Friday 25 May 2012

Tlingit and Haida Genetics and the Peopling of the Americas

Listen up, you North American archaeologists! Here's one for you! This news is at least a week old, but I've seen nothing else about this on the intertubes. So, why not share? It's an article about the University of Pennsylvania's Genographic Project, and it highlights two recently published studies on northern North America's indigenous peoples. Both support and extend earlier linguistic studies hypothesizing the timing of entry onto the NA continent. One, in particular, interests me because it apparently demonstrates a distinct genetic makeup for the two culturally similar Northwest Coast groups, the Haida and Tlingit
     The two, while outwardly similar in their material and other cultural appurtenances bear genomes distinct from one another. The Haida language is also distinct, not only from Tlingit, but from all of the rest of the Americas. It's what's called a 'language isolate,' a language for which there is no apparent linguistic relative in the world. Although such languages are not definitive evidence of a language's antiquity, the circumstances that obtain on Haida Gwaii suggest that, at a minimum, the Haida language had evolved in isolation from the languages of all the other indigenous people of North America. 
     The genetic results thus parallel the linguistic evidence, and make me want to connect them with some natural curiosities having to do with Haida Gwaii, the island archipelago traditionally inhabited by the Haida people (the island chain was formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) [and is the land where I was born--see below for some photos of the unassuming little town of Sandspit, where my family lived,  across the saltchuck from the Haida village of Skidegate and the interlopers' town of Queen Charlotte]. 
     First of these curiosities that I want to mention is the importance of Haida Gwaii in Knut Fladmark's famous paper, 'Routes: Alternate Migration Corridors for Early Man in North America.' One of the points Knut makes in this paper is that the coastal route for peopling of the Americas would have been open even while the proposed 'ice-free corridor' to the unglaciated parts of North America was closed. The ice-free corridor, you'll remember, is a long-hotly-debated ice-free north-south route between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets. Fladmark and others have always maintained that, even if it had been ice-free for some warmer periods during the last glaciation the way would have been forbidding to the point of impassibility with permanent pro-glacial lakes and outwash plains devoid of fauna or flora.
This sketch of the ice-free corridor is a might optimistic. This is prolly what it looked like at the height of the deglaciation at around 12.5 ka. 
     So, Fladmark and others have long pointed to Haida Gwaii as having been a Pleistocene biotic refugium--where a community of plants and animals would have lived through the rigours of the last ice age. There are numerous endemic species on the islands, and recent excavation in a cave site has revealed skeletal bear remains dating to about 14.5 ka, just on the cusp of the final glacial meltdown and the end of the Pleistocene. Moreover, Haida legends talk of their earliest ancestors living in areas that are now inundated, but that would have been exposed during the Pleistocene.
     Thus, for lots of reasons it's very tempting to see the Haida people as potentially the earliest to live south of the Arctic Circle in North America, at a time when sea levels were much lower than they are today, and that they might have reached this southerly perch by making use of refugia on the shelf as stepping stones between Beringia and Haida Gwaii. By the time the post-Pleistocene marine transgression had taken its toll on waterfront property in that region, there was a 180 km stretch of Hecate Strait to navigate to reach the mainland. Although they were clearly some of the mightiest seafarers ever to eat the waves anywhere in the world, even the Haida might have chosen to make such crossings rarely, thus ensuring their continued genetic and linguistic isolation from the rest of North America.
     Let me know what you think.

Here follows a series of increasingly larger scale satellite photos of the area of my birth--Haida Gwaii.
Aleutians through the Gulf of Alaska to Haida Gwaii, the pie-shaped archipelago near the bottom.
Haida Gwaii and the mainland opposite. Hecate Strait in between.
Skidegate Inlet opens to the northeast. Sandspit is visible in the mid-upper right, and in the closeup below. I was actually born in Queen Charlotte, which had the only hospital at the time, and is a ferry ride away across the inlet to the west of Sandspit.
Sandspit, on Haida Gwaii. Note the raised shorelines marching uphill to the south and west due to continuous and ongoing post-Pleistocene isostatic rebound.
Sandspit, looking a little as it always a town on the edge of nowhere. My dad operated the company store here in the early 1950s. Shortly after I was born we moved back to the mainland, to what was then the Municipality of Richmond, where I grew up. As an indication of how closely tied to England much of Canada was for a very long time, the elected head of the Municipal Council was still called a Reeve until the 1970s, when the term Mayor was adopted in keeping with Richmond's emergence from mostly rural to mostly suburban.

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  1. There are quite a few morphemes in Haida that have a passing resemblance (distorted by massive phonological differences) to those of Salishan. Salishan itself has little in common with neighboring Wakashan and Chemakuan, despite Greenberg (from Sapir) and 'Mosan'- Larry Morgan's claim of relation of Salishan to Kutenay may hold more water, but the weirdest possible relationship here is between Salishan and Yahgan, from Tierra del Fuego. I've studied Yahgan for more than a dozen years, and there are numerous apparent cognate forms between it and Salishan. Whether the relation is ancient, or new (via contact in relatively recent times) is an open question- some cognate candidates look nearly identical, which is not what one would expect for an ancient relationship. But boats can carry you pretty far, pretty fast. One other odd thing- a number of language families have very similar religious terminology. The Yahgan term for a wizard's plenty-procuring song is chu:a:ni, while the same term in Coast Salishan languages is based on the root *yw 'spirit power', forms approximately s-yw-an-a7. This root seems to be clustered in certain areas- the term is nearly identical to one in Zun~i, and slightly altered is found around the Pacific Northwest in Penutian languages- but also in South America, *yw is found at least in Yanomam. So there may be an interesting story behind all this- including Haida?

