Sunday, September 25, 2011

Serpent and egg

While working on my dissertation, which partly involves what has come to be called Mississippian culture (ca. 1000-1700 CE), I have been investigating iconography and archaeology linked to this culture. Some of you may have heard of or seen the Serpent Mound of Ohio, dating from ca. 1050 CE (see diagram of it below):

While many archaeologists still debate its actual meaning, I have found an interesting correlation between this image and the Biloxi language, a dormant Siouan language once spoken in the Lower Mississippi Valley. In Biloxi, the word for 'star' is iNtka (the N here represents nasalization of the prior vowel /i/), which literally breaks down to iNti 'egg' + -ka 'ATTRIB' suffix, or a suffix meaning 'like/somewhat', thus 'egg-like'. This correlation between a star and an egg is intriguing.

And what does a star, or egg, have to do with a serpent? Well, in the Mississippian world, a world which the Biloxis were once part of, a serpent, or, in particular, a rattlesnake, was associated with rulership or monarchy, much like the cobra was associated with ancient Egyptian pharaohs and the dragon was associated with the ancient Chinese emperors. Further, the serpent was associated with the Underworld. Ideas of the Underworld and Above World were associated with priests or otherwise powerful people who had access to esoteric knowledge not generally available to the common people. The association of a serpent from the Underworld to an egg, representing the stars (heavens), or the Above World, is thus powerful imagery for Mississippian aristocracy, who, along with priests, had knowledge of all things in the Underworld, the Above World, and the Earth in between. (This imagery, by the way, goes back probably well even before the Adena cultural horizon of Ohio, ca. 500 BCE-200 CE.) A good look at the Ohio Serpent Mound diagrammed above thus appears to show a serpent, or snake, perhaps giving birth to creation and the universe in the form of an egg, a creation to which any great ruler in the form of a God-Monarch would wish to align themselves.

But the story doesn't end in Ohio. Look at the topmost photo below of an image at the Blythe Intaglios in the desert of southern California associated with the Mojave peoples (perhaps among others):

Note anything similar to the Ohio Serpent Mound, such as the apparent snake with coiled tail and large head, or perhaps wide open jaw expelling an egg? (Unfortunately the dating of these intaglios is unclear, but currently they are placed between 1000-1500 CE.) If this correlation between two monumental depictions of a serpent and egg on two ends of the North American continent holds, this would suggest the apparent migration of a Mississippian cultural icon to the California Southwest, proving long-distance transcontinental trade and the long-distance migration of Mississippian cultural elements well into the West.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Migration of a Word?

We all know that geese and other types of birds migrate, right? But words can also migrate from place to place. For example, several similar-looking words for 'goose' appear in several Native American languages of the Gulf Coast and Southeast: Natchez (isolate) laalak, Tunica (isolate) lálahki, Yuchi (isolate) shalala, Chickasaw (Muskogean) and Mobilian Jargon (Muskogean trade language or pidgin) shalaklak, and Karankawa (isolate) la-ak. Farther west, in California, there are: Yana (Hokan) laalaki, Nisenan (Maiduan) lalak, Mutsun (Ohlonean) lalak, Rumsen (Ohlonean) lalk, Pomoan (Hokan) lala, and Southern Sierra Miwok (Miwokan) langlang. Such long distance similarities are often attributed to onomatopoeia(1), which may indeed be the impetus for its origin, but "some resemblances are remarkably precise even if one allows for onomatopoeia" (Haas 1969). And the story of the migration may not end in the Americas: what's even more intriguing is that in the Vogul (Uralic) language of Central Asia there is a similar word for goose, lak. To stretch things even further, in Persian (Farsi), the word laklak means 'stork,' a bird appearing somewhat similar to a goose.

Is this linguistic proof of migration from Central Asia to North America, down along the Pacific coast of California and across to the Southeast? It is hard to say, but it is interesting that the similarity of these words for 'goose' extends in such a fairly well defined geographical pattern down western and across southern North America. Certainly it might indicate a well defined trade and communications network between the West Coast and the Southeast perhaps via the Colorado and/or Gila and Rio Grande Rivers. The term's origin may well extend right over into Siberia and Central Asia, perhaps leaving a linguistic footprint of one possible former route of human migration. More research needs to be done on this.

