Category Archives: Anthropology

Reading old ethnographies

For fun recently, I’ve been reading Isabel Kelly’s 1932 Ethnography of the Surprise Valley Paiute (yes, I’m aware that I have strange tastes in reading). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both amateur and professional anthropologists raced to document the cultures of what were considered to be “vanishing races.” Most of those peoples, obviously, did not vanish. Instead, they adapted to new circumstances, just as people have been doing throughout human history. The anthropological work of that era, however, has nevertheless proved in many cases to be invaluable, in that it gathered and preserved cultural information at a time when many indigenous peoples were under tremendous pressure to abandon their traditions and assimilate completely into American society.

Most of this work was not the “participant observation” that we tend to think of as stereotypical anthropology; where the scientist goes to live among an unfamiliar group of people, observing and taking notes on their day-to-day activities. Rather, anthropologists like Alfred Kroeber, John Peabody Harrington, and Isabel Kelly conducted extensive interviews with people old enough to remember the ways in which people had lived half a century or more earlier.

Apart from simply being fascinating to read, much of this material, if carefully used, is also invaluable to an archaeologist. One of the biggest caveats, or course, is time. In most cases, the interviews were conducted late enough that the informants would have had no personal memory of any time before contact with Europeans; they were born into societies that had already undergone profound changes. And, of course, these were human beings and not computers. They did not have perfect recall of events they had experienced decades earlier. It should also be considered that some informants may not have been completely forthcoming with information they considered private, and that some of what they reported might have been misunderstood by the anthropologist. But even after these and other limitations have been taken into account, these early ethnographies are often very helpful in interpreting what remains in the archaeological record, particularly from period shortly after European contact.

But mainly, I read old ethnographies because I enjoy it. They provide a fascinating glimpse into the past as it was actually experienced by some of the people who lived it.

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The rules of language are innate… unless they’re not

A study just published by a team of cognitive scientists at Johns Hopkins University has found evidence that humans are born with an innate sense of syntactical rules that makes it easier for us to learn languages. The findings are based on an experiment involving teaching groups of people various artificial languages that differ from one another only in certain grammatical rules.

What makes this finding particularly interesting is that just a little over a year ago a team at the Max Planck Institute found evidence that syntactical rules in languages evolve from each language’s unique historical context, and not from anything innate in the human brain.

And on the gripping hand, there was also a study published last June by Dr. Paul Kiparsky of Stanford University in which he found evidence that language change over time seems to follow universal principles.

I’m not a linguistic anthropologist, much less a formal linguist, and I certainly don’t understand the subject well enough to critique any of these papers. However, the question of whether or not universal language structures are innate to the human brain (as Noam Chomsky proposed almost 50 years ago) is a truly fascinating one, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the debate will continue to evolve.

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Giants in the Earth

I stumbled on this in an autobiography of Buffalo Bill Cody (p. 207):


While we were in the Sand Hills, scouting the Niobrara country, the Pawnee Indians brought into camp, one night, some very large bones, one of which a surgeon of the expedition pronounced to be the thigh bone of a human being. The Indians claimed that the bones they had found were those of a person belonging to a race of people who a long time ago lived in this country: That there was once a race of men on the earth whose size was about three times that of an ordinary man, and they were so swift and powerful that they could run alongside of a buffalo, and taking the animal in one arm could tear off a leg and eat the meat as they walked. These giants denied the existence of a Great Spirit, and when they heard the thunder or saw the lightning they laughed at it and said they were greater than either. This so displeased the Great Spirit that he caused a great rain storm to come, and the water kept rising higher and higher so that it drove those proud and conceited giants from the low grounds to the hills, and thence to the mountains, but at last even the mountain tops were submerged, and then those mammoth men were all drowned. After the flood had subsided, the Great Spirit came to the conclusion that he had made man too large and powerful, and that he would therefore correct the mistake by creating a race of men of smaller size and less strength. This is the reason, say the Indians, that modern men are small and not like the giants of old, and they claim that this story is a matter of Indian history, which has been handed down among them from time immemorial

As we had no wagons with us at the time this large and heavy bone was found, we were obliged to leave it.

