People of the Mammoth Steaks and Giant Sloth Flanks

It is a fact that the majority of archaeologists have been male. The fact is that their work has worked to bias much of our society’s understandings of the peoples of the past. Men lean in their interests in the direction they are most interested, which has biased our collective understanding of the past.  I offer some editorial perspectives on the issues and perhaps the beginnings of a solution.

For most of the past century of archaeological investigation on the Northwest Coast archaeologists were focused on finding evidence of the lifeways of cultures of the past based on available evidence. Much of that evidence that survives are tools that typically are used to hunt down animals and kill them and process them. The most common of these artifacts are spear points, one of the most prized in North America being the Clovis point. The surviving animal remains are normally their bones and teeth. Archaeologists have generally shown the public a cultural progression of spear points, from the largest to the smallest in a temporal framework (14000+ ybp to 100 ybp). The largest points mounted on spears and later atlatl being used to kill larger animals, megafauna, down to the “bird-points”, really just arrowheads that are capable of killing deer, elk and most animals, birds and even fish.

From those studies of spearpoints made from obsidians and other materials (Jasper, agate, chert, flint etc) have emerged a good number of theories as to what paleo-Indians were hunting for and how much time they spent hunting and how they hunted megafauna to extinction. The theory is that the paleo-Indians were essentially meat-eaters and hunted the animals so vigorously and often that they were a key cause in their extinction (An anthropocene event). The other effect was perhaps the effect of a large meteor hitting the earth, which caused huge environmental changes, combined with environmental changes when the glaciers receded.

When studying cultures of the world some 15 years ago, one notion discussed was that of the ruby lens. The notion is that all people look at the world around them from their own lens, their bias. Their lens is created by the society they grow up in, their religion, and their education. Its a socialized ways of looking at the world. Few people can completely escape from that perspective.

Nowhere in theories of the how the paleo-Indians fed themselves is there any notion of agriculture (I have not read all the literature but in the general texts there is nothing about the tribes engaged in agriculture). In fact the whole of the Northwest Coast is considered a region of Hunter-gatherers. That means that the tribes in this region hunted, fished and gathered their food from the forest as foragers. The whole region had hundreds of tribes who lived in an annual cycle called the seasonal round where they could “read” the seasons and understood when specific resources were read to be hunted, fished and gathered and they traveled about their homelands establishing resources camps to collect the resources. Tribes had long term associations with some camp sites. Some fish camp sites have 10,000 years or more of deposition (Celilo Falls). This was a consistent resource gathering activity as the region of the Northwest Coast was wealthy in all manner of resources and fed by huge networks of trade routes, from the Great Basin to the Pacific Ocean.

Then later in our history, archaeologists were forced to change their label of native peoples of the Northwest Coast. These “complex” hunter-gatherers had complex systems of governance. Governance is normally associated with the growth of agriculture, as early humans had to organize to develop specialization and to get grains and vegetables to urban markets. But on the northwest coast, the tribes had to advanced their governance, likely in response to the numerous annual salmon runs, and competition from other tribes to gain access to the best fishing locations. Then perhaps in part the need to manage trade relations with other tribes had a part to play in developing a trading class structure.

(Interesting parallel that meat is also the major food of our contemporary society and meat is valued above most other foods by a majority people.)

The majority of research and writing about the tribes is really a study in hunting and fishing. Hunting and fishing are really where the great majority of artifacts are found, and the subject that was most interesting to our aforementioned male archaeologists.

It is perhaps unfair to single out archaeologists for their interests, because Anthropologists did the same thing. Anthropologists studied the cultural phenomenon they attracted the most attention, native spirituality, expressive artwork, and warfare of the natives. These were subjects that were interesting to the broader white population. Much of their work engaged with memory culture of native peoples, languages were intensely interesting as they offered other perspectives of the world around them. hat they did not engage with until much later, is the culture in front of them, cultural change as it was happening on the reservations. We only have rare studies of that cultural change.

Anthropologist Albert Gatschet collected something in 1877 from the Grand Ronde Reservation, a calendar. The Tualatin Calendar is one of two Kalapuya calendars collected (other is Santiam). Gatschet’s Tualatin calendar is focused almost exclusively on the cycle of the Camas and Wapato plants. The calendar sets up a time to collect them. In fact nearly every month they tracked the progress of the Camas and wapato. They appear to have really devoted their whole seasonal round to the cycles of these plants.

Wait, where is the need to hunt and fish? Isn’t that the principle resource of all of the tribes? There is another set of artifacts than sometimes survive. stone bowls and mano and metate in various forms, do survive in the archaeological record. Tribes had a need to grind wild wheat and nuts unto a usable flour. Many of these artifacts are destroyed, intentionally, as part of the burial goods of a female native. There have been some studies of the uses of these tools. We do have pretty advanced theories of the acorn cultures of the interior valleys of the west coast.

