Sunday, July 19, 2009

Phil Wilkie on Kumeyaay repatriation

Hopefully, somebody out there can answer: When did DNA become capable of identifying cultural relationships? The last time we checked, genes, language and culture were independent of each other. While individuals can change their language and culture, the last we checked, other than blue jeans, individuals can't change their genes...

This letter was found at:


To: UC NAGPRA Committee

From: Philip J. Wilke, Professor, UCR

Comments on UCLA Report on Kumeyaay Cultural Affiliation by Diana Wilson

I believe that no strong case can be made for affiliation of these ancient human remains (to 7,500 years old; 375 generations) from SDI-525 and -603 with the present Kumeyaay. There is instead strong evidence to suggest that the Kumeyaay occupied the coastal zone of southern California comparatively recently.

The fact that the Historic Kumeyaay and all other ethnic groups in the area of southern California and the Colorado Delta cremated their dead suggests a very ancient practice that is not reflected in the remains in question.

As D.L. True showed in his dissertation, there are long-known differences in Late Prehistoric (ca. 500 years) weapon point design in the region in question. Points frequently are notched or boldly serrated in the Kumeyaay area, perhaps reflecting some still-unknown connection with the area of the Hohokam of the Gila River. Points generally are unnotched in the neighboring Takic area to the north, and all sources agree that groups speaking Takic languages have been in place for a very long time.

The core area for Yuman languages is located far to the east, around the head of the Gulf of California and up the tributary drainages of the Colorado and Gila rivers. Available evidence can be interpreted that the drying of Lake Cahuilla from the Salton Basin about A.D. 1450 caused considerable population displacement and that not all of it could be accommodated by the recorded dense settlement in Historic times on the lower Colorado and Gila rivers. Don Juan de OƱate reported in 1605 that some 16,000 Indians lived on the lower Colorado alone, a tremendous figure, and one wonders from where they all came. Certainly their bitter warfare pattern wherein neighbors were enemies and nonneighbors were allies suggests overcrowding and turmoil in times of food shortage due to agricultural crop failure, which was itself due to vagaries of the annual flood. Prior to A.D. 1450 Lake Cahuilla was within the distributary system of the Colorado, and was therefore a freshwater lake with abundant fish, shellfish, bird, and, locally, marsh vegetation resources flanking the Peninsular Ranges of southern California. The lake was over 100 miles long and 34 miles wide, and its abundant shoreline archaeological sites attest to a very substantial Indian population. That the drying of Lake Cahuilla could have caused an influx and crowding of population onto the lower Colorado and Gila and a coincident westward migration of Kumeyaay groups toward the California coast seems almost certain. When considered alongside the generally coincident abandonment of the large Hohokam towns of central and southern Arizona, the entire area of the Colorado, Gila, Salt, and Salton basins has to have experienced profound human population displacements. The Kumeyaay seem certain not to have escaped participation in this drama.

One has to ask whether conventional archaeological approaches could ever effectively identify ancestor groups or shared identities across even comparatively short time spans. And the time under consideration here is very, very, long indeed, 375 generations. This almost certainly is longer ago than the spread of Indoeuropean. What can archaeology tell us about relationships and shared identities across such immense time spans? If one is to proceed with repatriation in the manner considered here, it would seem prudent to be quite certain about claiming shared identity. Given basically the study of skeletal remains, could a clear differentiation, or a shared identity, be made between the remains of Serbs and Croat muslims, Turks and Armenians, German Jews and Nazis, Hutus and Tutsis, or most other groups that within our own time have overwhelmed one another with genocidal hatred? The historic Colorado River Yuman tribes were all very close linguistic kin, yet the Mohave and Quechan, neighbors of the Halchidhoma to the north and south, annihilated the latter tribe in a single day killing 255. Yet they shared the same group identity as linguistic kin living as neighbors along the same river following identical cultural practices and intermarrying. Could the remains of these tribes be separated by physical anthropology? I think not. Yet it seems clear that the groups in question chose genocide rather than group identity that fateful day in 1826. Add 365 generations to the equation and then how do you sort out issues like this one?

DNA studies are, or soon will be, capable of identifying cultural relationships with remarkable probability. The present case clearly suggests a need for a DNA database of contemporary Native American group identities against which the DNA of ancient human remains can be compared. It would seem that this would be the strongest tool Native Americans could have to support claims of shared identity across long time spans, and that they would demand its establishment. Until that is available, there is no firm basis upon which to assign a modern identity to these ancient human remains. Yet, some of the recorded cases of genocide mentioned above suggest that even with DNA evidence, shared group identity will remain an elusive, and illusive, phenomenon.

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