(1)onomatopoeia: refers to a word or name representing the sound or noise made by an object; in English, for instance, cocka-doodle-doo is onomatopoeic for the sound a rooster makes (the equivalent of which is ku-ku-ru-ku in Spanish).

Haas, Mary. 1969. The prehistory of languages. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Exodus Lost

I would like to recommend this book written by my friend Stephen Compton. Here is my review of it:

Exodus Lost is a page-turner for anyone interested in anthropology and history. I highly recommend this fascinating, educational read by a scholar refreshingly willing to think "out of the box."

This book can be ordered through Amazon and is also available for Kindle.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Biloxi 'moon' and Chinese 'star'

It sometimes happens when you study different languages of the world that what seems to be a strange coincidence pops up, which then leads me to wonder if it REALLY is coincidence or due to some ancient connection. The Biloxi word for 'moon' and the Chinese written character for 'star' is a case in point.

I have analyzed the Biloxi word for 'moon,' nahinte, into its component parts as (i)na 'sun' + (h)iNte 'egg,' thus 'sun-egg.' (The Biloxi word for 'star' is iNtka, which I analyze as iNte 'egg' + ka 'like' (attributive), or 'egg-like.') The association of moon or star with egg seemed odd at first until I began learning Chinese writing and found that the (Simplified) Chinese character for 'star' 星 (xing1) incorporates the character for 'sun' (top) and 'seed/seedling' (bottom) (Lee 2003: 133). There is not much difference semantically between egg and seed, since they both convey the idea of a container for offspring or dissemination (and thus creation).

What does this mean? I'm not sure, except that I can't help but think that this may be more than mere coincidence. Creation narratives (often called 'mythologies' in our Western world, minimizing the validity of anything not originally written down) often show similar themes across Eurasia and the Americas. Could this link between moon, star, and egg/seed represent some ancient cultural belief that may have originated in Central Asia? Were stars considered the 'eggs' or 'seeds' of creation of the Universe?

Lee, Philip Yungkin. 2003. 250 essential Chinese characters for everyday use, Vol. 1. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
I'm back!

After a long hiatus of being quite busy with Ph.D. program research and projects, I am back. It has been an exciting year of language study. I got up to the second level of intermediate Uyghur. Unfortunately, I cannot go any further, since KU does not offer advanced-level Uyghur courses. (Perhaps a trip to Xinjiang or Kazakhstan is in order?) I have also started taking Mandarin Chinese lessons through a private tutor--my first foray into studying a tone language!

As for my student status, I am now Ph.C. (Ph.D. Candidate), more popularly known as ABD (All But Dissertation). This after completing three Field Statements, three parts of a Comprehensive written exam plus an oral exam/Dissertation Proposal Defense. Now I begin writing the dissertation, which is titled, "The Lower Mississippi Valley (LMV) As A Language Area." Essentially I am comparing the LMV language contact area ca. 500-1700 CE, researching evidence of contact among the several languages of the area, including Biloxi, Tunica, Atakapa, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Choctaw/Chickasaw. (The LMV can be compared to better known language contact areas, or Sprachbunds, such as the Balkans area of Europe, South Asia, Norteast Africa, and the Amazon.) I will also incorporate some archaeological and narrative evidence into the language contact research.

More on this as things evolve!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Pyramids in the Plains

Although I am primarily a linguist by profession, I have taken more than a mere passive interest in archaeology, especially since archaeological evidence, like linguistic evidence, can reveal much about history we only thought we knew.  Recently I went to the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) conference in St. Louis.  While at the conference, I took part in a group tour of Cahokia

About 1,000 years ago, ca. 1050 CE, Cahokia was the largest city north of Mexico, larger than London at the time, estimated to have had a population of at least 10,000 and more if one includes the extensive surrounding network of farmsteads and villages.  Cahokia was “about the size of an average ancient Mesopotamian city-state” (Pauketat 2009:26).  Not until the early 1800s, when Philadelphia’s population surpassed 20,000, was there a city as large as Cahokia north of Mexico (Pauketat & Bernard 2004:12).

