Sunday, June 24, 2007

Easter Island: From Paradise to Purgatory

I have been reading parts of Jared Diamond’s latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I was intrigued by one chapter in which he talks about Easter Island (natively called Rapanui, cf. Hawaiian lapa nui, ‘big ridge or slope’). I’d known about EI’s large statues (moai) and its platforms (ahu) supporting the moai. I did not realize, however, until reading Diamond’s chapter, how much of an ecological disaster EI is. As Diamond puts it, "...whole forest gone, and all of its tree species extinct" (2005:107). EI was once a "diverse subtropical forest of tall trees and woody bushes" including among its native species perhaps the largest palm in the world, even larger than the now current largest palm, the Chilean palm. These palms measured about seven feet in circumference. EI was home to at least six native land birds, including heron, two species of parrot, and a barn owl. It was once the richest breeding ground in Polynesia and perhaps all of the Pacific.

Once Polynesians arrived on this remotest of the world’s islands from western Polynesia (most likely from Mangareva), deforestation began, apparently reaching its peak around 1400 AD. This total deforestation was due to various factors, not the least of which was to have wood for heating (EI is subtropical and drops to around 50° F in winter), rope-making (for pulling the huge moai), and canoe-building for transoceanic voyages. EI had had a strong civilization divided into territories ruled by chiefs who erected larger and larger moai, representing high-ranking ancestors, to assert their egoistic sense of power and dominance. There were 887 moai carved, averaging 12 tons each, often pulled for a distance of up to nine miles to be erected on an ahu. The largest moai built was 32 feet tall and weighed a mere 75 tons. (This apparently occurred just before deforestation reached its peak.) EI’s huge statues, by the way, although often touted as mysterious or even the products of "alien contact," had provenance in native Polynesia, as large statues were also found on Mangareva, the supposed origin of Easter Islanders, and large stone monuments were also constructed on Tonga, as Polynesians eventually sailed their way to all corners of the Pacific.

The irony of what EI was and what it soon became is exemplified by this cruel metaphor: after the construction of hundreds of massive multi-ton statues, there was a proliferation of little statues called moai kavakava "depicting starving people with hollow cheeks and protruding ribs. Captain Cook in 1774 described the islanders as ‘small, lean, timid, and miserable’" (Diamond 2005:109). The population declined by about 70% between 1400-1600, partly because the islanders turned to cannibalism for survival. Diamond states, "Oral traditions of the islanders are obsessed with cannibalism; the most inflammatory taunt that could be snarled at an enemy was ‘The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth’" (2005:109).

I was frankly shocked by the details of Diamond’s investigation into EI’s ecological and sociocultural history. It is rather easy to equate EI’s downfall with what is happening now on a global scale, and Diamond makes this point loud and clear. If you’re curious to learn more, I highly recommend this book.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Maččan, Wa Xawwan, 'inn Makkeweks
Coyote, His Wife, and Makkeweks

A Rumsen Story

The following is another Rumsen Ohlone story. Makkeweks, by the way, is the name of a Rumsen mythological "sea monster." I just completed a draft of a paper with this text and a review of the grammar incorporated in it. I have not included the grammatical notes in this post.

Neeyink ku wattin kaawtak maččan. Neeyink ku was kayy wa xawwan. Kuu ku me koyypon. Neeyinkmur Makkeweks ku was koyypomp. Neeyink ku was maččan koyypomp. Neeyinkmur ku was Makkeweks koyypomp maySantopin. Neeyinkmur ‘innay Sa lačyankw maččan xawwa. Neeyinkmur lakkuy wa koyyponin. Maččan was kayy: tommins me ‘etten, xakkaw, ‘immey me ‘ettenakay 'išku kuu koyypon kuumur was monsemiki Makkeweks wamur ‘etten. Tanmur lakkuy, neey ku was liiw maččan, neey ku was wattis ‘ewwey, xuyyamur kuu tonn was sakkes lattap Makkeweks Sa lačyankw. Neeyink ku ‘ummap maččan, neeyinkmur naterimp xuya sottow, xuya saanay xuya sottow ‘išku muSSen neeyink ku muSSey. Neeyink ku xaal maččan wa ‘oxšenin, neeyink ku čunnuy, neeyink ku čitt. Neeyink ku puSSep(iki) wa xawwan neeyink ku kappes ‘attap xallu rottey mur wa čunn maččan, tanmur čitt.

