When it Comes to Understanding the Past, the Future is Lookin’ Pretty Crappy (that’s a good thing)

Anthropologists, in the four fields sense of it, are pretty good at sorting out what’s up with the humans. Cultural anthropologists are great at contextualizing things within a given culture (albeit it historically fraught with problems). Archaeologists do a pretty damn good job at looking at the physical and biological remains of past societies and stringing together what threads remain. Biological anthropologists explore humans’ bodies, biological family, and deep ancestry to recreate our evolutionary history and understand our physical place in the world. Linguists pick apart and study the relationships between our minds, bodies, and that which sets us apart from other animals perhaps more so than anything else—our languages.

All being focused on sorting out what it means to be human, there is often a good deal of overlap, and preferably a good deal of communication between fields and sub-disciplines.

In Episode 3 of the Anthrospin Podcast, PhD candidate Taryn Johnson introduced us to a some really exciting topics and concepts that I think are worth exploring a bit more so we can all understand how her research fits into the overarching questions that anthropology seeks to answer.

She mentioned the Numic Expansion, and that is going to be the major focus of this blog.

The Numic Expansion describes the proliferation of a group of seven Native American (Uto-Aztecan) languages (the Numic Languages) in the western United States. These languages include; Comanche, Timbisha, Shoshoni, Kawaiisu, Colorado River, Mono, and Northern Paiute. The overlapping cognate for the word “person” in all of these languages led to the naming of the group as “Numic.”

In the 1950s, the linguist Sydney Lamb studied the Numic languages and concluded that based on comparisons of the languages the expansion went from the southern and western ends of what would become California, heading north and east. He did so using glottochronology, a concept that I am not prepared to try and explain because I don’t know it well enough, but suffice it to say it maps changes in linguistic elements and finds averages in ways that are somewhat analogous to the predictability of radioactive decay/radio metric dating.

Essentially, what Lamb found was that in roughly 1000 CE this expansion began and carried on its merry way until Europeans showed up and pretty much ruined everything. There are (or have been) several competing hypotheses but none really gained as much support. It was acknowledged that this expansion happened, but without written culture it was pretty difficult to move this stuff beyond the hypothetical. More or less because linguistic history isn’t often carried very well in the archaeological record, and it’s incredibly difficult to ascribe artifacts and technologies specifically to one ethnicity or culture when they exist simultaneously and somewhat communally.

Oral history studies have been shown to more or less back up what Lamb had concluded. Looking at overlap in oral history and mythology, the changes roughly correlate to a slow gradient of cultural change along with the Numic Expansion from to north, and east to west. But again, these are abstract studies that while lending some support to the overall ideas put forth by Lamb, in and of themselves they feel somewhat lacking, as exciting as they are.

And this, friends, is where Taryn Johnson comes in! Certainly you’ve listened to her episode of the podcast by now and know a bit about what she’s up to. Essentially though she take really old poop—called paleofeces—reconstitutes it a bit, and extracts DNA to learn about the people who took these ancient, ancient dumps.

It’s a lot less crappy of a job than you might think. There is so much we can learn from this, because feces contains a ridiculous amount of information about our diets and even who we specifically are. So her work can help elucidate the prehistory of western North American people in ways that simply finding artifacts…really can’t.

There are some ethical concerns when it comes to the human DNA itself, but it can hypothetically help us understand more about the peoples from which they originated. Beyond that, there are things in our poop that aren’t in the poop of others.

We eat different things, and so we poop different things out. Researchers like Taryn Johnson are helping to reconstruct ancient diets, which are much more closely correlated to cultures than are stone points, which are more broadly distributed. As such, the work that she is doing can add hard scientific data to the “Numic Problem” and help us understand more about the expansion and the people who carried it.

One thought on “When it Comes to Understanding the Past, the Future is Lookin’ Pretty Crappy (that’s a good thing)

  1. Pingback: What Even is 2020? – Pedal Powered Anthropology

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