Symposium: Decolonizing “Prehistory”: Deep Time and Topological Knowledge in the Americas

Schwerin, Speicher-Hotel, 21-23 June, 2018


Link to Print Version (pdf)


Rick Budhwa: Witnessing catastrophe: Correlations between catastrophic paleoenvironmental events and First Nations oral traditions in the Pacific Northwest

Witnessing catastrophe: Correlations between catastrophic paleoenvironmental events and First Nations oral traditions in the Pacific Northwest

Rick Budhwa, Simon Fraser University, BC

The Indigenous populations of North America’s Pacific Northwest region have consistently maintained that proof of extended occupation in their traditional ethnographic territories is embedded in their oral traditions. These oral accounts are the primary methods for recording Indigenous epistemology and history. From an Indigenous perspective, historical references contained within oral traditions are considered factual. However, the Western scientific community has not been as accepting of oral traditions as actual accounts of the past. Geologists, archaeologists and physical anthropologists tend to revert to Western science when reconstructing the past.

Native groups claim that information within their oral traditions is historically accurate. Therefore, one may presume that a comparison between oral traditions and scientifically known prehistoric and historic events would lead to similar interpretations. Past catastrophic environmental events (such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, floods, etc.) with distinct, recognizable attributes may serve as benchmarks for comparison to prehistoric references contained within oral traditions. For the most part, geologists have provided us with a specific range of dates and magnitudes for such events. In addition, such events, even of considerable age, would likely have been significant enough for a lasting record to be maintained by the Indigenous population(s) in their oral traditions.

This study examines the relationships between the following three specific catastrophic paleoenvironmental events and native oral traditions that apparently refer to them: (1) the Mount Mazama climactic (or ‘caldera-forming’) eruption, 6850 b.p.; (2) the Bonneville/Cascade landslide, 900-400 b.p.; and (3) the megathrust earthquake-related tsunami, 300 b.p. The historical literature pertaining to Indigenous groups (specific to each event) was reviewed for oral traditions that may refer to the event in question. Through the use of qualitative tables, relationships between the geological and archaeological evidence and the event depicted in the oral tradition are shown to exist. Moreover, a qualitative measure is employed in a descriptive fashion, where a distinction is made between clear relationships and less obvious ones.

An evaluation of these Indigenous perspectives within a Western scientific framework serves as a foundation for further work in this area. Eventually, a combination of the two perspectives may yield a richer, more holistic view of the past.

Keith Carlson: Myth Making and Unmaking: Erasing and Creating the Sacred in Settler Colonial Strategies of Displacement.

Myth Making and Unmaking: Erasing and Creating the Sacred in Settler Colonial Strategies of Displacement.

Keith Carlson, U Sasketchewan, Saskatoon

coming soon.

Jessica Christie: Yucatec “Maya” Historicity and Identity Constructions: The Case of Coba

Yucatec “Maya” Historicity and Identity Constructions: The Case of Coba

Jessica Christie, East Carolina University

My contribution will critically investigate the historicity of “Maya”-ness through ethnographic fieldwork in the small town of Coba in Quintana Roo, Mexico, which has grown next to the archaeological site of Coba in the twentieth century. Cobaneros self-identify as “Maya” because they speak Yucatec Maya, were born on the Yucatec peninsula, and own land. But are there deep time connections which would affiliate today’s Cobaneros with the Classic “Maya” people who built and lived in the archaeological zone?

Section 1 will be a chronological overview of the pre-contact site and post-Invasion Colonial history. Settlement began during the Late Formative (c.50 B.C. – A.D.100). In the Early and Middle Classic, population growth and control over trade routes turned Coba into a powerful city-state in the cultural landscape of the northern peninsula with access to ports in the east. The site features monumental temple buildings and administrative complexes, a road system, as well as partially eroded stelae with ruler portraits and texts dated to the Late Classic (A.D.600s – 800s). After A.D.900, Coba began to decline; a new building group was erected in the Post-Classic in an Eastern coastal style. The site was abandoned around A.D.1550. The material culture excavated by archaeologists affiliates Coba with Classic cities in the southern lowlands (Peten and Chiapas) which researchers identify as Maya. The present town of Coba was newly settled by chicleros from nearby villages in the mid-20th. Thus there is no direct historical connection between the people living in pre-contact and present Coba.