1. Neey-ink ku watt-in kaaw-tak maččan.
then-? IRREAL come-PAST beach-LOC coyote

2. Neey-ink ku was kayy wa xawwan.
then-? IRREAL 3S-ACC say 3S-POSS wife

3. Kuu ku me koyypon.
NEG IRREAL 2S be.afraid

4. Neey-ink-mur Makkeweks ku was koyypo(n)-mp
then-?-? IRREAL 3S-ACC be.afraid-CAUS

5. Neey-ink ku was maččan koyypo(n)-mp.
then-? IRREAL 3S-ACC coyote be.afraid-CAUS

6. Neey-ink-mur ku was Makkeweks koyypo(n)-mp maySantop-in.
then-?-? IRREAL 3S-ACC be.afraid-CAUS rise.up-PAST

7. Neey-ink-mur ‘innay Sa lačyankw maččan xawwan
then-?-? fall DEF woman coyote wife

8. Neey-ink-mur lakkuy wa koyypon-in.
then-?-? die 3S be.afraid-PAST

9. Maččan was kayy: tommins me ‘etten, xakkaw, ‘immey me ‘etten-akay
coyote 3S-ACC say ? 2S-POSS uncle ? ? 2S-POSS uncle-PL

10. ‘išku kuu koyypon NEG be.afraid

11. kuu-mur was monsem-iki Makkeweks wa-mur ‘etten.
NEG-? 3S-ACC advise-PAST 3S-POSS-? uncle

12. Tan-mur lakkuy, neey ku was liiw maččan, neey ku was watt-is
when-? die then IRREAL 3S-ACC ? coyote then NEG 3S-ACC come-?

13. ‘ewwey, xuyya-mur kuu tonn was sakkes lattap Makkeweks Sa lačyankw.
far down-? NEG ? 3S-ACC ? DEF woman

14. Neey-ink ku ‘ummap maččan, neey-ink-mur nateri-mp
then-? IRREAL ? coyote then-?-? ?-CAUS

15. xuya sottow, xuya saanay xuya sottow ‘išku muSSen neey-ink ku muSSey.
down fire down side down fire get.warm then-? IRREAL warmed

16. Neey-ink ku xaal maččan wa ‘oxšen-in,
then-? IRREAL jump coyote 3S do.magic-PAST

17. neey-ink ku čunnuy, neey-ink ku čitt.
then-? IRREAL sing then-? IRREAL dance

18. Neey-ink ku puSSep-(iki) wa xawwan neey-ink ku kappeS ‘attap xallu
then-? IRREAL revive-(PAST) 3S-POSS wife then-? IRREAL three times jump

19. rottey mur wa čunn maččan, tan-mur čitt.
be ? 3S-POSS song coyote when-? dance

The coyotes went to the beach. Coyote told his wife not be afraid. But then she became afraid when Makkeweks rose up from the water, and she fell dead from fright. Coyote had told her that the sea lion, mussel, and crab were her uncles and not to be afraid, but he did not tell her that Makkeweks was her uncle. When she died, Coyote carried her on his back and laid her down on her side next to the fire so she could get warm. She got warm. Then Coyote jumped while performing a shamanic ritual, sang, and danced. His wife came back to life then Coyote jumped three times and sang and danced.

' = glottal stop (before all words beginning with vowel)
č = English ch
S = retroflex s (with tongue curled back in mouth)
š = English sh
x = no equivalent in English, but like an exaggerated h sound or like ch in German Bach

Monday, June 11, 2007

Biloxis and Aztecs

I recently came across an online version of a paper, apparently part of a book published in 1896 titled, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land by Charles Skinner. Skinner apparently wandered around the southeastern US in the late 1800s visiting various Amerindian tribes and collecting what he could of their stories and mythologies.

