Thursday, June 30, 2011

Some Inferences For Hunter-Gatherer Style and Ethnicity

Recent research on the projectile point style, physical anthropology, and the oral history of surrounding historic Native California groups suggests that Ishi, purported to be the last California Yahi of the early 20th century, appears to have learned much of his technology from members of an adjoining group.

In 1990 I began a metric and morphological analysis of Ishi's stone tools curated by the museum from the period between 1911 and 1916 when Ishi lived at the museum, then in San Francisco. While there was some observation of Ishi's stone tool production by Saxton Pope and Nels Nelson at the time, no one had really analyzed the debitage, cores, projectile points, and knapping tools he produced and used, particularly with an eye toward addressing current theory in archaeology and lithic technology.

As part of the study, I compared the metric and morphological data of Ishi's projectile points to those from historic Yahi and Southern Yana contexts in collections from Kingsley (CA-TEH-1) and Paynes Caves (CA-TEH-193) housed in the museum, excavated in the 1950's by Martin Baumhoff, then a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology. Immediately apparent was the extreme difference in form and metric attributes between Ishi's assemblage and the points from historic Yana contexts. While at the museum, Ishi produced almost exclusively triangular, concave-based side-notched points with relatively large blades, and triangular, expanding stemmed, corner-notched points mainly with straight bases; the notches are typically "keyhole" notches produced by using the "point-of-tool" method of notching. These styles were almost completely absent from the historic sites, and one side-notched point recovered from Kingsley Cave was produced from a brown chert absent in the region, and possibly exchanged as a finished tool.

Another line of evidence strengthens the inference that Ishi consistently produced points dissimilar to the Yahi. In 1908 when a group of engineers came upon the last four Yahi, including Ishi, on Deer Creek they stole many of the artifacts from the camp. The group consisted of an old man, an old woman, a young woman, and Ishi. One of the arrows, now at the Hearst Museum, is tipped with a glass arrow point. This point, based on an x-ray, is a triangular, expanding stemmed, corner-notched point with a straight base, morphologically identical to those produced by Ishi at the museum, but dissimilar to the forms recovered from the Yana sites. While we will never know if Ishi actually produced this arrow (apparently no one thought to ask him), the evidence suggests he did. In 1990, the research stopped at this point with way too many questions.

In 1994, Jerald Johnson, an archaeologist working in the southern Cascades, and a member of the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Sacramento, presented a paper at a conference devoted to Ishi at the Oakland Museum just before a paper on Ishi's technology that I presented. Johnson stated, based on cranial and post-cranial morphology, that Ishi's extremely broad head and relative height were more typical of the Wintu or Maidu, of the Penutian language family, who lived adjacent to the Yahi, members of the Hokan language family. Besides the comparative morphological evidence, Johnson's explanation included Maidu oral history indicating that Yahi-Maidu inter-marriage occurred, and that the Yahi sometimes stole women and children from the Maidu. Given the dwindling group size of the Yahi, this seems sensible in light of the incest taboo and the patrilineality of the Yahi.


Afterward, I returned to the museum and searched for collections from sites containing historic Maidu or Wintu material. One site was found, the Redbank Site (CA-TEH-58), excavated by Adán Treganza in the 1950s that was characterized as a historic Wintu village, although more precisely located in ethnographic Nomlaki Wintu territory. All contexts exhibited glass beads and artifacts, like the Yahi sites analyzed earlier. Immediately apparent were projectile points nearly identical to those produced by Ishi while at the museum, particularly the triangular, concave-based "keyhole" side-notched points with relatively large blades. Quantitative analyses, mainly a Mahalanobis method, discriminant analysis, concur with the morphological assessment. The projectile points produced by Ishi while at the museum, and likely while living the aboriginal lifeway at Deer Creek, are quite similar to Wintu point forms and not ancestral Yahi point forms, lending further support to the physical anthropological evidence. Interestingly, the ethnographically collected arrow with hafted stone point collected in 1885 from the Wintu area illustrated in the Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 8, California (pp. 330, fig. 4, top), curated at the Smithsonian, appears to be a side-notched point of this style including a notch produced by the point-of-tool method.While it certainly seems logical, given the demographic pressures experienced by the Yahi, and indeed all Native Californians at that time in history, that Ishi would be a physical and cultural amalgam of Yahi and Wintu, there are more compelling anthropological issues that I find more interesting.

A long term controversy in archaeology is whether projectile points are actually stylistic and were produced in standardized form representative of the group and a given time period. This, of course, has great import in archaeology where projectile points are often the only potential time marker found on a site. Some feel quite confident that point forms are chronologically sensitive markers, and in part, culturally diagnostic. Others are convinced that functional necessity, in the form of projectile point resharpening after breakage, may completely obscure the original form and may actually produce a form indicative of a very different point style.


This research, however, suggests to me that at least some hunter-gatherers produce projectile points in a standardized form and that style survives into the archaeological record. While there may be some intervening variables, arguments attempting to refute the utility of projectile points as time/ethnicity markers seem less cogent.So, a rather resourceful and adaptable human, Ishi, provides a stronger link to the archaeological record than was imagined by his friends, Pope, Waterman, and Kroeber at the museum. Ishi certainly spoke the Yahi language, but some, probably male Wintu, Nomlaki, or Maidu relative taught him how to produce arrows. Whether this was while living with the Yahi or as a young boy 'living as a Wintu' before "capture" we will never know. And while Ishi's cultural affiliation, like many Native Americans today, is a composite, his material culture continues to contribute to the understanding of the past.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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