Saturday, November 11, 2006

Is 1491 a more accurate version of American history prior to the arrival of Columbus?

If any of you who are interested in American history before the cataclysmic arrival of Columbus in 1492 hasn’t already done so, I’d highly suggest reading 1491 by Charles Mann. It is a thought-provoking book based on up-to-date anthropological and archeological evidence of what the Americas really looked like before the European arrival and the mass assault on the indigenous peoples who welcomed him began.

In what little free time I have these days, I’ve been reading a couple of articles* about Poverty Point**, an archeological site in northeastern Louisiana. I’d heard of Cahokia in western Illinois (in what’s now East St. Louis) and Aztalan in Wisconsin, but I hadn’t heard of this massive site in Louisiana until now.

The site was first reported in 1873 by archeologist Samuel Lockett. But its unusual nature didn’t become evident until excavations were conducted by the American Museum of Natural History in the 1950s. An examination of an aerial photograph revealed that Poverty Point was an earthen enclosure built on such a huge scale that it couldn’t be recognized from the ground.

Carbon dating has placed the age of the main site at about 1700 BC. Villages apparently interconnected by waterways branching off the Mississippi River are thought to have contained permanent residences and these sites often contained artificial earthen mounds and C-shaped embankments which likely contained the houses of the residents. (The only house pattern so far discovered is small and circular, about 13-15 feet or 4-4.6 m in diameter.) Mounds were often dome-shaped, but at least two mounds at the main Poverty Point site were in the shape of flying birds. Excavations have not determined how the mounds were used.

The geometric layout of Poverty Point suggests that the site was built according to a master plan that indicates the home of a large resident population and a magnet for visitors and traders. In addition to the concentric C-shaped residential embankments, Poverty Point contains a large plaza, a flat open area of about 37 acres. On one side of the plaza some unusually large and deep pits were discovered that are thought to have contained huge posts as calendar markers to mark equinoxes and solstices.

There are several mounds, the largest of which represents a flying bird and stands 70 feet (21 m) high. While the majority of Poverty Point’s inhabitants lived on the embankments in the central enclosure, there’s evidence that people also lived and worked outside the enclosure perhaps as much as up to 25 miles distant.

Among the artifacts so far discovered at the site are simple pottery, stone vessels, and chipped stone and polished stone tools. Polished stone ornaments such as beads, pendants, and animal figurines are also characteristic. Among the more interesting of the artifacts are balls made from silt fashioned in dozens of different styles that were used for cooking. Archeologists have tried cooking in earth ovens made like those at Poverty Point. Using different shaped balls or objects was apparently the ancient cook’s way of regulating cooking temperature, just like setting time and power level on a modern microwave oven. These types of implements appeared to have been made up until about 1350 BC.

Obviously, reading about the Poverty Point site and its similarities to Cahokia and Aztalan (not to mention sites in Mesoamerica) made me realize that perhaps Mann’s view of the ancient Americas as consisting of large settlements, even metropolises, containing huge ceremonial centers and connected by a large network of terrestrial and aquatic trade routes is closer to the real scenario than that which we’re normally taught in high school and even college textbooks of the noble savage.

Gone are the days of seeing Native America as a simple, largely disconnected hodgepodge of hunter-gatherer temporary villages!

* Info from Gibson, J. (1996) Poverty Point, A Terminal Archaic Culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley, 2nd edition by the (Louisiana) Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism.

** Named for a plantation that once occupied the site.

For yet more info on Poverty Point, see the Moundbuilders/Ancient Southwest link on the sidebar.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Amerindian End of World Mythology

As promised in a much earlier posting, here are two stories, one from Biloxi with gloss and one from Rumsen Ohlone (without gloss, since I don't have the original Rumsen text--only an Old California Spanish translation*) both being "end of the world" stories:


Amą kidunahix ką ąyaa de ca oNni etu xa. Ekeką
earth roll DS people this die PAST they say always. DS

ąxti soNsa ątatka noNpa ye dą ayąk atowe nąk oNni.
woman one child two CAUS ? tree-? she lodge sit PAST

