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:

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Mississippian and Maya cosmology
The Hand constellation and the Milky Way

As I have been working on a Biloxi ethnography (still in progress) and researching both MIIS1 and Maya mythology and cosmology, interesting similarities occur between the two. For instance, it is interesting that both cultures focus on Orion's Belt as having major cosmological significance in relation to creation, life, and death. In Mississippian cosmology this is reflected in the Hand constellation, where Orion's Belt forms the wrist of the cut-off hand (various Plains myths refer to a celestial chief's arm or hand being cut off and left to dangle in the sky) facing downward in the night sky (Lankford 2007). In Maya cosmology, Orion's Belt is referred to in the Popol Vuh, the Maya creation story, as both the 'three stones of creation' and the 'hearthstones' (Freidel et al. 1993). 


The fact that the stars of Orion's Belt were important to ancient Native Americans is evident in the pyramidal layout of Teotihuacan's three largest pyramids: Pyramid of the Moon, Pyramid of the Sun, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, which seem to match quite well the celestial configuration of Orion's three Belt stars. Of course, interestingly, the three pyramids of Egypt's Gizeh also seem to match this configuration! 

Similarly, both cultures refer to the peculiar movement of the Milky Way in the night sky. The 'rising and falling sky' motif was apparently prevalent throughout the US Southeast (among at least the Chitimachas, Alabamas, Cherokees, Choctaws, Shawnees) (we can probably safely add Biloxis here), the Plains (Foxes, Poncas), and the Southwest (Navajos) (Lankford 2007: 204), represented in mythology and apparently based on the nightly movement of the Milky Way.  The Milky Way moves from a near vertical position, in which  Mayas refer to it as the 'cosmic tree,' to a nearly horizontal position, in which Mayas refer to it as the 'sky canoe.'  This is the celestial canoe carrying the Two Paddler Gods who set the 'Three Stones of Creation' (Orion's Belt, Ak 'Ek, or Turtle) in place, from which First Father, or the Maize God, is reborn, thus creating a new universe (Freidel et al. 1993).  The Canoe then 'sinks' on the western horizon at dawn, the time of the birth of creation (ibid.).

The Hand constellation is said to mark the location of the Portal to the Otherworld, at least in Southeastern mythology. Within the Hand constellation "lies a galaxy (Messier 42) visible as a fuzzy star that is understood to be a hole in the sky, a portal" (Lankford 2007: 197). "Today, [Alnitak, Saiph, and Rigel in Orion] are said to be the three hearthstones of the typical Quiché [Maya] kitchen fireplace, arranged to form a triangle, and the cloudy area they enclose (Great Nebula M[essier] 42) is said to be the smoke from the fire" (Tedlock 1985: 261 in Freidel et al. 1993: 79). The Southeastern Hand constellation portal may indeed be the same portal into which the Maya king "Pakal falls on his sarcophagus lid and out of which beings of the Otherworld emerge" (Freidel et al. 1993: 87).

The Hand-and-Eye motif of the MIIS. Could the 'eye' symbol represent 'see' while the 'hand' symbol represents the constellation? This may represent the idea of a god or gods seeing or looking down onto the earth from the Hand constellation, wherein lies the portal, possibly also represented by the eye, between earth and the Otherworld.

Similarly, the Milky Way plays similar roles in both cultures as a 'Path of Souls' used by the dead to journey into the Otherworld. In fact, the Mayan term for 'death' is 'och be, literally meaning 'enter the Road [of Souls],' meaning the Milky Way. There is a "quite similar understanding of the Milky Way among Siberian groups" (Lankford 2007: 212) suggesting "an impressive time-depth" (ibid.) for this association of the Milky Way with death and as a path to the afterlife.

This petroglyph from Chaco Canyon (once home to the Anasazis) in the US Southwest, thought by some to commemorate the 1054 CE Supernova explosion. The starburst may represent the explosion while the crescent moon and hand symbols represent the event's location in the sky: just above the moon and at or near the Hand constellation. If this interpretation is correct, it would show that the Hand constellation was known even in the Southwest and perhaps throughout much of Native America.

More work remains to be done on Southeastern (or Mississippian) cultural beliefs and cosmology in comparison with those of Mesoamerica. Perhaps more entries to come on this very complex topic....

1 MIIS = Mississippian Intercultural Interaction Sphere (also known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, or SECC)


Freidel, David, Schele, L. & Parker, J. 1993. Maya cosmos: three thousand years of the shaman's path. New York: HarperCollins.

Lankford, George. 2007. The "path of souls": some death imagery in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. In Ancient objects and sacred realms: interpretations of Mississippian iconography. Reilly, F. Kent & Garber, James, eds. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Friday, January 01, 2010


OK, if you haven't seen this movie yet but plan to, you may want to skip down to the Na'vi Language part of this entry, since I do give my thoughts on the movie itself here in this first part.