He briefly speaks of some Biloxi legends, although as far as I can tell, he doesn’t specify from whom these stories came. But there was an intriguing line in one of these stories:

The southern part of this country was once occupied by a people called the Biloxi, who had kept pace with the Aztecs in civilization.

This is particularly intriguing not only because I work on the Biloxi language and culture, but also because it may have broader implications for the civilizations of the entire native southeast and the Mississippian Culture, or what has often been termed the "Moundbuilder" culture.

Could Biloxis have had a civilization as advanced as that of Aztecs, assumedly including the building of monumental architecture such as pyramids, temples, and ceremonial plazas?

If you’ve looked at my earlier postings, you’ll find that I’ve talked about the Mississippian culture before, including their supposed primary centers, or cities, called Cahokia (in modern Illinois), Aztalan (in modern Wisconsin), and Poverty Point (in modern Louisiana), all more or less located close to the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

While Biloxis are a Siouan tribe who are thought to have migrated south from the Ohio Valley region at some point in ancient history, they did settle in the southeast in what is modern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. They were close neighbors of Amerindian groups known to have had large settlements, social stratification (i.e., economic disparity), and a high reverence for their chiefs or ruling class, among these the Natchez and Caddo. It is known from post-contact written records that Biloxis had temples in which they placed the preserved skeletons of their chiefs. Interestingly, Biloxis referred to their chiefs and shamans with the same term, ąyaa xi, literally meaning ‘sacred’ or ‘mysterious’ person.

This tempts me to think that Biloxi chiefs may have often been shamans or a priestly class of rulers who could have been on a par with the Olmec and Maya "shaman-kings" of those Mesoamerican civilizations. This would certainly bode well with the idea of the Biloxi civilization having been on a par with the Aztec or even the earlier civilizations of Olmecs and Mayas.

There are theories out there that the Mississippian culture and its cities may have been influenced by those of Mesoamerica, or that there was at least contact between them and dissemination of knowledge. The fact that the cities of Mississippian culture share common traits with those of Mesoamerica, such as the building of pyramids (often referred to as "mounds" in regards to North America*), temples, and monumental plazas certainly makes these theories very plausible and intriguing.

This is all speculative at this point, of course, but it is definitely food for thought in trying to discern what Native America really looked like prior to 1492.

* I was recently reading a paper that discussed Olmec "mounds." It seems the first pyramids in Mesoamerica, in the ancient Mixe-Zoquean or Olmec world of the Isthmus, were also made of earth, just as those in the ancient cities of North America discussed above. It seems that, unless these pyramids are made of stone, they are habitually referred to as "mounds" by many archaeologists. Any archaeologists out there want to chime in on the use of this terminology?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

What does it mean, anyway?

I was looking into the name "Hawai’i" to try and find its meaning, if there was one. I checked the Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert (1986). This is what they say:

Elsewhere in Polynesia, Hawai’i or a cognate is the name of the underworld or of the ancestral home, but in Hawai’i the name has no meaning.

However, in an interesting little book by Leinani Melville titled, Children of the Rainbow, Melville states that he was told by a Hawaiian elder fisherwoman named Ta Ruahine the following (almost oddly scientific) creation story which may give some clue to the name’s actual origin and meaning:

At commencement of the earth’s history this blazing globe, a rumbling, quivering, ball of fire, sprouted from the sun, containing all of its fertilizing elements. The spinning orb, screaming and crackling, raced through space whistling among the spheres, roaring in the wind, radiating light as it flashed through the night of its creation. It was directed to this dark abyss in the vast emptiness of space by the mind, the will, and the energy of [ke Akua] God. The fireball gradually slowed down, found anchorage in this pit of heaven which was destined to become its permanent home, and began revolving slowly in unending circular movements.

When the flaming globe found its orbit, lava, seething within the pumping bowels of its raging surface, attracted from the colder realms of outer space a blanket of clouds laden with moisture. The earth’s electrical magnetism caused a downpour of nectar from the firmament. Thus rain was born. Crystal raindrops cascaded in glistening sheets upon this jagged, treeless crater, drenched its raw plains and quenced its flames. The rains swept tempestuously on to bathe the expansive depths of the earth’s sizzling cradle. Thus the ocean was born from the water that washed clean this crater of heaven. And thus Havai’i received its name from the moisture which mercifully cooled the steaming terrain.

