists and anthropologists. People often tend to focus on the details of the images, rather than on the context of the rock art. But one doesn’t work without the other.

In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger notes that before photography, before the age of reproductive technology, one could only see a particular image (such as the Last Supper fresco) in the church in which it was painted. The same obviously holds true for Lascaux and all other rock art.

Taken out of their geographic context, the images are divorced not only from the place itself (which may be imbued with meaning of its own), but also from the emotional landscape and viewscape. I’m sure you’ve been to petroglyph sites where there’s sort of a mystical feel to the place. I find that at the Three Sister’s Rockshelter in British Columbia’s Marble Canyon. The silence of the moss-filled forest that surrounds the blue-grey rock face adds an important dimension to the rock art.

And of course, we approach rock art from the perspective of the western world. Our worldview is based on a set of dichotomies: the distinctions between the natural and supernatural realms; between people and nature; between past, present, and future; between genders, and all the rest. Such distinctions may be absent, however, in many indigenous societies; they may live in a world in which ancestral spirits are part of this existence (owing to lack of separation between past and present; between natural and supernatural realms).

So all of this, then, begs several questions. What does rock “art” really represent?  How are we supposed to view it? What should we do with it, from a heritage preservation perspective? Indeed, is rock art something that should be preserved?

Most western archaeologists would say yes to the latter question.  But in Australia, contemporary Aboriginal persons sometimes paint over ancient images as a way of continually replenishing the world; it is the act of painting that is important (like the creation of Navajo sand paintings used in healing ceremonies, and later destroyed, much to the consternation of western observers).

The Zuni people have a similar tradition.  They carve wooden figurines of their war gods, the Ayahu:ta, and place them in outdoor shrines. After a period of time, the figurines are replaced with new ones. Zuni tribal member and archaeologist Edmund Ladd notes in his writings that “When a new image of the Ahayu:ta is installed in a shrine, the ‘old’ one is removed to ‘the pile,’ which is where all the previous gods have been lain. This act of removal specifically does NOT have the same connotations as ‘throwing away’ or ‘discarding.’ The image of the god that has been replaced must remain at the site to which it was removed and be allowed to disintegrate there.” So, from a Zuni perspective, proper stewardship is letting the ahayu:ta decay.

Rock art raises many fundamental issues,  as well as conflicting claims that certain items of heritage belong to a specific group or are part of the heritage of human kind. In recent decades, archaeologists have been very much part of this debate.

My own position is that I see merit in both positions, but also that the tension between the two positions is important because it forces us (as archaeologists, as heritage managers, as member of descendant communities, etc) to think about the nature of heritage in new ways.

-George Nicholas

Above:  The rock art of Bohuslan, Sweden.  Photo by Julius Agrippa.  Below:  Contemporary Aboriginal artist Mundara Koorang. Photo by Novyaradnum.

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.

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?

P.S. In You interested in healing and ayahuasca retreats at www.spiritplantjourneys.com.

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.