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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T51


Some Problems in North American
Archaeology 1

In the study of American archaeology we are compelled to apply
methods somewhat different from those used in the archaeology of
the Old World. While the archaeology of the Mediterranean country
and of a large portion of Asia deals with the early remains of peoples
that possessed a literature, and whose history is partly known from literary
sources, we find in America, almost exclusively, remains of people
unfamiliar with the art of writing, and whose history is entirely unknown.
The problem, therefore, with which we are dealing is allied to
the problem of the prehistoric archaeology of the Old World. The
method that is pursued in dealing with the ancient remains of the lake-dwellers,
of the kitchen-middens, and of other prehistoric sites, of which
we have no literary knowledge, must be pursued in investigations in
American archaeology. But even in this case the conditions are not
quite comparable. The ancient culture of the people who left their
remains in Europe has completely disappeared, and has given way to
civilization of modern type. It seems probable that the remains found
in most of the archaeological sites of America were left by a people similar
in culture to the present Indians. For this reason, the ethnological
study of the Indians must be considered as a powerful means of elucidating
the significance of archaeological remains. It is hardly possible to
understand the significance of American archaeological remains without
having recourse to ethnological observations, which frequently explain
the significance of prehistoric finds.

It is only in Central America, and, to a certain extent, in western
South America, that the archaeological remains have a character similar
to those of the Mediterranean area. Only in these regions do we find
ruined buildings and monuments that bear inscriptions that may, perhaps,
serve to explain their significance.

The problems of American archaeology deal principally with the
525earliest history of the inhabitants of this country. In some cases the results
of archaeological investigation indicate to us fundamental changes
in the state of culture prevailing in certain areas, and even demonstrate
the migrations of certain tribes. I wish to call attention to some problems
of this character that are met with on the Pacific Coast of our

At the present time the Pacific Coast of North America is inhabited
by an enormous number of tribes, diverse in culture. The present distribution
of languages suggests that, in early times, extensive migrations
must have taken place. The most remarkable fact that we observe in
the distribution of languages is the occurrence of a number of isolated
regions in which Athapascan dialects are spoken. Athapascan is the
prevailing language of the whole interior of Alaska and of the Mackenzie
basin. It occupies the whole northwestern part of our continent, as far
south as a line drawn west from Hudson Bay to the Rocky Mountains.
South of this line a large number of small tribes are met with, speaking
Athapascan dialects. All of these are located near the Pacific Coast,
in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California. In the far
south we meet, again, with a large body of Athapascan tribes, consisting
principally of the Navaho and Apache. This peculiar distribution of the
Athapascan language, in connection with the irregular distribution of
other languages, makes it quite certain that great disturbances must
have taken place in that area. In regard to culture we may distinguish
four fundamental types on the Pacific Coast, — the Eskimo of the Arctic,
the Indian of Alaska and British Columbia, the type of culture of Columbia
River, and that of California. I will not enter into a detailed
description of these. The line between the Eskimo type in the north
and the Alaskan Indian type is quite sharp, while the other groups gradually
merge into one another.

The distribution of physical types also proves the great diversity in the
origin of the tribes of the North Pacific Coast. It is not possible at
present to affiliate each type definitely with other known types, but the
diversity of form found in the Coast types between Alaska and Southern
California is so great that we must suppose that the diversity is a very
ancient one.

It is possible to follow, to a certain extent, the history of this area by
ethnological methods. When we find certain customs distributed over
a definite continuous area, and absent in others, we may suppose that
they originated among the people inhabiting this district. In this manner,
526the study of the ethnological distribution of customs and beliefs
may, to a certain extent, clear up the history of tribes.

The study of the beliefs and traditions of the Eskimo of Alaska shows
that the fundamental features of their beliefs are common to them
and to the Eastern Eskimo, and makes it quite certain that these beliefs
must have been the ancient property of the Eskimo. The culture of the
Alaskan Eskimo shows, however, certain remarkable differences from
the culture of the eastern Eskimo tribes. All of these features can be
explained as due to the influence of the Indians of Alaska, so that we
are justified in drawing the inference, in this case, that the whole Eskimo
culture has been modified by a later influence. When we follow the
Pacific Coast southwest, we find that a sudden change in customs, beliefs,
and folk-lore takes place near the central part of the coast of British
Columbia, and that particularly the Tsimshian, of the tribes of this area,
show a great many features that differentiate them from other neighboring
tribes, so that we may conclude that they are, comparatively
speaking, new arrivals in this district. It can also be shown that the
Columbia River must have been one of the great routes along which
Eastern influences were imported on the Pacific Coast. The mythology
of the tribes living at the mouth of the Columbia River shows a great
number of elements which can have had their origin only east of the
Rocky Mountains. Evidently an old connection between the Pacific
Coast and the East has existed here for a very long time. Naturally it
is impossible to utilize historical traditions of the tribes for the construction
of their history, because all of them are more or less of a mythical
character. It is possible to reconstruct the history only by a comparative
study of all the elements of their culture.

