Native AmericanTribal Origins: The Meeting of Archeology and Cultural Anthropology

When doing public presentations as an archeolgist, no matter what time period the material might deal with, one can always anticipate the question:  What tribe made this?  It is often difficult to convey to the lay person that modern or early historic tribal names and affiliations are fairly recent and often virtually impossible to project back into the longer prehistoric past.  The actual point at which the historic native tribes as we have come to know them emerged from the stone age past can be a vague, even invisible, one to discern in many instances. However, the combined efforts and accumulated knowledge of both ethnography/ lingustics and archeology have done much to clear-up some of the misconceptions about native American tribal origins in the last years.  As DNA studies, in particular, become ever more sophisticated, the picture that will ultimately emerge may be far better and more complete than what we have now.  Let's take a brief look at some of the things we know and don't know currently about tribal origins.

                                                  HISTORICAL RECORDS

Part of the problem in discerning past connections, or even geographic origins, has to do with nomenclature and early historical records, which were not kept with the accuracy of such things as native people's own words being seen as very important.  Tribal names like Sioux, Nez Perce, Ute, etc. were attached for the convenience of white men primarily. Native peoples often gave a name for themselves which merely meant "the people", and which would go on to become the later, recognized tribal name.  In the eastern U.S., where tribes were first encountered by settlers in a less dominant position, accepted tribal names generally bore a closer relationship to reality.  But even in later times, when early ethnographic attempts were made to reconstruct tribal oral histories or recover lost written records of first contact, mistakes were made in assigning both names, spellings, geographical relationships, etc.  Long tribal histories in a particular region were either ignored for convenience, or just as easily glossed over to help deny any potential long term existing claim to a certain piece of desirable real estate.  By the early twentieth century, when pioneering ethnographers such as Boas, Lowie, and others had begun to issue ethnographies that included detailed linguistic material, it had become apparent that geography alone was not a valid criterion for determining the actual origins of a tribal group in one particular area.  The Lakota (Sioux) for example, had clearly migrated from somewhere in the S.E., possibly North Carolina in the centuries just before Columbus got lost on his way to Asia.  During this same period, archeology of first the great mound centers in the Midwest, by Cyrus Thomas and others, and later the large complexes of the Southwest, were giving some indication of both the long term continued occupation of given areas by prehistoric peoples and their connection, or lack of it at least, in some ways to historic groups.

                                                      LINGUISTIC EVIDENCE

Mainly as a result of ethnographic studies in languages, anthropologists have long divided all of North America into nine major "culture areas".  While linguistic family is the major criterion for this, geographic connection, customs, myths, clothing, etc. are also contributors.  These factors, while not always as reliable, are still recoverable sometimes in the archeological record--housing styles, for example.  However, in the Southwest, where several distinct language families do exist in the same region, culture area is determined more by geography and custom than it is elsewhere.  Major language families, such as Algonquin, Muskegean, Athapascan, etc. however, are still seen as the principal factor by which distinct culture area lines are drawn.  Thus, it is possible to connect tribes within that region by name to different points in the past at which they diverged from one another and from the root stock of the language by measuring known and fixed rates of linguistic change.  For example, at what point the main Iroquois groups may have separated from the Huron speakers, and then both these had separated earlier from some now lost group can be accurately guessed at.  The value of linguistic measures is apparent when migrations such as the Siouan and, later, the Athapascan speaking Apaches and Navajos arrival and later separation into the Southwest can be important time measuring sticks.  The most obvious information that comes from the linguistic material is that most of the historic tribes, as we know them very likely emerged in their modern forms well within the last one thousand years, often much less even.  For example, this of course makes assigning an Archaic period projectile point that may be five thousand years old to a certain "tribe" a useless endeavor for anything but to please someone in a crowd who asks if that was a 'Cherokee' arrowhead he just asked you to identify. No sir, it was not a Cherokee arrowhead, even though you found it in Tennessee; and furthermore, it was not even an arrowhead, since the bow and arrow did not exist there for another three-four thousand years from when this one was made, anyway! Try explaining that to someone who thinks he knows as much as you do, mainly because his grandfather left him a big 'arrowhead' collection and knew some Cherokee personally.


When Cyrus Thomas and his excavators showed a clear relationship with the stone box graves in the Tennessee Valley mounds they were excavating there and elsewhere in the 1890's with similar burial practices among the historical Shawnee peoples of the same region, he made two important contributions to Am. tribal archeology. Firstly, he correctly assigned long term time periods for the moundbuilders, giving time depth to the native origins debate well before carbon dating and other more precise methods came along.  Secondly, by showing the connection with historic peoples in the same region he dispelled the idea that some "lost tribe" or other wandering or extinct people had built the mounds in the first place.  Equally important, he showed that there were cultural things the archelogist could relate to try to connect prehistoric and historic tribes together, at least in some areas.  Such easily recorded ethnographic features as burial practices, house construction style, mythological or kinship icons or symbols and other such cultural practices, which are frequently very conservative in their expression by nature, can be recovered by careful archeology. As such, by the time radiocarbon dating came along to help verify such ideas, a wider view of native tribal origins and affiliations had become possible, especially when combined with the mentioned new linguistic data.  As time has gone by many refined archelogical techniques have come into use which give closer views into tribal pasts.  For example, as a graduate student this writer was fortunate to work as an assistant to a top ethnobotanist for a semester.  Focusing on published and unpublished theses on Puebloan groups in the Southwest, this ethnobotanist was putting together a database on as many plant references, for all purposes (ceremonial, medicinal, food, etc.) as possible.  Since fossil pollen is a key component now of on-site recovery at most excavations in that important prehistoric region, this person had theorized that evidence of the disproportinate appearance of certain pollens within an archeological site might point to one historic tribal affiliation or another.  This person's research later showed just such a correlation in a site being disputed and claimed as ancestral by both Zuni and Hopi in Arizona.  A clear use of a certain flower plant known to be far more important to Zuni than Hopi ritual pointed both to the site as more likely Zuni and also gave specific dates helping to establish clearer dates for tribal separation prehistorically as well.  There are very likely many cases where clear stylistic changes in symbol representation, burial objects, and other such things may be indicative of prehistoric dates at which related tribes separated or when non-related peoples moved into a certain region that the archeological record can help to make clearer, even if they cannot unwind them completely.  Combined with renewed interest, and a more critical look for similarities or veracity, in native related tribal legends and origin myths, much clearer pictures of tribal separations from their ancestral rootstock should continue to emerge in coming years.

If you have a reference to specific instances where archeological work or interpretation has led to more specific dates or regions where a specific historic tribe emerged, the reader is urged to add a comment to this blog.

If you would like to learn more about the process of tribalization at the interface of emerging kinship, linguistic, and social institutions in a specific scenario, set in a historical fiction format--with elements of murder mystery, romance, and political intrigue--the reader is urged to try RED EARTH SKY, the third novel in THE PEOPLE OF THE STONE series.  Set in the heartland of prehistoric America at the time of hunting/gathering peoples changing to early agriculturalists, it is a story of the process of how emerging kinship and legal institutions gave rise to the need for what we would later call the tribes of Native America.

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