Nąx kide aniyą xepi kacidike de tidupi hi niki nąx
sat until water-DEF low ? go alight FUT none sit

ką exkanaskena ką “Tidu wiyakate,” kiye ką, “eke
DS Red-headed Buzzard DS "help me get down" she said to him DS " so

ko ątatka soNsa ikhu hi ni,” kiyedi. Kiye ką tiduwiye
? child one I give you" DECL-FEM she say. she say DS he help her down

xeni ką ątatkayą khuni oNni etu xa. Kadeska nącįyą
though DS child-DEF she give-NEG PAST they say. bird cloud-DEF

dustuki nąk oNni, sįdipa kiduspe nąk oNnidi sįdipadi
grasp sit PAST tail-all sink sit PAST tail-all-FOC

padi soNsoNti yuke xya etu xa. Omayina etike nąk
only-FOC? sharp ? always they say always. Yellowhammer there sit

oNni eke oNni sįdipa soNsoNti. Pukayi he etike nącįk
PAST so PAST tail-all sharp. Redheaded Woodpecker too there cloud-?

dustuki nąk oNni e he sįdip soNsoNti. Teįkayi ehetike
grasp sit PAST he too tail-all sharp Ivory-billed Woodpecker there

nąk oNnidi sįdip soNsoNti etu xa.
sit PAST tail-all sharp they say always.

The Earth rolled over and people died, they say always. A woman with two children was lodged in a tree waiting for the water to subside. She said to Redheaded Buzzard, "Help me get down," she said, "and I will give you one child," she said. Redheaded Buzzard helped her down but she did not give him a child. The bird [Redheaded Buzzard] clung to a cloud while his tail sank into the water. This is why his tail is all sharp at the ends, they say always. Yellowhammer was there too and his tail is also all sharp. Redheaded Woodpecker was also there clinging to a cloud and his tail is also sharp. Ivory-billed Woodpecker was there too and his tail is also sharp. This they say always.

This is a Biloxi flood myth similar to many others of different cultures all around the world. If we lop off all the frills of this story, the woman and the children and the birds, could this perhaps refer to an actual historic event, a natural cataclysm perhaps involving an earthquake (the earth rolled?) and a subsequent deluge?


Men and women were standing lined up on a small hill. They saw Hummingbird coming toward them. This hill was the only place that had light after the world ended, and the people did not want to give the light to Hummingbird. This was the only dry land, there in Salinas in Gabilan, as they called it, and they covered the light with the clothing they had. But there was an arrow hole in the clothing and Hummingbird got in through it. He carried the light away. Since then there has been light in the world, it is said. Eagle sent Sparrow Hawk to see if the sea was drying up yet. He didn’t trust Hummingbird. Sparrow Hawk brought up a rock from the bottom of the sea. Eagle then sent Crow to see if it was true that the sea was drying up. Crow went and saw many dead people and Crow, they say, started eating the flesh of the dead. That’s why Crow is black. Because Crow spent so much time eating the flesh of the dead, the sea was already drying up. Sparrow Hawk cursed Crow and that’s why Crow is black. Then the sea dried up and there began to be ranches, houses, and there were people again. Hummingbird is Eagle’s nephew. This is why the old people no longer pity Eagle, because he made the world again. That is the story of the Indians, how the world ended.

The Rumsen story seems to share some commonality with the Biloxi story. The Rumsen myth also appears to incorporate a deluge or rising sea. Some survivors are left over to begin again.

Being that both these languages were of the oral tradition with stories passed down from one generation to the next over perhaps thousands of years, it seems logical to assume that these "myths" may be based on actual fact(s) or occurrences of ancient history. Of course the actual fact of the catastrophe has been embellished possibly for purposes of entertainment or ease of memorization, but the stories may have been based on actual disasters kept alive through the ancient memories of multiple generations.

Vine Deloria, in his book, Red Earth White Lies, encourages looking seriously at Amerindian myths and legends to find evidence of the true history of our American continent. These myths were more than just stories to entertain the kids; they were also the oral passing down of history.

* I guess one of my future challenges is to re-translate this story back into Rumsen from the Spanish and English translations once I'm acquainted enough with the Rumsen language!

** The actual title here is The Earth Died, since I don't yet know the word for "end" or "finish" in Rumsen!