The study of the ethnology of this region shows, therefore, clearly,
that there have been great changes in the distribution of the tribes, but
it seems impossible to unravel the early history of these changes. The
question, accordingly, arises, In how far can archaeological methods
supplement ethnological information? There are two places particularly
at which these investigations seem to give promising results. The
distribution of languages and customs in Southern British Columbia
makes it clear that here important dislocations must have taken place.
I pointed out before that the Columbia River must have been the course
along which Eastern culture was imported to the Pacific Coast. We
may also seek by archaeological methods a solution of the question regarding
the early influence of the Indian upon the Eskimo.527

The archaeology of Southern British Columbia, the first of the areas
which I mentioned here, has been investigated in some detail. This
work has been done by the Jesup North Pacific Expedition of the American
Museum of Natural History, under the direction of Harlan I.
Smith. His investigations prove clearly that not only have the customs
of the people undergone material changes, but also that in early times
an entirely different type of man inhabited the area in question. At
present the Indians bury their dead in boxes, which are either placed
in trees or deposited in caves. In olden times the method of burial was
to construct large stone cairns with a central chamber for the bodies.
The peculiar style of carving found in prehistoric remains is in some
respects similar to the style of carving found on the plateaus of British
Columbia. Pipes are found here which in their type are identical with
those of the inland and of the plateaus farther to the south. It is difficult
to identify the prehistoric type of this district with any other known
type of the Pacific Coast, but its affiliations are decidedly more with the
people of the interior and of the Columbia River than with the present
inhabitants of the coast of British Columbia.

It would seem from all this, that in early times the affiliation between
the coast and the interior was much closer than it is now, and this fact
is in accord with the distribution of languages in this area. Tribes belonging
to the same linguistic stock inhabit the interior of British
Columbia and Washington, and the coasts of Washington and of
Southern British Columbia. Although the stock is divided into a great
many different languages, their affinities are quite clear. The archaeological
finds make it probable that this stock was in later times assimilated
by the northern coast tribes in bodily form as well as in culture.

The archaeology of Alaska offers a problem that is no less interesting.
If it is true that the ancient culture of the Eskimo of this district has
been affected by the Indians, the questions arises, whether the Eskimo
were the original inhabitants. There are weighty reasons which seem
to favor the theory that in former times this country was inhabited by
different tribes. A study of the ethnology of the tribes of Northeastern
Siberia seems to reveal the fact that they are more closely associated in
culture and in physical form with the Indians of the North Pacific Coast
than with the Eskimo of Alaska. If this is true, the inference seems justifiable
that the Eskimo are recent intruders in this district. It is not
probable that the Eskimo tribes of Alaska can be considered as Eskimo
of pure descent, because in them the most characteristic physical features
528of that type are much weakened. The height of skull, length of
skull, and width of face — which must be considered the fundamental
characteristics of the Eskimo tribe — are not as marked here as they are
farther to the east.

Attention may also be called to the curious distribution of the art of
pottery in this area. At the present time, pottery is made only by the
Athapascan and Eskimo tribes of the Yukon River. On no other part
of the North Pacific Coast is pottery known. It is also unknown to the
present inhabitants of Northeastern Siberia. Archaeological investigations
made on the northern coast of the Sea of Okhotsk show, however,
the existence of pottery among the prehistoric people of that district.
Since this is the only place on the whole Pacific Coast, from the Amur
River in Siberia northward to Bering Strait, and along the American
coast south to California, where pottery is found, it seems to me to speak
for an early connection between the inhabitants of these districts.

The problem of the earliest inhabitants of Alaska can certainly be
solved by the archaeological investigations. The implements of the
Eskimo and their physical type are so characteristic that they cannot be
mistaken for anything else. If the most ancient shell-mounds of the
east coast of Bering Sea, of which there are a great number, should
reveal a type different from the Eskimo and a culture different from
that of the Eskimo, we should have a distinct proof of a population preceding
the present inhabitants of Alaska. All the evidences we find seem
to make it probable that such a change of culture and of type may be
found here, and I consider the investigation of this area as one of the
important problems of American archaeology.

We may expect that if archaeology in America is applied hand in
hand with ethnological and linguistic methods, it will be a most powerful
help in unravelling the history of our continent.529

1 American Journal of Archaeology, Second Series, vol. 6 (1902), pp. 1-6.