Where is the discussion of the other botanical food sources in our theories of the paleo-Indians? Its very tough to create a theory about botanical resources when not much remains of the collection and processing of these resources. The material evidence is just not as common. And men, early archaeologists, were not really that interested in such studies. It is really in the past 30 or more years that archaeologists have engaged in studying what paleo-Indians were eating in the vegetable world. In the last 20+ years, most archaeological sites include the taking of soil samples so that pollen may be extracted from the soils. Pollen studies allows us to predict what sort of vegetables were available to be eaten by early peoples. And we are finding substantial evidence. (This understanding perhaps puts the theory of paleo-Indians killing off the megafauna in jeopardy, once we know more about the botanical foods they were eating and how much of their diet was vegetable based.)

But much of the early theories of hunting and fishing cultures are still common, even now that many researchers are incorporating studies of plant resources.  The many people, industries focused around the original theories of early man, the die is caste, it was Mammoth steaks and Giant Sloth flanks that early hunters wanted. This notion has the convenience of fitting into American ideals of the best diet, with meats being the most important ingredient.

Amazingly, folks trying to help us by devising diets that approximate the diets of early man, before they had processed foods, paleodieters, mainly eat meats and nuts. While evidence from the tribes really suggest that people ate more vegetables than meats, and meats were a rare find, and much smaller portion of our diet in the past than today. Even tribes today spend just as much time on their botanical resources as hunting and fishing.

Associated is the study of women and children’s cultural roles in early societies. Unless they were hunters or fishers, we really know little about them. We need more focused studies of  the culture of women and children in early societies. A more inclusive holistic vision of tribal societies of the past is really what is needed. As Dr. Erlandson (UO) has noted, just because there is not evidence of an activity, does not mean it did not happen (in reference to the use of canoes to immigrate to North America, rather than solely relying on the theory of the Bering Strait Landbridge). Some of this work is happening in growing research areas like feminist archaeology and Indigenous archaeology, but the discipline is still very centrist around the old-standby theories.

A noted issue in this same vein is the theory of the salmon culture of the Northwest Coast (salmonopia). The idea that people were dependent on salmon exclusively for their very survival. When in fact, in the area of fishing, it turns out that a good number of other fishes were also captured. Small fishes and shellfish were a good portion of the regular food people would eat. At certain times of the year ooligan was the major food; smelts and other small fishes were saviors for some tribes in times of starvation. So while salmon are important, its not the only fish and at some times of the year other fishes were more abundant.

Is this a real problem? I think it still is as we continue to see the same characterizations of native peoples appear in archaeology texts; meat-eating mammoth hunters. Its not enough to mention in passing that they were omnivorous, or ate a few vegetables. The botanical information needs to be an equal part of what is presented to students. For students getting into cultural studies today, perhaps becoming archaeologists, there are vast areas of paleo-botanical studies that are in need of more attention. Archaeologists need to open up to women and minority researchers and begin working on completing the image of the past and correcting the notion of meat eating paleo-Indians. Students need to come into the discipline prepared to be critical and ask a lot of questions.

~The photo is my own, a blue striped camas flower from the State Fairgrounds parking lot in Salem, Oregon.




2 thoughts on “People of the Mammoth Steaks and Giant Sloth Flanks

  1. OH BOY do I have a lot of thoughts on that.

    One is a random memory. At least in some times and places, women participated in some way in mammoth hunts. Back in 1988 when I was a woefully ignorant 18 year old, I got to go to a Spanish language school in southern Mexico. (I still can’t speak Spanish). One day we went on a field trip to a museum somewhere in or near Mexico City. There was a hole in the ground inside the museum with a human skeleton in it. It was the one of the oldest known skeleton known in North America at that time (Some older ones have been found since). It was a woman and she had been smashed when a mammoth fell on her, apparently during a hunt. Ouch.

    Anyway, reading a couple of books on plants and the NW, I’ve seen it proposed that NW people were horticulturalists. That there is a sliding scale from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist (which makes since). NW people manipulated their landscape thru timed fires, seed scattering, even fertilizing important plants. There was some agriculture – tobacco. Seed pods of Nicotiana quadrivalvis rarely open on their own – they need human intervention. They were a human-bred and dependent plant. They have become very rare now in OR – so far only reported ones are a handful on an island in the Umpqua River.

    I suppose in archaeo sites, bones and shell are easier to find and analyze. Plant material is less common, with a few exceptions – camas ovens, and sometimes burned elderberry seeds. So you can look at a midden and see people ate mussels, it probably won’t tell you they had some blackberry cakes and blackberry tea to go with it (etc). I hope archaeologists start doing more botanical analysis, but I am sure $ is a problem there.

    But I’ve been trying to untangle ethnobotany for awhile and yes, it has been rather overlooked aspect of many Native economies. That view is starting to change, but there is a long way to go yet.


  2. I agree women helped with every aspect of hunting and fishing- but its really the ways these activities have been identified by archaeologists, as primarily men’s activities. But I really was not addressing directly the roles men and women are assigned, more about the food resources they are identified with. Women participated in hunting and in some tribes fighting, and men and children participated in gathering. Women took leadership position in many tribes, and in some there were definite roles with few crossed boundaries. I still though wonder how much of the paleo-Indian diet was meats and how much botanicals?


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