The first Euroamerican accounts of Cahokia came from Henry Marie Brackenridge, a young lawyer who corresponded with former president Thomas Jefferson.  In a letter of 1813, Brackenridge stated that he was “astonished and awestruck at the number and size of the earthen pyramids clustered in a several-square- mile area in and opposite the French-American gateway city of St. Louis” (Pauketat 2009:27).  Brackenridge stood atop one pyramid.  He saw that “pyramids trailed off to the north-northwest along the banks of Cahokia Creek” (ibid.) and, when he decided to follow yet another line of pyramids leading off to the east, the path led him “into the midst of the ruins of an ancient city, with large symmetrical pyramids everywhere” (ibid.).  He wrote: “I was struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids” (Brackenridge 1962/1814).  This ancient city, with pyramids as awe-inspiring as those of Egypt, was Cahokia.
Stairway up Monks Mound pyramid

One of the primary archaeologists to conduct excavations in the Cahokia region, Timothy Pauketat, led our tour.  Our tour began by crossing the mighty Mississippi River over to East St. Louis where we made our first stop.  Both central St. Louis (the pyramids of which were removed in the nineteenth century) and East St. Louis were part of the Cahokian metropolitan complex.  East St. Louis was once connected by a path, or causeway, to “downtown” Cahokia.  At the East St. Louis site, we observed several archaeologists busy conducting excavations.  We observed the excavated foundation of one of the settlement’s houses and the deep interior of a storage pit that once held grains for the community’s inhabitants.

Our next stop was at Grossman, a village between East St. Louis and Cahokia.  We parked in a shopping center parking lot to quickly observe the remnants of small mounds along a nearby highway.  All traces of the town itself are now obliterated by the modern world. 

Next was a stop on a residential side street in another town to observe the remnants of more small mounds at the site of Pfeffer.  According to Pauketat, the house foundations excavated in this area showed that they were not permanent—they were built and rebuilt over a period of decades and were uniquely aligned toward lunar standstills

Our next stop was the site of Emerald, which lies along a narrow road in rural Illinois.  The site is currently private property with a house lying next to a large hill, which was Emerald’s largest pyramid, now covered over with trees and vegetation.  A couple of smaller mounds were barely distinguishable as small bumps a little farther along the side of the road.

After Emerald we finally went to the Big Daddy of ancient North American cities: Cahokia.  At one time there were more than 200 packed-earth pyramids, habitually referred to as ‘mounds,’ of differing sizes and shapes: ridgetop, conical, and platform (flat-topped) (Pauketat & Bernard 2004:10).  Only about half of these have survived the ravages of time and the careless treatment by builders of modern subdivisions and highways.  The largest of these mounds is Monks Mound whose base is larger around than Egypt’s Gizeh Pyramid.  Monks Mound, named for French Trappist monks who were found inhabiting the area nearby, is a two-tiered platform pyramid whose summit is thought to have contained several buildings, including a large structure, perhaps the home of a ruler or some other elite(s).  We climbed to the top of this pyramid via the stairway leading up to its apex.  From the top we had an amazing view in all directions, including of St. Louis in the distance, now sporting skyscrapers and the famous Arch, but in Cahokia’s heyday sporting more pyramids, visible from Cahokia itself.  We could see several other mounds surrounding Monks Mound here in “downtown” Cahokia.  And immediately below the south side of Monks Mound was the Great Plaza that extended for quite a distance toward other pyramids still visible in the distance.  In this plaza is where the ancient inhabitants would have amassed for politico-religious spectacles, perhaps re-enacting ancient mythologies, by rulers, priests, or other elites.

Reconstruction of Great Plaza (Monks Mound at far end)
All of us were struck by the sheer size of Monks Mound, as well as the sheer size of Cahokia itself, which, along with many surrounding ‘suburban’ villages like Grossman, Pfeffer, and Emerald, extended for miles in all directions, villages up to a two-day walk on the outskirts of Cahokia.  There is evidence of mass immigration to Cahokia by peoples of perhaps various nations.  One village, Halliday, about ten miles southeast of Cahokia (which we did not visit), appears to have been settled primarily by women, immigrants or children of immigrants from southeastern Missouri or northeastern Arkansas who weaved, farmed, and made pottery but had a diet and cultural habits unlike most Cahokians (Pauketat 2009:121-122).

