Saturday, September 8, 2012

On coracles, Partridge, the Mandan and the Inuit

A Passamaquoddy Legend:
In ancient days Partridge was the canoe-builder for the other birds. And after he had finished all the canoes, he called the birds together and each got into its bark and paddled off.

Oh, it was a great sight! First of all came the Eagle, in his big shell, paddling with the ends of his wings. Then came the Owl dipping his wings in the water, like the Eagle. Then the Crane, the Bluebird, the Robin, the Blackbird and the Snipe went sailing proudly after, uttering shrill cries or whistling and singing. And last of all came the tiny Hummingbird in a very tiny canoe; and for him good Partridge had made a prettily little paddle.

And the Fish-Hawk, who lives on the wing, skimmed over their heads, crying with amazement, as he saw the proud little fleet of canoes put out to sea.

“Why, O Partridge,” cried the Fish-Hawk, “have you no canoe for yourself?” But Partridge gave no answer, only looked mysterious and drummed; and the noise of his drumming sounded like an Indian at work on a canoe.

Then the birds sailed back to land, and all cried out, “Why, O Partridge, have you made no canoe for yourself?”

But Partridge shook his head, and said that when he built a canoe for himself, it should be a wonder such as no bird’s eye had ever beheld. This went on for some time until at last every bird knew that Partridge was making a wonderful boat for himself.

Now Partridge thought, “If a boat with two ends sails two ways, when then a boat, that is round, will sail every way.” So he built a canoe like a nest, perfectly round. And when it was finished, he called together all the birds to watch him put out to sea. And as they looked at the round canoe, they all cried out: “What a wonderful boat! We were not wise enough to think of such a thing!”

The Partridge, swelling with pride, stepped into the canoe, and dipped his paddle, But the boat made no headway at all, only spun around and around. And the harder he worked, dipping his paddle, first on one side and then on the other, the faster spun the canoe.

And when the birds saw what was happening, they fell to laughing, and mocking Partridge. And he left his round canoe, and, flying inland, hid himself for very shame under the low bushes.

And to this day he flies close to the ground, and hides under leaves and bushes. And the noise of his drumming sounds far and near like an Indian making a canoe.
Partidge had not been to Wales, nor to India, among other places where coracles are common.

Figure 1. Welsh coracle (Data Wales )

Figure 2. Indian coracle (Wikipedia )

It was in part the presence of the coracle that suggested to Meriwether Lewis as he and William Clark met the Mandan Indian tribe in what is now Washburn North Dakota that the tribe might have been descended from Prince Madoc ap Owain Gwynedd of Wales who lived around 800 years ago. (And would have travelled to America in roughly the same time frame as those reported to have left the Viking boats in Minnesota). It is, unfortunately, not something that can easily be checked with DNA testing, although, as an aside, it is now possible to get paternity testing in the Mandan region of the country. The last full-blooded Mandan, Mattie Grinnell, is reported to have died in 1971. Even by the time of the Lewis and Clark visit the tribe had been reduced from perhaps 15,000 individuals living in 9 villages, down to just two villages of around 1,200 people.

Figure 3. Mandan village – Bull Dance – George Carlin 1832 (American Art )

The village and tribe that Lewis and Clark met were largely wiped out in a smallpox outbreak in 1837. After the epidemic there were only around 100 survivors.

One of the difficulties in getting a true picture of the history of the Native American population prior to the large-scale migrations of Europeans across the continent, is that so many in those tribes died, due to the diseases that also arrived at that time. For example, by the time that the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts it has been suggested that over 90% of the local native tribes had died, due to infection. (h/t Gregory ) Until recently the major cause of death was thought to be due to smallpox and viral hepatitis , a disease to which Native Americans are more susceptible but leptospirosis has also been now indicted, in the three to six year period that saw the majority of the deaths. Rats and mice from the many ships from different nations that were by that time visiting the continent would contaminate the environment in a way that made locals more susceptible, because of their lifestyle, than the booted and western-oriented visitors.

Regardless of cause, the diseases killed a dominant portion of the population, numbers suggested ranging from 75% to the 98% loss of the Mandan. The enforced migrations of the tribes, and the re-development of the land to fit European farming tradition has also lost a considerable part of the archeological record.

Further, when one goes back to around historic periods measured in tens of thousands of years ago, the maintenance of lineage lines and their origin becomes more difficult, and the need for larger sample sizes to draw realistic conclusions is offset by the reality that if the natives of the time lived on the coast-line, that region, around the world is now under considerable depth of water as the great glaciers have melted.

Yet the lack of evidence should not be considered equivalent to there being no evidence, and thence that these events did not take place. The evidence that the X variation in mtDNA migrated west seems conclusive, as Stanford and Bradley (S&B)have shown.

Figure 4. Distribution of the X mtDNA variation in the global population (Stanford and Bradley).

Having myself, in earlier times, studied how an early Stonehenge was made, after helping make one, the intelligence, and the long time over which events had time to occur back in those millennia, sometimes seems to get lost in current discussions over whether certain journeys and developments could have taken place.

S&B’s argument that local inhabitants of Siberia would, to have been able to survive, had to learn to create sealed clothing from animal/marine sources is a logical base on which to assume that boats, ubiquitous in other parts of the world, would have also existed in the far North. The example of the Thule Inuit, who travelled from Alaska to Greenland during the Medieval Warming Period, arriving in time to greet the Vikings and come down to us as the “skraelings” is well documented. The migration is generally thought to have been motivated by following the whale. It is a distance of on the order of 3,000 miles and while, at one time it was thought that this migration might have taken decades, or centuries there is now a school of thought that it might have occurred within a 2-3 year period, due to the use of dog-sleds and umiaks. The alternative reason that is now proposed for the short duration of the transition is also novel:
the Bering Strait Thule experienced a serious iron shortage related to disruptions in East Asian trade routes after the rise of Ghengis Khan in the 13th century. Knowing of sources of iron in the Canadian Arctic, Thule migrants set off on a journey eastwards in search of this precious commodity. The iron they eventually discovered would have been both meteoric (Cape York meteors) and European, because Norse Greenlanders were trading into the Eastern Canadian Arctic in their quest for walrus ivory and other Arctic luxury goods.
The image of a peaceful Inuit is also under challenge:
The emergence of hierarchical village societies, containing over-classes of artists and political leaders, and supported by slaves, is linked to their learning to hunt for the largest mammal in their environment, the bowhead whale. Intense competition for hunting grounds, over-population, and the ability to maintain permanent militias were factors in the emergence of violent conflict. Archaeologists have uncovered fortified Bering Strait villages, and the Thule were known to wear Chinese-style slat armour and use the Mongol recurved bow.
Conflict in the region was not just an event a thousand years ago it has been regionally common, even back to 13,000 BP. No wonder the Vikings had such a hard time in Western Greenland, and chose to leave L’Anse aux Meadows to its resident tribes. (But it might also explain where all those polar bear skins came from, that ended up going to the Vatican from the Greenland diocese.) (THE LOST WESTERN SETTLEMENT OF GREENLAND, 1342, An M.A. Thesis in History, by Carol S. Francis, California State University – Sacramento – Fall 2011).

Well this was more of a digression than I had intended when I started writing this post this morning, but rather it serves to illustrate, through the drastic loss of life when European and American cultures first met, and through the lack of much archaeological evidence until recently, the difficulties in generating a highly detailed history of events over the past 20,000 years.

I plan on writing about the Red Paint People next, and their arrival, and then we might get to the dissertation, cited above, and the discussion topics that it falls into regarding the interactions of Europeans and Native Americans in the MWP.