This apparently relates to the word hāwai, which literally means “to generate steam in an earth oven by pouring on water; to purify with water" (Pukui & Elbert 1986:62). The little particle i at the end means, among other things, "by means of." Thus, according to this story, the name Hawai’i apparently originates from hāwai + i = Hawai’i, or "by means of purifying with [rain] water." (With shortening of the long vowel, which can happen with compounds in Hawaiian, e.g., 'ōlelo, speak; mo’olelo, story).

By the way, as it's about time for me to get Kansas registration and license (since my California one expires next month), I'm hoping to get a personalized license plate, which in Kansas has a picture of a bison on it, and I want to put KAOLELO on it. This means "the language" in Hawaiian, ka + 'ōlelo. (Can't do the glottal stop or macron signs, but oh well.) I'm hoping nobody else in Kansas will have Hawaiian words on a bison license plate! (And, since front license plates are not required in Kansas, I'll leave my old California plate on it, lest anyone forget where I'm from!)


Melville, Leinani (1969). Children of the Rainbow: The Religion, Legends, and Gods of Pre-Christian Hawaii. Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House.

Pukui, M. and S. Elbert (1986). Hawaiian Dictionary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Archaeology, terminology, and racism

I’ve been reading another interesting book titled, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians by Timothy Pauketat (2004). There is one section that raises some key points regarding the terminology we employ for describing the archaeology of ancient Native North American civilizations, and particularly that of Cahokia.

Following are a few quotes from this book:

… the legacy of this nineteenth-century "Moundbuilder Myth" still lurks in the dark corners of archaeology, shrouded in some of the well-meaning interpretive schemes used by archaeologists and laypersons alike (see Kehoe 1998; Patterson 1995). In plain words, that legacy is racist. But it lives wherever archaeologists [or laypeople] understate the cultural achievements or de-emphasize the historical importance of First Nations peoples. It is hidden in words. For instance, Cahokia has been called a "mound center," a "town and mound" complex, or the "ceremonial center" of a "chiefdom." Few North American archaeologists call it a city. Fewer still would think of it as a kingdom or a state. Even the term "pyramid" is thought too immodest by many eastern North American archaeologists. They prefer to call these four-sided and flat-topped equivalents of stone pyramids in Mexico … mounds.

However, if Cahokia, Cahokians, and Cahokia’s mounds had been in ancient Mesopotamia, China, or Africa, archaeologists might not hesitate to identify
[Cahokian] pyramids in a city at the center of an early state….

…many North American archaeologists are "downsizers"
(Yoffee et al. 1999:267). We have inherited the conservative and subtly racist terminology of the nineteenth century (Kehoe 1998).

…cultural biases have crept into our interpretations of New World people, and the Moundbuilder Myth lives.

May I also proffer that some of this "subtly racist" terminology in regards to the New World, and particularly to the ancient civilizations of North America, arises from our own sense of guilt? I mean, the idea that our government attempted and performed veritable genocide on peoples who may have built Old World-type city-states does not sit well with most Euro-Americans today. Thus, "downsizing" their accomplishments (such as making a "pyramid" into a mere "mound" reminiscent of something a gopher can make) serves to somewhat assuage said guilt. Amazing how a manipulation of terminology can so subtly affect all aspects of society, from government right down to science. Linguistics can indeed turn ugly!

Citation references:

Kehoe, Alice B. 1998 The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology. Routledge, London.

Patterson, Thomas C. 1995 Toward A Social History of Archaeology in the United States. Harcourt Brace and Company, Orlando, Florida.

Yoffee, Norman, Suzanne K. Fish, and George R. Milner 1999 Communidades, Ritualities, Chiefdoms: Social Evolution in the American Southwest and Southeast. In Great Towns and Regional Polities in the Prehistoric American Southwest and Southeast, edited by J.E. Neitzel, pp. 261-71. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.