  2. Jess,
    I knew intuitively that such resemblances would occur in disparate and far-flung places. That you've found similarities with Yahgan doesn't surprise me. If you think about it, by the time the ancestors of today's Tierra del Fuegans had occupied the length of the Pacific coast and reached the southern South American extremity there were probably already people occupying the habitable places to the north on the Atlantic coast. Cut off. Nowhere to go. A cultural cul-de-sac. Thus, little to no interaction with other groups that in later times were going to be heavily influenced by the numerous states that arose to the north along the Pacific coast. With numberless interactions amongst those more northerly groups through time, I'd expect greater language change relative to that which would be occurring within what's now called Yahgan. Likewise, I'd predict, for the numerous civilizations that have yet to be revealed on the Atlantic coast to the north (cf. Anna Roosevelt's Amazonian discoveries--it's only a matter of time before the vastness of South America's Atlantic Coast is mined for its secrets of the past.
    Call me a romantic. Call me crazy. But there's much yet to be known about the history of human achievement and interaction across the length and breadth of the "New World". There's plenty of anthropological work to be done!
    Thanks very much for your comment. And thanks for dropping by. Y'all come back, now. Y'hear?

  3. Rob, thanks for sharing a little bit about your past. What an interesting place to grow up. I've never been to coastal BC/Alaska but I count that as my misfortune. I was born on another quite different island, Manhattan.

    Language isolates always intrigued me. The first two archaeological projects I ever undertook as field director and principal author were in territory of an all but extinct language isolate called the Yuki Language Family of California (consisting of Yuki, Coast Yuki, Huchnom,and Wappo). Like Haidi, Yuki has no known linguistic relatives. Yuki was spoken along the northern reaches of the Middle Eel River in the Round Valley area of Mendocino County. Huchnom by people living along the South Eel River north of Potter Valley in Mendocino County. Coast Yuki north of Fort Bragg and south of Usal Creek on the Mendocino Coast. Wappo in northern Napa County, Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, and at Clear Lake State Park in Lake County. Perhaps it is just coincidental that Haida and Yuki (or at least the coastal variant) were both on the coast. Bickel wrote an interesting article some 30+ years ago about sea level rises along the California coast and posited it as a possible route south irrespective of the ice free corridor. 10,000 years ago the Pacific Coast was west of Farallones Island and San Francisco Bay was a sloping open plain. One can only imagine the prehistory that was submerged but it is hardly a surprise that many of the reported archaeological sites north of San Luis Obispo post date 6,000 BP, an age which happens to correspond to a 60+ ft rise in sea level. Older materials are reported along the coast of course ( fluted points and crescentics at Bodega Head for example) but an awful lot of coastal prehistory is relatively young, which is what prompted Bickel to suggest what she did in 1978.

  4. My first project was in the hills just southeast of Round Valley and my second in the hills above the South Eel. My Masters thesis concerned the archaeology in southern Lake County in land within which the Wappo lived. I later worked on the coast above Fort Bragg.

    There's been quite a lot said about the prehistory of Yukian languages, many seem to agree that it is perhaps a remnant of one of California's first language families. Considering their proximity to each other they must have once been connected. The speculation is that the Wappo may have moved south and Elmendorf suggested a 3,000 year separation from Yuki. Cook attempted a Yuki population reconstruction in 1850 and came up with under 7,000 Yuki, ~2,000 Huchnon, and 750 Coast Yuki. The Wappo were very much affected by contact with Spanish through Mission Sonoma and by the time they were moved to the Mendocino Reservation in the 1850s there were a few hundred.

  5. One of the things I'l always remember about Yuki culture: Yuki had an octal (base-8) counting system. Yuki kept count by using the four spaces between their fingers rather than the fingers themselves!

    I loved working in the Eel River basin and Round Valley really must be seen to be appreciated. It's two+ hours north of Ukiah! There are quite a few tiny interior mountain valleys between Potter-Redwood Valley on the South and Round Valley in the North (Eden Valley is one of them). The last stand up gunfight in the street in California and perhaps the west occurred in Covello, at the northern end of Round Valley. 1912 was the year. I tilted back many a beer in the tavern from which the fight erupted. In the mid-1970s, old timers told me the bar hadn't changed a bit and it wasn't hard to believe.

    Oh, I read that similarities between Haidu and neighboring languages has more to do with recent contacts that historical linguistics.

    On the issue of boats: The Coastal Chumash inhabited all of the Channel Islands using ocean going plank canoes. San Nicholas Island was 60 miles from the mainland. And completed unrelated to language isolates or plank canoes.... The other day Rob you mentioned dwarf mammoths (sorry but I forget the context). One of the true dwarf mammoth species lived on the Channel Islands.

  6. Roger,
    If memory serves I came to much the same conclusions in my discussion of the languages around Clear Lake, CA when I was on the Geysers Project. Great minds must really think alike!


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