You can read movie critics galore critiquing this movie, so I will not do much of that here.  But I will graciously offer my opinion overall: the movie is cinematographically (that's a long word!) excellent (especially in 3D), and the dialogue is so so.  And, of course, I found the artificial language created especially for this movie quite interesting, but I'll come back to that below in its own separate entry.

As a linguistic anthropologist whose interests and passion lie in the preservation and documentation of already dormant or moribund languages and cultures, I find the movie wreaking with what has become known as "Noble Savage Syndrome," as exemplified in the words of Alexander Pope in his 1734 Essay on Man:

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud Science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple Nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topp'd hill, a humbler heav'n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold!
To be, contents his natural desire;
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire:
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.

The analogy to the nineteenth century US with its European colonization and the abhorrent treatment of indigenous peoples, up to and including forced removal and all-out genocide, is very evident throughout the movie.  The only major difference, of course, is that the movie has a Hollywood happy ending, utterly insulting to any Native Americans watching.  American Indians did not in reality, unfortunately, have any Jake Scully defecting from the genocidal European and Euro-American war machine hellbent on Manifest Destiny to save the day and bring an end to what the movie calls the "Time of Sorrow."  This time of sorrow is short-lived in the movie and soon ends, but, lest we need to remind ourselves, such sorrow never ended for our indigenous peoples who still suffer the multi-generational effects of several centuries of European and Euro-American racism, cruelty, and genocide.

But if you can manage to overlook another obvious Hollywood attempt at assuaging our "white guilt," then the movie is fairly good and entertaining.

Na'vi Language

First Tolkien's Elvish, then Okrand's Klingon, and now Frommer's Na'vi! Perhaps there will be a future for us linguists and linguistic anthropologists in the creation and development of artificial languages for sci-fi movies.  In this latest sci-fi hit, the indigenous peoples of the planet Pandora are given a real (invented) language with real vocabulary and grammar.  Paul Frommer, the USC professor who invented the language, tried to make it sound "alien" yet pronounceable.  Probably the most notable sounds are the ejective p, t, and k, which appear in some Native American languages, including Mayan.  Frommer was not the first linguist to examine Amerindian languages as models for inventing an artificial language.  Okrand, a linguist who got his PhD at UC Berkeley with his dissertation on Mutsun Ohlone (a close cousin of Rumsen), admitted that the Ohlonean languages were the inspiration for some of the sounds and grammatical aspects he put into Klingon.

Click here for a short YouTube report on the Na'vi language.  Perhaps there will be a dictionary and grammar forthcoming?
Rumsen Folklore

It occurred to me that I didn't post information on the Rumsen (Ohlone) folklore article I got published in the Journal of Folklore Research in December 2008.  Here is the abstract:

Sadly, it often happens that languages and cultures become dormant with no written record of their existence, of how the people perceived their world, and how they described it through their folk stories. Such would have been the case of the now dormant Rumsen Ohlone language of California were it not for the tireless dedication of linguist John P. Harrington. He spent years collaborating with the last native speaker of Rumsen, Isabelle Meadows, to discuss her culture and her folk stories. Among the cultural gems that arose from these discussions are the two narratives published here. Both stories feature the trickster figure, Coyote. The first tells of a visit by a sea monster, which causes Coyote's wife to die of fright. The second describes a battle of wits between Coyote and Hummingbird. Both stories give us, through the original Rumsen language, insight into the culture and sense of humor of the Rumsen people, whose descendants still inhabit the central coast of California.

A PDF version of the article can be purchased for $13.50 directly from the Journal via this link:

In relation to this, one of the stories from this article will be published in the upcoming online edition of the Kansas Working Papers in Linguistics (KWPL) that also includes a brief Rumsen grammatical sketch based on the grammatical aspects of the Rumsen version of the story.  This will be free and downloadable from the Working Papers link (on the left) on the University of Kansas's Linguistics Department website.  My two prior papers on Biloxi are also free and downloadable anytime from this site.

Uyghur language - Uyghurche - ئۇيغۇرچە

In this coming Spring semester, I will be taking my first class in the Uyghur language.  Uyghur (oo-ee-ghur) is spoken primarily in Xinjiang 'new dominion' (also called Chinese Turkestan) in the northwestern portion of the People's Republic of China (PRC).  There are also speakers in neighboring Kazakhstan,  Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan1.  Uyghur is a Southeastern Turkic language.  It is related to Turkish.  (Turkish is spoken in Turkey, while other Turkic languages are spoken across central Asia, including Uyghur, Turkmen, Tatar, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz.  Just remember that, while Turkish is a Turkic language, not all Turkic languages are Turkish.)  While Uyghur has several million speakers, it is considered a "threatened" language due to the infiltration and imposition of the PRC's primary official language, Mandarin.  (This is not unlike the situation here in the US with the imposition of our official language, English, upon Native Americans, for example, whose languages and cultures for the most part, if not already extinct, are close to it.)