Section 2 will mine linguistic and historical Colonial sources which present evidence that the term “Maya” began to be used in order to categorize and integrate indigenous peoples on the peninsula into the Colonial empire of the rising Spanish nation-state. Native Yucatecans used to self-identify through their town and lineage group. Today they have accepted “Maya” identity, perceiving language as the main unifying bond. Some have learnt to commodify their “Maya”-ness in interactions with outsiders for economic and personal gains. In Coba, internal heritage transmission and revival is performed by school teacher Luis May Ku in his extra-curriculum activities and artistic creations. He teaches and produces what he and others perceive as “Maya” music, writing, dance, and ceramic art to keep alive and pass on “Maya” heritage. Looking more closely at the types of glyphs transmitted and present ceramic production, one notices that they often differ from what epigraphers and archaeologists categorize as ancient or Classic “Maya” art forms. Thus in a quiet but persistent way, May Ku and colleagues re-define what is “Maya” in the 21st century on their terms and in their own vocabulary.

Phil Deloria: Red Earth, White Lies, Sapiens, and the Deep Politics of Knowledge

Red Earth, White Lies, Sapiens, and the Deep Politics of Knowledge.

Phil Deloria, Harvard

Vine Deloria, Jr.’s 1995 Red Earth, White Lies was, according to many critics, poorly researched and argued, contaminated by Velikovskian catastrophism, imbued with an unacceptable indigenous creationism, and unnecessarily hostile toward a misunderstood and overgeneralized “science.” Those critiques may well be considered accurate and legitimate, but they also miss the central thrust of the book, which is the enunciation of an indigenous politics in relation to research on American antiquity, and a visceral, emotional response to the unmarked universalizing of Western epistemologies. Despite its flaws, Deloria’s book energized at least some parts of an important generation of Native American scholars. Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens (2011) energized Bill Gates, and it continued the tradition of large scale Deep and Big histories made famous by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. Both writers made explicit—if quite different—connections between past, present, and future. Both frame, and are framed, in relation to struggles over the politics of meaning and knowledge. Placing the books in juxtaposition allows us to contemplate broader questions surrounding the narration of global—and American—antiquity: is there a way to step outside the teleology of narratives that lead inevitably to the present? Can one imagine an indigenous critique of Deep History, its narrative strategies, and its consequences? Or even a contemporary, scientifically-inflected indigenous narrative approach to deep pasts?

Melissa Gniadek: Mammoth Cave, Poe, and Speculative (Pre)Histories

Mammoth Cave, Poe, and Speculative (Pre)Histories

Melissa Gniadek, Toronto

Today, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is the largest known cave system in the world. About three-hundred and fifty miles of passageways have been explored. Hundreds more may exist. Now a national park as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, the cave is one of the oldest tourist attractions in North America. Anglo-American settlers knew about Mammoth Cave for years before it became well-known as a tourist attraction, however, since the cave was mined for saltpeter (a component of gunpowder) with the use of slave labor during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mammoth Cave became better known outside of Kentucky in 1816 when Nathum Ward published a description of the cave and of an “Indian mummy” found there in the Worcester, Massachusetts Spy. The article was reprinted throughout the U.S. and later appeared in newspapers in England as well, building on and fueling interest in “American antiquities”.

This talk reads Mammoth Cave as a subterranean site that makes visible intersections between settler colonialism, slave labor, and nineteenth-century preoccupations with deep pasts. It does so in part through consideration of a text by a well-known author, Edgar Allan Poe, a text that is not itself about Mammoth Cave, but that engages questions posed by such a space. Positioning the renderings of geological chasms in Poe’s one complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published in 1838, alongside a pamphlet about Mammoth Cave, published a year later in 1839, I consider how emerging archaeological and geological discourses informed these text’s fictional engagements with the deep pasts of place represented in topographical terms. Showing that the pamphlet about Mammoth Cave draws on Poe’s novel as well as some of the sources that influenced Poe even as it purports to relate a true story about the popular tourist destination, this talk argues that engagement with these texts can shift our contemporary conversations about the temporal dimensions of settler colonialism, helping us to recognize different and dynamic efforts to script the multiple pasts of place.

