Sunday, March 23, 2008

Linguistic Archaeology?

This is one of those entries where comments would really be appreciated, since this has been a major part of my research of late, and it would be nice to have feedback as to whether this all makes sense or not:

As many of you know, I have been working on the Biloxi language and trying to piece together some history based on linguistic evidence. While there is no known written history of the Biloxi nation before the European invasion, I believe there are clues to ancient Biloxi culture and society buried within the remains of its vocabulary.

It is currently my contention that Biloxi settlements, like many others of the Southeast, likely contained great earthen mound structures, some in the shape of large flat-topped pyramids and others smaller, rectangular or circular. These large pyramidal structures rose like mountains of monumental grandeur above the surrounding forests, rivers, and streams. While, to my knowledge, there are as yet no actual archaeological remains traceable to ancient Biloxi society, I invoke linguistic evidence to postulate the former existence of such structures.

The word for ‘stairway’ in Biloxi is asis(i)tu, which, broken into its component parts, is a- ‘place of’, si ‘step,’ reduplicated to represent plurality, and –tu, another plural marker that, together with reduplicated si, emphasizes a great number of steps or stairs, suggesting perhaps a long stairway such as those ascending the sides of large pyramids and mound structures (think of those in Cahokia or Mayan ruins). Upon the flattened summits of these structures would probably have perched a cabin with a grass roof, usually the residence of a high-ranking noble or elite. The tallest of these pyramids bespoke the superior status of its lofty occupant, called, in Biloxi, Yaaxitąąyą, ‘The Great Sacred One.’1 Adjacent to the largest pyramidal structures was at least one large open space, or plaza, in which the masses would congregate for an optimal viewing of the great king’s speeches or other ceremonies and rituals. (Biloxi narratives also refer to the king being elevated perhaps on a mound, platform, or chair above the masses.)

Biloxi vocabulary suggests a certain amount of societal stratification consistent with a predominantly agricultural economy. An agrarian economy usually leads to the creation of a class of elites and nobles, and this was quite apparent among Southeast Amerindian nations, many of which were of the "Mississippian Moundbuilder" cultures. Biloxi vocabulary indicates a certain amount of power-sharing by other ąyaaxi, or lesser nobles, and ixi 2, their deputies and assistants. Biloxi nobility likely legitimized their superior “sacred” status through the practice of what has been called shamanism 3. Their connection to the supernatural realm would have legitimized their decision-making by the process of communing with sacred spirits or ancestors. Such communing with the Otherworld as a means of justifying their actions would have been a powerful tool for keeping law and order. After all, shamans could shapeshift into were-animals, and the possible penalty for stepping out of line could be death by a noble ripping one to shreds in the form of a were-wolf or were-eagle or other type of powerful transformed being (at least that’s how it would be perceived by the masses, the belief probably being instilled in the citizenry from childhood). Such connections to the Otherworld would also serve to maintain an element of mystery around the activities and behaviors of those in the highest offices, thereby legitimizing their power by their special sacred knowledge and connections to spiritual realms that could either help, or injure, an individual or an entire community. ('Shaman-king' rulership shares probable parallels with the ancient Olmec and Mayan civilizations. Cultural similarities and possible influence and trade between the ancient Southeast and Mesoamerican [Olmec, Maya, Aztec] civilizations is still being debated.)


1. Literally, (ą)yaa + xi + tąą + = person-sacred-big-DEF
2. Literally, i + xi = commitative (with)-sacred (one) = 'one who works with the sacred one(s)' (deputy)
3. As I've stated before, "shamanism" and "shaman" are terms that spawn hot debate among anthropologists, because these terms originated with the Tungus of Siberia, who do not share many of the traits found in Native American spiritual practices, especially those involving priest-kingship or shaman-kingship. (We should also not rule out the possibility of females holding the reigns of shamanic power. The ruler of Cofitachequi, believed to have been a Muskogean settlement in what is now Georgia, was a woman (queen) carried on a litter upon the shoulders of her male subordinates. This was documented by de Soto.)


Nick said...

It's interesting that Biloxi even has a word for stairway. Did the Biloxi have any two-story buildings? What was the everyday use of the word?

Anonymous said...

Do you have any knowledge of the meaning and origion of the actual name Biloxi? I've tried finding its' meaning and etymology, but, to no avail.


Dave said...


Not sure how the actual term was used now that the language is extinct, but I think it's interesting that the components of the word seem to emphasize a LONG stairway, like one leading up the side of a pyramid or mound. That along with evidence of societal stratification leads to my hypothesis.

Dave said...


Alas, there is no good explanation for the name "Biloxi." It is an exonym (originating from outside the Biloxi nation, as they call themselves 'taneks' or 'taneksa,') and it has been proposed that it may be Muskogean in origin, or, rather unconvincingly I think, a reinterpretation of the name 'taneksa' by Muskogeans or some neighboring group. Thus, the long answer to your short question boils down to "I don't know."