First Peoples

An Archeological Journey to Forgotten Cultures
By Heather Pringle
John Wiley and Sons, 227 pp.

Here are my credentials for reviewing this book: I know next to nothing about the subject. But then it’s written for people who know next to nothing about the subject. Which is to say, almost everyone.

It’s an account of what archeologists now understand about the prehistoric peoples who once lived in what is today Canada and the United States, but who left no written record of themselves. The portraits of these ancient cultures are fascinating. So is the painstaking detective work that makes such portraits possible. And yet even the experts concede that their best research is still shot through with conjecture.

Archeology is nothing if not field work. The same goes for good journalism. Heather Pringle, a Vancouver-based science writer, visited nine archeological sites to write In Search of Ancient North America, from the Bluefish Caves outside the Yukon village of Old Crow, to the 3,000-year-old cave paintings in the Lower Pecos, Tex., often helping out with the excavation.

All questions in archeology have to do with time, and the most basic question in North American archeology is when human time began. When did humans first cross the Ice Age land bridge from Siberia to Alaska? From the different answers to that question, speculation fans out.

In the late 1800s, scholars believed Asian hunter-gatherers arrived relatively recently — some 4,000 years ago. That would explain the supposed “primitive” state of the continent’s prehistoric cultures as well as their surviving ancestors. The North American peoples simply didn’t have time to create great civilizations.

But the earlier we date the arrival of humans in Alaska, the faster we have to assume they migrated all the way down to the tip of South America. And the “primitive” caricature just doesn’t stand up. The Mayans may have left behind more enduring monuments, but North America is still dotted with the remains of great city-states, huge earthwork installations that display a highly developed knowledge of astronomy, and cultures every bit as sophisticated as anything in prehistoric Europe.

As different shards of evidence have come to light, the best estimates of when humans arrived on the continent have steadily receded in time. Today, even the most conservative archeologists put the date at some 12,000 years ago. But as Pringle points out, at the Bluefish Cave site in Yukon Territory, researchers have found mammoth bone — clearly worked by human hands — that radiocarbon analysis says is 23,500 years old. In some circles, the experts suspect that humans came to North America as early as 42,000 years ago.

But how did they live once they were here? What were they like? What did they believe?

The answers to those questions, tentative and tantalizing, come from sifting through their detritus: burial sites, refuse dumps, crumbling and abandoned architecture. For example, 1,000 years ago in Chaco Canyon, N. M., in the middle of a desert wilderness, a people called the Anasazi built an enormous complex of plazas, roads and greathouses five storeys tall with hundreds of rooms — and yet it appears that no one but caretakers ever lived in these rooms, nor was Chaco Canyon a bustling market city. As near as the archeologists can figure, it was built as a place of ritual festivity, a prehistoric SkyDome.

Just as puzzling are the Hopewell Earthworks. A millennium and a half ago, a long-forgotten people known as the Hopewell set to work building elaborate geometric structures in the southern Ohio countryside: squares the area of 100 baseball diamonds, enclosed by walls 12 feet tall; circles, octagons and half-moons equally as large. At one time, there were nearly two dozen of these gigantic achievements, all apparently attuned to the movement of the heavens. In conical mounds, their builders embedded artworks, finely crafted tools, jewelry, elaborate copper headdresses, and their own charred bones.

The accomplishments of the Anasazi and the Hopewell alone should be enough to dispel any lingering stereotypes about early North American peoples scrabbling out a meagre existence. But Pringle is also at pains to show that more recent rosy views of the continent’s natives are just as unfair to the complexity of their societies. In certain quarters, it has become fashionable to believe that North America’s first peoples lived in a state of grace, harmonious with the natural environment, free from the evil of social inequality.

The evidence just doesn’t bear it out. On San Clemente Island, off the coast of California, prehistoric people overfished the native sheephead — the major predator of the purple sea urchin. As the sea urchin population exploded, the entire ecosystem almost collapsed.

At Keatley Creek, bordering the Fraser River in B.C., a culture once flourished from about 500 BC to 850 AD. The staple was salmon and the salmon were plentiful. But the archeological record indicates that the Keatley Creek society was extremely stratified. At the top, wealthy nobles dressed in the finest painted buckskin. At the bottom, there were people so poor their thin bark clothing wouldn’t have permitted them to venture outdoors in the winter long enough even to collect firewood.

Pringle makes clear that ancient North America was a wondrous place, but don’t think for a moment it was

Globe and Mail June 8, 1996