Annette Kolodny: Competing Narratives of Ancestry in Donald Trump’s America: Personal DNA Testing, the “Ethno-State,” Native American Land Rights, and the Imperative for Scholarly Intervention

Competing Narratives of Ancestry in Donald Trump’s America: Personal DNA Testing, the “Ethno-State,” Native American Land Rights, and the Imperative for Scholarly Intervention

Annette Kolodny, Tucson

Two seemingly unconnected sets of competing narratives graphically illustrate the fierce tensions unleashed in the United States by the current Trump presidency. These competing narratives also illustrate the urgent need for a better popular understanding of so-called prehistory.

The first set of competing narratives pits the increasing popularity of personal DNA testing against the dangerous rise of white nationalist assertions of ethnic purity. On the one hand, a deluge of television advertisements promotes the image of individual Americans happily discovering their diverse and multiple racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds through inexpensive home DNA test kits. As one woman in an ad exclaims happily after receiving her DNA results, “I come from everywhere!” On the other hand, a politically active right-wing white nationalist movement promotes an image of the true American as racially white and ethnically Western and Northern European. Clearly, these are incommensurate visions. Yet they jockey for primacy in the current culture wars.

Ironically, these two competing narratives came together at a white supremacist rally in Shelbyville, Tennessee in late October 2016. Counter-protesters rejecting the white supremacists’ insistence on a pure white “ethno-state” offered to fund DNA tests for the white nationalists in order to confront them with the probable diversity in their own bloodlines. As might be expected, that offer was refused.

A second set of competing narratives emerges in the current lawsuit brought by the Penobscot Nation of Maine challenging a decision by that state’s Attorney General. At issue in the lawsuit is the ownership, control, and management of the main stem of the Penobscot River. Testimony in the case pitted a narrative of Penobscot continuity on the river against a highly questionable narrative of discontinuity. In this second narrative, an earlier and more ancient Red Paint people had been displaced and replaced by the later-arriving Penobscots. This second narrative thus implied that the Penobscots had no long-term or ancient claim to the river as part of their traditional homelands. In the end, these competing narratives did not prove crucial in the court’s decision. Instead, a two-person majority on the three-person Appeals Court found against the Penobscot Nation on the basis of a very narrow twenty-first century American-English dictionary definition of the word land. These two judges concluded that the word land did not necessarily include the presence or concept of water. In other words, the court put forward an understanding of treaty language in English wholly foreign to Native understandings of that same language. For the Penobscots, the river has always constituted an integral and inseparable part of their homelands and, in fact, knitted those homelands together. As a result, a court’s imperfect understanding of ancient Indigenous occupations along the Penobscot River was combined with a cleverly manipulated re-definition of the word land in order to legally empower unscrupulous state officials to wrest from the Indians environmental control over their river.

Gathered together at this impressive symposium is an assemblage of outstanding scholars who—both individually and collaboratively—possess precisely the varieties of expertise required to make important interventions into each of these sets of competing narratives. Although we work in fields uncomfortably allied with the label “prehistory,” we all know that our work is neither pre-anything nor exclusively historical. It has profound implications for the present. Therefore, I hope that one of the outcomes of this extraordinary gathering is a discussion of how to move our research out of the scholarly journals and into the public sphere. We need to address an audience wider than our scholarly peers. I hope to spark a conversation about the many ways in which our work can contribute to a better informed national and international discourse about history and heredity. In that process, we can address the massive confusions in the current popular terminology of race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, and identity. The general public needs to know our work better, and the politics of the moment demand no less.