With nothing further to go on, I have to assume for the moment that Buffalo Bill is telling the truth, and that his account should be taken at face value: The party was shown some very large bones, one of which the surgeon thought was human, and one or more Pawnee Indians related the story that is given here. Throughout the nineteenth century, newspaper account record a great many hoaxes involving giant skeletons, or sometimes mummies, but I have no evidence that this particular case involves any deception, either on the part of Buffalo Bill or that of his Pawnee informants.

As the bone was not kept, there is obviously no way now to determine it’s actual origin. Very likely it came from some species of extinct megafauna that could not be readily identified by either the Indians or the Buffalo Bill party. There are a number of conditions under which organic material such as bone can be preserved for many thousands of years. It was probably not a fossil, that is, a mineralized bone, since it is hardly likely that the fact that the object was made out of rock instead of bone would have been overlooked.

Giants, of course, are found in the traditions of an enormous number of cultures, from every part of the world. The same is true of world-destroying floods. In this case the two motifs are explicitly connected, with the giants all drowning during the flood. This juxtaposition is far also from unique, appearing in traditions as widely removed from one another as Chumash and Hebrew.

I’m afraid I don’t know enough about the Pawnee to speculate as to how this story connects to other narratives, or what role it may have played in Pawnee culture. Most of the ethnographic information I’ve studied comes from peoples west of the Rocky Mountains; in California, the Great Basin, or the Southwest. Timothy Pauketat has argued* that at least some nineteenth century Pawnee religious rituals might have been derived from practices carried out at Cahokia, but I can’t say what relevance, if any, that connection might have for this story.

Since there is no indication that this story has any particular religious significance, I would tentatively classify it as an example of what I’ve been calling fantastic ethnobiology: cultural information regarding plants, animals, and intelligent beings that do not exist in nature, and which are not functioning in a religious context. (Yes, I know there are some problems with this definition, but it’s the best one I’ve got at the moment. I’ll go into it in more detail in a future blog post.)

As I said, I only stumbled on this account by accident. It’s from a culture that’s outside my area of limited expertise, but I nevertheless found it interesting enough to be worth thinking about.


* In Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi

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In a comment to one of my recent posts, Anthroslug pointed to December’s Child by Thomas Blackburn as an excellent source of information about Chumash traditional narratives. His comment reminded me of a very interesting possible correlation that I discovered the first time I read that book.

The material in December’s Child was taken from notes originally made by anthropologist and linguist John Peabody Harrington, who worked with a number of Chumash informants in the early 20th century. Several of those informants told Harrington about a group of monsters or demons called nunashish*. One of these nunashish was Yowoyow, who carried a basket of boiling tar on his back, into which he tossed his victims. Regarding Yowoyow, Harrington’s informant Maria Solares, said, “He lives at a certain place down near Ventura, and the people there see his smoke rising sometimes.”

What makes this particular story very interesting to me is that my grandfather grew up in Santa Barbara. He told me on several occasions that when he was a child (which would have been close to the time Harrington was working with the Chumash) there was a cave at a spot in the cliffs between Santa Barbara and Ventura from which smoke could be seen rising. According to him, there was a tar seep in the cave which had somehow caught fire. Because it was sheltered from the rain, it smoldered there for many years.

I find this a very interesting coincidence, although at present I’m not prepared to say anything more than that there might be a connection between the two stories. Certainly I don’t believe that a fire in a cave could be, in any real sense, the “truth behind” the story of Yowoyow. I do consider it quite possible that the odd event of smoke coming out of a local cave became attached in the early 1900s to a story that was already known.


* I hesitate to say that the Chumash “believed in” the nunashish because it’s not clear to me exactly what role these beings played in their world view. They might have been creatures that no adult actually believed in, like Santa Claus is for us today.