What Cahokia may really mean for North American history

Could Cahokia really have been the center of a political alliance involving several Native American nations speaking different languages?  Peoples later identified as Siouan, Caddoan, and Algonquian may have all been associated with this large ancient city (Pauketat 2009:125).  Linguistically, evidence of a pidgin or creole language, which often arises from such international1 alliances, is unfortunately lost to us due to lack of written data, but we know that such languages arose among Native Americans coming into contact, perhaps the best known of such being the Mobilian Trade Language (MTL) of the Southeast and the Chinook “jargon” of the Northwest.  While these trade languages have traditionally, and rather ethnocentrically, been regarded as post-European phenomena, there is ample evidence that MTL at least was pre-contact, its OsV (object-subject-verb) word order like that of Proto-Muskogean, quite different from English, Spanish, or French SVO (subject-verb-object) and even different from the modern Muskogean languages’ SOV (subject-object-verb)  word order, which, to me, in itself is a good indication of its having an ancient pre-European origin. 

I believe, given the archaeological, genetic, and linguistic evidence so far amassed, that ancient Native Americans may have spent a lot of time cooperating and creating peaceful alliances. While skirmishes and some warfare are inevitable, I think what we are learning about Cahokia and what it means to ancient American history fits well with what writers such as Charles Mann in his book 1491 have been telling us: pre-contact North America was quite heavily populated before the arrival of European diseases.  There is ample and still growing evidence that ancient North Americans traded with each other over vast distances, from one end of the continent to the other, coming in contact with each other and learning about each other’s customs and beliefs, and learning each other’s languages.  Lisa Mills, in her analysis of DNA from an Ohio Hopewell site, demonstrated that the Algonquian Ojibwas had close association with the site.  While this is not surprising, given the close geographical proximity of Ojibwas to the region, what is surprising is that genetic links are also apparent between the Ohio Hopewell site and groups as geographically diverse and widespread as the Apache, Iowa, Micmac, Pawnee, Pima, Seri, Sioux, and Yakima.  This seems to indicate that indigenous nations from across North America were in contact at Hopewell, ca. 200 BCE - 500 CE, visiting with each other, probably establishing peaceful trading alliances and creating multiple trade, or pidgin, languages to enable successful communication with each other.  Unfortunately, MTL may be the only example of an ancient trade language that survived by the time of European contact and was able to be recorded.  It may have been only one of many of such languages that arose across the continent in ancient times, however.  (There was also Plains Sign Language, used as a means of international communication on the Plains.)

What does this mean?  It means, of course, that North America before the arrival of Europeans was no vast untouched wilderness populated only by nomadic hunters and gatherers as has so often been taught in school textbooks and popular media.  Instead, it means that ancient North America had cities of monumental architecture2 and established long-range trading networks and political alliances across the continent.  It means that we must rethink the Eurocentric attitudes that have plagued the true history of our continent since colonial times, originally written by biased and racist European and Euroamerican historians who thought that Native Americans were inferior and incapable of building cities and altering their landscapes and environments.  The history of North America does not begin with the United States--there were cities and civilizations in North America thousands of years before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

1  Note that I use 'international' in this sense to refer to what has been habitually called 'intertribal.'  However, the word 'tribe' has biased and negative connotations (perhaps meaning 'not quite civilized' people), and the words nation or people are more appropriate.  Thus, I use 'international' in its true sense to refer to people coming from different indigenous nations.
2  There were other, although smaller, cities or towns of pyramids scattered throughout the Mississippi Valley and Southeast, including Moundville, Bottle Creek, Angel, Ocmulgee, Etowah, and Aztalan.  There were thousands of earthen pyramids throughout the central and southeastern region of what is now the United States, most of which were destroyed by Euroamerican colonizers, their soils used for railroad ballast, among other things.
Brackenridge, Henry M.  1814 (1962).  Views of Louisiana.  Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
Mann, Charles.  2006.  1491: new revelations of the Americas before Columbus.  New York: Vintage.
Pauketat, Timothy.  2009.  Cahokia: ancient America's great city on the Mississippi.  New York: Penguin.
Pauketat, Timothy & Nancy Stone Bernard.  2004.  Cahokia mounds.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Some Observations of Rumsen Ohlone Grammar  
paper published online

My paper titled, Some Observations of Rumsen Ohlone Grammar has been published online in the Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics (KWPL).  Here is the link: