Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ancient Skull Deformation Practices

Ancient elongated skull from Paracas, Peru

For whatever reason, some ancient peoples, including some ancient Native Americans, practiced various types of intentional skull deformation. This would be performed soon after birth, while an infant’s head was still malleable. “A mother strapped her baby into a cradleboard and then bound another board across the child’s forehead until the forehead was flattened, the sides swelled outward, and the eyes developed a bulging look to them” (La Vere 2007: 60). It appears these practices took place all over ancient Native America, from the Mississippi Valley to Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) to Peru. (Biloxis were said to have practiced skull deformation to some degree, although to what degree is currently unknown.) “Flat-heading” seems to have been a favorite practice among many ancient Mississippian cultures, although, according to La Vere, Spiro (an ancient Mississippian mound center located in modern Oklahoma) appeared to favor head elongation. Elongation appears to have been practiced by some among the ancient Maya and by many ancient residents of Paracas, Peru. Whether this practice correlated with elite or priestly status, or to identify members of particular clans or allegiances, or simply as a symbol of beauty, is unknown. The practice also seems to have been performed to a certain degree among ancient Egyptians.


La Vere, David. 2007. Looting Spiro mounds: an American King Tut's tomb. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

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.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pidgins and Creoles

I just finished reading a book titled Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton. In it, he explores the origin of pidgin and Creole languages around the world, specifically in Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and Hawai’i. His theory, not unlike what Chomsky postulates, is that children are born with a “bioprogram” that allows them to create Creoles out of pidgin tongues, filling in missing aspects of grammar by similar methods used worldwide regardless of the substrate language or languages influencing the pidgin. He states, for instance, that most Creole languages have subject-verb-object (SVO) word order, like English.

Bickerton unfortunately does not, however, take into consideration Native North American so-called pidgins, such as those that have been traditionally called Mobilian (Trade) Jargon or Choctaw-Chickasaw Trade Jargon (once spoken in the Southeast and Mississippi Valley) and Chinook Jargon (once spoken in the Northwest). Mobilian in fact has an OsV word order (small ‘s’ indicating that the subject is optional and often not employed). Thus:

ete (eno) cãle.
wood (1S) cut
I cut the wood.

While many linguists and others have postulated that, what I now like to refer to as the Mobilian International Language (MIL)1, came about only after European contact, I agree with Drechsel (1997) who postulates that this “pidgin” language shows far more ancient origins. For one thing, the OsV word order is unknown to any of the modern languages of the Southeast, including Choctaw and Chickasaw (SOV), from which MIL is supposed to have arisen, and it certainly does not display the SVO word order that is common to all the European contact languages (Spanish, French, English). This OsV word order is, however, the word order of Proto-Muskogean. There is also the fact that, despite later contact with Spanish, French, and English, few words from these European languages entered MIL's vocabulary. Thus, I believe these facts point to MIL's roots going back long before European contact and probably having been used by various southeastern and Mississippian nations as a common trade language for centuries, along with Native American sign language.

While most pidgins and Creoles have come about through contact of indigenous languages with European colonial languages, I think it’s important to realize that not all of them have. In fact, Bickerton himself talks about Pidgin Hawaiian, not Pidgin English, having been in use in Hawai’i well before Pidgin English came about. This was because Hawai’i was already a long established progressive monarchy when Europeans and others first began arriving, and, well, if these immigrants wanted to communicate with Hawaiians, they needed to learn to communicate in Hawaiian the best they could. (Hawaiians, being in the dominant position at the time, were not about to learn English, Portuguese, Tagalog, or Japanese to communicate with these newcomers.) The result of this, before the American overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, was Pidgin Hawaiian, which looked something like this:

(Bickerton 2008: 211)
Wau no ku’ai kela kapiki. (Pidgin Hawaiian)
I NEG buy that cabbage.
A’ole au e ku’ai aku i kela kapiki. (Bickerton)2
’A’ole au e kū’ai aku i kēlā kāpiki. (Hawaiian)
NEG 1S sell that cabbage.
I won’t sell the cabbage.

Note that the positive sentence pattern in Hawaiian would be: Kū’ai aku au i kēlā kāpiki, "sell 1S that cabbage," which is VSO. (Negative sentence structure in Hawaiian mandates changing its usual VSO word order.) But note that the Pidgin form is SVO, in line with Bickerton’s contention.


1. I find this a far better name than Mobilian (Trade) Jargon, for it expresses what Mobilian actually was, an "international" language used among many southeastern Nations, including the Biloxis, as a mode of communication for trade, joint ceremonial rituals, and politics in the context of intertribal regional alliances. It is important to note that, while most pidgins have negative connotations and are not highly regarded, the opposite was true of MIL. Southeastern nations had no negative attitude about using the pidgin, and, in fact, it is believed they often used the language among themselves in order to confuse or hinder communication with encroaching Europeans, who often thought MIL was actually Choctaw, Chickasaw, or some other language.

2. Why Bickerton or his editors did not employ the crucial macrons of Hawaiian orthography is a mystery to me, especially since he has lived and taught in Hawai'i and is writing about Hawaiian pidgin languages. Thus, I have included the macrons as they should appear underneath the macronless transcription appearing in his book.


Bickerton, Derek. 2008. Bastard tongues: a trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world's lowliest languages. New York: Hill and Wang.

Drechsel, Emanuel. 1997. Mobilian Jargon: linguistic and sociohistorical aspects of a Native American pidgin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.