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Strange creatures

I have long enjoyed reading ethnographies, especially the sections describing mythology, religion and magical practices. One somewhat related topic that I have recently become interested in is what, for lack of a better name, I would call fantastic ethnobiology. By this I mean cultural information regarding plants, animals, and intelligent beings that do not exist in the real world, but which are not considered religious. Familiar examples of this would include vampires, werewolves, fairies, and unicorns. Less well known are North American creatures like the Shoshonean water baby, or from the Miwok, the dangerous metubu lizard. Of course, our own modern world has plenty of examples as well – bigfoot and the chupacabra being particularly well known.

As the video about the water baby makes clear, it is not always obvious whether a particular subject falls into the category of religion or ethnobiology. Some creatures, such as the Devil in medieval English folklore, seem to fall into both categories.

Unlike standard urban legends, which most often are told in the third person (commonly they happened to “a friend of a friend”), stories of encounters with fantastic creatures are frequently given as first person accounts, at least in our society. Unfortunately I don’t know if this approach is common in other cultures as well. Many ethnographers seem to have ignored the subject, or mention only a few tantalizing bits in passing.

One of the most intriguing aspects of fantastic ethnobiology is the fact that although there is an enormous diversity of creatures described, there are also some that show up again and again in a wide variety of cultures. One of the most common is the mischievous dwarf; tiny people, usually between 1′ and 3′ in height, who can appear and disappear at will and who like to play tricks. Tall, hairy, humanoids (i.e. bigfoot) are another common creature, as are giant flying reptiles.

I admit I have no idea why certain creatures pop up in culture after culture. It may be related to the fact that certain myths are also found over and over again in many different cultures. Perhaps both of these phenomena reveal something interesting about the workings of the human brain. In any case, it’s a fascinating subject.

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Uncovering the past

Continuing with the theme from my last post, I get a nearly uncontrollable desire to facepalm every time I encounter, as I do far, far too often, the idea that archaeology isn’t about uncovering a real past, but about constructing historical narratives about the past. If this is what it’s all about, why am I getting all sweaty and covered in dirt at the bottom of a hole? I can sit in my armchair and “construct narratives” (which is just another way of saying make up stories) all day long.

It’s been my experience that the archaeologists who talk about constructing narratives are almost invariably those who see the field not as a way to find things out about the past, but as a way to advance a political agenda. Now there’s nothing wrong with having a political agenda. I might very well agree that someone’s agenda is noble and well worth pursuing. But I don’t agree that politics, whether for good or bad, is a proper function of archaeology.

Archaeology exists to discover the facts regarding the past, humanly speaking, regardless of whether or not those facts are useful for advancing some political, religious, or social goal. The past uncovered by archaeology can be used in a variety of ways, just like research in any other field. Our role as archaeologists is simply to learn the truth about the past. After that it is all of our responsibility as human beings to ensure that what has been learned is used to do good.

My goals as an archaeologist therefore, are twofold. First, I want to recover all the data that is recoverable about the human past. Second, I want to create a theoretical framework that explains all the data completely, and yet simply. Obviously these are monumental tasks, that may never be completed. They certainly won’t be finished within my lifetime. Nevertheless, this is what I see as the purpose and justification for what I do as an archaeologist.

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Black History Month

I like what Morgan Freeman had to say. (h/t to JDZ )

It has long been accepted in my field of anthropology* that race is not biological, but is a social contruct. Categories of any kind, including categories of people, do not exist in the natural world. They are created by culture. In the natural universe, every object is in some ways similar to and in other ways different from every other object. Categorization defines certain similarities as important. This is not necessarily a bad thing! In general, categories are useful, which is why we create them. I can, for example, easily say something about waterfowl, or staple crops, or registered voters. Without categories, I would have to name each individual that I am speaking about, which would be hugely impractical.

The category of race, however, is one that I think is harmful rather than helpful, at least in the United States in 2011. I believe it would be a good thing if we would stop thinking of people in racial terms at all.

*In the U.S., archaeology is taught as a sub-field of anthropology.

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