Gesa Mackenthun: Remembering Gi’was: Indigenous Landmark Legends and the Politics of American Antiquity

Remembering Gi’was: Indigenous Landmark Legends and the Politics of American Antiquity

Gesa Mackenthun, Rostock

The paper investigates the sometimes manifest, sometimes latent connections between constructions of American antiquity and conflicts over territorial ownership and stewardship in the US. It rests on the assumption that the colonial discourse of settlement, which still pervades contemporary legal practice and obliquely continues in the critical approach of ‘settler colonialism’, systematically effaces other forms of land ownership (which it summarily dismisses as ‘nomadism’). Late colonial constructions of American ‘prehistory’ collude with the colonial legal construct of ‘continuous occupation’ – a concept that requires of the tribes to prove their long-term tenure of the lands in question. This unilateral imposition of ‘proof’ coincides with the frequent denunciation of indigenous oral traditions as fanciful fictions. Such stories – particularly those relating to land use, landmarks and geological events like earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions – are too reluctantly used in testifying to ancient occupation – not (I contend) on the scientific assumption that this use would be incompatible with the logic of mythical thinking but because the evidence these stories contain is incompatible with colonial interests. I argue that late colonial narratives about antiquity and heritage are themselves powerful instruments for legitimating colonial hegemony and more often than not used to disarticulate indigenous claims. A counter discourse exists, e.g., in an archive of geomythical and geoepistemological stories by the Klamath, Modoc and other tribes from the area around Crater Lake, OR, collected between 1870 and 1920. This impressive corpus of topological narratives suggests a millennia-long indigenous land tenure, a deep knowledge of the land and its products, and the memory of a cataclysmic event 7,000 years ago, thus giving support to indigenous claims and archaeological evidence of an ancient human presence. In addition to this historical relevance, they also (though brutally cut off by cultural contact and inevitably affected by intercultural communication) are philosophically valuable as they counter the rationalist binaries at the heart of colonial discourse (from settler colonialism to structuralist anthropology) with an other method of preserving survival knowledge in a world of danger –a relational and ‘nomadic’ hermeneutic of resilience that may be used as an antidote to the capitalist logic of appropriation and classification.

Christen Mucher: “Born of the Soil": Demography's Roots and the Refusal of Oral Tradition

“Born of the Soil": Demography's Roots and the Refusal of Oral Tradition

Christen Mucher, Smith College, MA

There is no shortage of recent studies revising the timeline of ancient American history, many of which regularly appear in the British scientific journal Nature. One 2017 report uses tools and broken mastodon bones recovered at a California construction site to backdate the continent’s human occupation over 100,000 years. A recent counter-study has refuted the validity of the mastodon evidence, claiming the marks to have been made by current-day construction equipment, not human tools. Similarly, a 2017 study based on DNA derived from two fossilized infant skeletons and “demographic modelling” seems to have confirmed the existence of a distinct “Ancient Beringian” branch of immigrants from eastern Asia, divergent from the ancestors of Indigenous North and South Americans. Questions over the identity and descent of the Ancient One/Kennewick Man, who was finally repatriated in 2017, were quieted when a complete genomic sequence showed his closest relatives as current Native communities in North America.

These debates are only the most recent installments of a centuries-old inquiry into the origins, timing, and dispersal of human populations on earth. At heart, they are all attempts to verify and quantify the very limits of human knowledge, and all look to extra-human sources for their evidence: bones, tools, uranium, mathematical models. Even recent attempts to bring together Indigenous oral tradition and Western science nonetheless seek, ultimately, to provide a timeline tailored to larger paleo-human patterns.

This paper examines theories of the early population of the Americas in light of the development of “state science”—statistics and demography—in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. It posits that inquiries into human chronology were not only connected to the contemporary destabilization of Judeo-Christian cosmology in the wake of colonialism but were also tied to the concurrent development of technological tools to quantify and control Indigenous populations. Paying particular attention to the role of stories about mastodons and “ancient races” in the development of US Indian Policy, this paper suggests that current-day popular and scientific interest in America’s ancient past is ultimately a continued attempt to square Indigenous with Mosaic history and to defend settler land claims.