Uyghur-speaking region of western China, centered around Kashgar.

The Uyghurs (often erroneously referred to as 'Chinese Muslims' even on such respected US national media as NPR, which should know better!) are one of over 50 ethnic minority groups of the PRC.  They have inhabited northwestern China, which includes the Teklimakan Desert (Tarim Basin), since about 900 CE.  The famous Silk Road passes through here and it has long been a major crossroads and trade route between West and East.  Its inhabitants have included Tocharians (a possible Celtic group who inhabited the region from about 2000 BCE2), Persians, and Mongols as well as Uyghurs.  Mummies have been unearthed in the Tarim Basin region buried under desert sands for some 4,000 years that are apparently the well-preserved bodies of the blond and blue-eyed Tocharians (see my prior post on this topic), probably originating in northern Europe.  (In fact, many inhabitants of the region still have the light hair and facial features of their Tocharian ancestors.)

Red-haired child of Xinjiang

Uyghur and the other Turkic languages are part of the broader Altaic language family, which includes Turkic, Mongolian, Korean, and possibly Japanese.  While Altaic was for a while also believed related to the Uralic languages, including Hungarian and Finnish, but this idea remains controversial.  (The inclusion of Japanese under the Altaic umbrella is also still hotly debated.)  For me, one of the most intriguing aspects of studying Uyghur is from the historical-comparative linguistic perspective of seeing how the language has borrowed from other languages throughout its history.  For example, kitab 'book' and mu'ellim 'teacher' are from Arabic; istakan 'glass' and poyiz 'train' from Russian; dunya 'world' from Persian; much 'pepper' from Sanskrit; pul 'money' possibly from Tocharian (?); and yangyu 'potato' from Chinese.  The meanings of these borrowed words occasionally changed when introduced into Uyghur; the Uyghur word lughet 'dictionary' was borrowed from Arabic, in which the word originally meant 'language.'  Sometimes two borrowed words compete with each other: tëlëwizor (Russian) and dyanshi (Chinese), both meaning 'television.'

The letters of the (Latin) Uyghur alphabet are: a,  e, b,  p, t,  j, ch,  x,  d,  r,  z, zh,  s,  sh, gh,  f,  q,  k,  g, ng, l, m, n, h, o, u, ö, ü, w, ë, i, and y.  For English speakers, the hardest sounds to pronounce are the very Scandinavian-like ö and ü, and the three guttural sounds x, gh, and q. Uyghur has been written with three different scripts: Latin-based, Cyrillic-based (as used in Kazakhstan and other Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS] [formerly of the USSR] countries), and a modified Perso-Arabic script (used in writing Farsi, or Persian).  The latter has been adopted by the Xinjiang Language and Script Committee (Xinjiang Til-Yëziq Komitëti Tetqiqat Merkizi 2008) as the official transliteration system for Uyghur.

Tarim Basin, Xinjiang

Like other Turkic languages, Uyghur is subject to rules of front-back vowel harmony.  For instance, the locative ending -da changes according to the final vowel sound of the noun it is attached to: suda 'at/on the water', atta 'on the horse', mektepte 'at school.'  Uyghur is heavily agglutinative, meaning suffixes are added to roots to build up larger words, words that must often be translated by entire sentences in English: oquwatqanimda 'When I was studying...."  (Such agglutination, I might add, is also characteristic of many Native American languages, including those of the Algonquian family.)  Uyghur, like its Turkic relatives, has a complex modal system, including a system of evidentiality, through which one communicates how they received a certain bit of information: first-hand, through witnessing the event directly oneself, or second-hand, via a second or third party report, which may incorporate the speaker's judgment of the information's reliability or believability.  Such systems of evidentiality also occur (surprise, surprise?) in many Native American languages, including Biloxi, as well as in Tibeto-Burman languages.
Artist's rendition of Mahmud Kashgari, compiler of the first Uyghur dictionary ca. 1050 CE.

Some Uyghur words English speakers might recognize: chay چاي 'tea' , bazar بازار 'bazaar, market', aral ارالئ 'island' (Aral Sea 'Island Sea'), tansa تانسا 'dance' (Russian), nan نان 'bread' (Indian or Persian nan), salam سالام 'peace' (Arabic), seper ~ sefer سەفەر 'trip/journey' (cf. Swahili 'safari'; Arabic).

1 The ending -stan is a Persian suffix meaning 'place of' and is related to Sanskrit sthāna,  Latin status, and English state.
2 Modern anthropologists have generally adopted the abbreviations BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) in place of the former BC (Before Christ) and AD (After Death [of Christ]) due to the Christian religious connotations of the latter.