Jeff Oliver: A historiography of indigenous archaeology in British Columbia

A historiography of indigenous archaeology in British Columbia

Jeff Oliver, University of Aberdeen

Recent decades have seen a dramatic shift in the relationship between the practice of archaeology and Canada’s indigenous peoples. If archaeology in the twentieth century can be termed colonialist for its tendency to marginalize or exclude indigenous groups, in the twenty-first century it has increasingly taken on the mantra of postcolonialism in its attempt to engage and incorporate First Nations perspectives. Indeed many archaeological projects now aspire to do ‘indigenous archaeology’; that is, archaeology by, for or with indigenous peoples. While the field was once concerned with revealing the remote past – a past legitimized and controlled by academic archaeologists – contemporary archaeological discourse is permeated with a very different set of values. It is increasingly inscribed with the concerns of the present, notably the voices and authority of First Nations people. In this context, archaeological discoveries are commonly viewed as evidence of continuity between past and present, as ancestral connections, as cultural property and through the assumption that ancient identities are alive and well. For many First Nations, Indigenous archaeology is the ‘archaeology of us’.

Despite postcolonialism’s promise to challenge hegemonic discourses, wittingly or unwittingly, much indigenous archaeology seems bound up with what the sociologist Brubaker refers to as ‘identity history’. Identity history tends to interpret all forms of history through the prism of identity politics in a way that is eerily similar to certain nationalist projects – what might be termed First Nationalism. We should expect contemporary indigenous communities (or for that matter any community) to create heritage discourses that help to provide a sense of stability in the present, particularly where colonial legacies still loom large. What is perhaps more unexpected is that Canadian archaeologists are increasingly contributing to such practices.

What circumstances have contributed to the current archaeological climate and where are we headed? Is it possible to undertake a more critical indigenous archaeology? Channeling Bruce Trigger’s magisterial historiography, A History of Archaeological Thought (1988, 2006), this paper will attempt to critically examine the social milieu of indigenous archaeology in western Canada, with special reference to British Columbia, by placing it in wider world context. Topics to be discussed include the development of theory, the continuing legacy of colonialism, the politics of collaboration and the contribution of community archaeology.

Mathieu Picas & Margarita Díaz-Andreu: ‘Scientific’ vs. Local Narratives About Pre-Hispanic Sites: Tulum as a Case Study

‘Scientific’ vs. Local Narratives About Pre-Hispanic Sites: Tulum as a Case Study

Mathieu Picas, University of Barcelona & Margarita Díaz-Andreu, University of Barcelona/ICREA

In this presentation the politics of sciences such as archaeology and anthropology will be debated taking at the basis not the distant past of the Americas, but the spectacular remains of monumental archaeological sites. Cultural heritage is a social construction that allows groups of very different character – including ethnic and national – to appropriate culturally or politically landscapes and places by attaching symbolism to them. The use by the Mexican state of archaeological remains for the construction of national identity has been marked, mainly from the late 1930s, by the management of many Pre-Hispanic archaeological sites. The official discourse of archaeological sites emphasises scientific research and promotes cultural tourism on the basis of historic and aesthetic values. This discourse contrasts with the traditional local use of the archaeological sites, a use that is underscored by social and sacred values. As a case study this presentation will focus on the Pre-Hispanic site of Tulum located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. In Tulum, as it happens in many other archaeological sites in the area, the local Cruzo’ob Maya appreciate Pre-Hispanic archaeological structures known as múulo’ob or cerros (hills) not only because of their historical or aesthetic values, but also because of their religious character. The múulo’ob are considered to be the dwelling places of supernatural entities such as guardians and ancestors whom are considerate the owners of the land. The symbolism attached to these sites and entities is understood as crucial for the success of the agricultural and other activities and for their intimate relationship with the landscape. Maya’s cosmology and territoriality include, therefore, a particular connection to the archaeological remains which is reflected in the communities’ social practices and oral tradition. Based on a bibliographic and ethnographic research, we will explore different ways of local communities’ interaction with deities and space appropriation in central Quintana Roo. This paper will emphasize, therefore, the contested ground of archaeological sites, paying particular attention to the alternative values that they raise in particular in the Mayan area. We will finish our paper reflecting on how in the last two decades state archaeology has been debating on how to integrate these alternative values into the management of the sites.

Coll Thrush: Prairies, Ice, and Oil: Settler Colonialism and Deep Time around the Southern Salish Sea

Prairies, Ice, and Oil: Settler Colonialism and Deep Time around the Southern Salish Sea

Coll Thrush, UBC Vancouver

When we talk about deep time, we are often talking about the politics of our present, and the shallow history of settler colonialism in North America is deeply imbricated with the ways we have framed and debated accounts of long Indigenous presence in these territories. This is certainly the case around the southern Salish Sea (also known as Puget Sound, in western Washington State) where stories about ancient landscapes – like the landscapes themselves – are bound up in contestations between Indigenous and settler peoples over place, power, and belonging. Beginning with a brief consideration of the 2009-2010 naming of the Salish Sea, this paper brings together three stories in which time, landscape, and politics have intersected around the shores of this inland waterway. The first story focuses on prairies, ecosystems that once defined Indigenous life in the region but which are now highly endangered. Anthropogenic spaces maintained by Indigenous peoples for centuries or likely millennia for their food and other resources, prairies (báqwab in the local language) became the focus of the first settler encroachments into Coast Salish territories, and as such, were key sites of conflict, including outright warfare in the 1850s. Today, most of the intact prairie ecosystems are occupied and maintained by the US military, suggesting a longue durée connection between “prairie-ness” and the violences of settler colonialism. The paper’s second story focuses on Indigenous oral traditions from the Duwamish and neighbouring Coast Salish peoples, and in particular on “The Epic of the Winds,” a narrative that is widely understood to be a deep memory of the end of the Ice Age. Associated with places in and around Seattle, the epic and its tellings – from the early twentieth century, when elders shared the story with anthropologists, to the twenty-first century, when it was literally built into the landscape through commemoration and urban design practices – have always been linked to questions of Indigenous rights to land, water, resources, and history itself. Then, the third story interweaves past, present, and future by considering recent protests over fossil fuel ports on the Salish Sea. In the past, environmental movements in the Northwest have often been at odds with Indigenous rights and concerns, but during the protests of 2015, Coast Salish and other Indigenous voices were front and centre. These leaders, along with their “kayaktivist” allies, linked past, present, and future by invoking vast time scales including the geological origin of the resources under debate, the long presence (and present) of Indigenous people as caretakers of the land, and the coming generations and the future of the planet itself. As such, these protests were enactments of Indigenist temporal sovereignty in the context of the Anthropocene. Bringing together environmental, Indigenous, and other microhistories of the lands around the Salish Sea with settler colonial theory and critical Indigenous studies, the paper ends with a brief consideration of my own positionality as a settler within ancient Coast Salish landscapes, arguing for a reflexive articulation of place and past that takes into account power and privilege.

Rebecca Tsosie: Indigenous Peoples and the New Doctrine of ‘Discovery’: Bioarchaeology, Archaeogenomics, and the Narrative of “American Pre-History”

Indigenous Peoples and the New Doctrine of ‘Discovery’: Bioarchaeology, Archaeogenomics, and the Narrative of “American Pre-History”

Rebecca Tsosie, University of Arizona, Tucson

coming soon.


Michael Wilcox: Reversing the Terminal Narrative: The Mythology of Conquest and Extinction on the Borders of the Spanish Empire

Reversing the Terminal Narrative: The Mythology of Conquest and Extinction on the Borders of the Spanish Empire

Michael Wilcox, Stanford, CA

This paper will challenge some of the most prevalent and persistent myths about Indigenous survival using the Pueblo Revolt of 1680- regarded as the most successful act of colonial removal in the Americas. The mythology of conquest asks questions of the present day- what does "winning" look like? How is control asserted and what are the consequences of its inevitable failures and shortcomings? What roles have scholars played in perpetuating this mythology of indigenous extinction (near or total)? How do we reverse these faulty narratives?