Moccasins and Dene Migration.

Sara Minogue reports for CBC News:

New research on a trove of 13th century moccasins is shedding light on how the Dene language may have spread across North America. The distinctly subarctic Dene moccasins were discovered in the Promontory Caves in Utah nearly 100 years ago. They’re believed to be evidence that some Dene people left northwestern North America and successfully resettled in what is now the American southwest. Dry conditions in the cave preserved what would usually be perishable goods, including about 350 moccasins and thousands of animal bones. Most of the moccasins were made from locally gathered materials, but recent chemical analysis found one outlier: an ankle tie that came from a bison believed to have lived 700 to 800 kilometres further south.

Jessica Metcalfe, an assistant professor of anthropology at Lakehead University, used data based on the archeological remains of other ancient bison to determine that the animal lived off plants that would have only grown in a much warmer climate. Further chemical analysis ruled out the idea that the bison wandered north, or that the leather was obtained through trade. She believes the leather shows that the people who lived in the cave were travelling long distances and returning, “probably for the purpose of scouting.”

Metcalfe says this is “the first time past human migrations have been reconstructed using chemical traces in footwear.” Her analysis, published earlier this month in the journal American Antiquity, puts the subarctic Dene group closer to the homelands of the Navajo and Apache than has previously been documented. Dene languages, also known as the Athapaskan languages, are one of the most widespread Indigenous languages in North America, but there is little in the archeological record that explains how the languages spread, and why there are two distinct groupings nearly two-thousand kilometers apart.

(Dene is the common word for ‘people’ in the Athapaskan languages.) I’ll be curious to know what those Hatters who know more than I about Native American linguistic history make of this. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. The original article, BTW, is open access.

    It’s a neat piece of work, but it doesn’t add much new to Dene linguistic history. The materials in the cave have been associated with Dene culture for a long time. The novelty in the study is that it shows that people didn’t uniformly move in one direction. It’s cool to be able to show it, but it’s not surprising.

  2. Trond Engen says

    It should be feasible by now to sift for human DNA on the moccasins and in the soil of the cave floor.

    It’s also a lot of moccasins in a temporary shelter. Did they make them on the hunting expedition rather than bring the hides back home?

    I’ll read the paper.

  3. David Marjanović says

    nearly two-thousand kilometers apart

    Mille neuf cent quatre-vingt dix-neuf kilomètres à pied

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    The notion that “chemical analysis” could have “ruled out” the possibility that a piece of leather had traveled north via trade rather than the local humans going down and getting it there themselves seemed implausible, and indeed that seems to be the journalist’s garbling of the actual argument, not that I find the actual argument on that score (basically, there was lots of bison hide obtainable locally so it wouldn’t have been a commodity valued for systematic long-distance trade) particularly convincing when we’re talking about a single outlier object.

  5. Harry Hoijer, in 1956, calculated that Southern Athabaskan had spread from the North some 1000-600 years before the mid-twentieth century: the moccasins do thus seem to come from the right time period, assuming he was correct of course.

  6. January First-of-May says

    If it really was the one piece of leather, I’d probably have expected it to have been brought in by a traveller/migrant from that area… who did not necessarily make (much) more than just the single one-way trip.

    Why were there hundreds of mocassins in one cave in the first place, anyway? Were they perhaps ritual offerings? If so, maybe some kind of 13th century tourist (or, again, migrant) noticed that people ritually offer mocassins to that cave and did that to their own (spare?) southern shoes?

    A lot probably depends on whether the entire shoe came from down south, or just a single part of it. The latter would probably imply some kind of leather reuse.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    @January. Just one part, apparently. So who was reusing (or repairing?) what where is the question, and it seems to be you can come up with plenty of different scenarios with no particularly good way to be certain which actually occurred.

  8. Probably like Tocqueville coming back to France, after having had his shoe repaired in Montreal.

  9. Trond Engen says

    Me: It’s also a lot of moccasins in a temporary shelter. Did they make them on the hunting expedition rather than bring the hides back home?

    That was a stupid question. The moccasins were worn-out and discarded. The Promontory Caves were used as a semi-permanent dwelling for about 50 years.

    The authors don’t rule out trade, but they find trading of bison hides into a specialized hunting society unlikely. I agree with that, but a single item could be that unlikely event.

    They also mention that wickerwork and pottery point to contact with peoples with origin in the Pueblos. The paper stops just short of saying so, but maize farmers ceasing to grow maize and turning to hunting and raiding would be a likely origin of the Kiowa. We discussed the Kiowa, their Pueblo cousins, and the Apache a couple of years ago.

  10. Trond Engen says
  11. Trond Engen says

    Quoted in the paper:

    Kristensen, Hare et al 2019: The Movement of Obsidian in Subarctic Canada: Holocene Social Relationships and Human Responses to a Large-Scale Volcanic Eruption (pdf)

    • Subarctic hunter-gatherers used exotic obsidian through the Holocene.
    • Historical networks of coastal-interior exchange existed for millennia.
    • A large-scale volcanic eruption caused a temporary displacement of hunter-gatherers.
    • Existing kin and exchange networks influenced responses to ecological disturbances.
    • Disturbances stimulated developments including bow and arrow transmission.

    Lithic provenance analyses offer means to reconstruct ancestral social relationships in Subarctic North America. We summarize sourced obsidian data from 462 archaeological sites in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, Canada, and interpret obsidian distribution through the Holocene with particular attention to the volcanic White River Ash East event of A.D. 846–848. We argue that social mechanisms explain overlapping occurrences of exotic and local obsidians and that the volcanic ash fall triggered changes to obsidian exchange patterns. Following the volcanic event, obsidian from British Columbia moved north into the Yukon with higher frequency. Instead of a population replacement, persistent patterns in the distribution of some obsidian source groups suggest that the ash temporarily pushed some Yukon First Nations south where they strengthened networks of exchange that were retained upon their return. The short-term displacement may also have facilitated the movement of bow and arrow technology into the Yukon, which appears concurrent with the volcanic event. The large-scale eruption had the potential to sever connections between a small group of ancestral Dene (Athapaskans) and their homeland, which culminated in a continent-wide migration in the Late Holocene.

    I’ll quote chapter 8 in full:

    8. Obsidian, White River Ash east, and the bow and arrow

    Our inferred south- or southwestward movement of people, and ensuing return, following the WRAe volcanic eruption has a direct bearing on understanding the timing and movement of bow and arrow technology. The following link of obsidian provenance work to broader cultural patterns points to an origin and mechanism of technological spread, as well an explanation for why the bow and arrow did not diffuse sooner. The bow occurred on the margins of Dene territory for millennia before adoption (Blitz, 1988); perhaps cultural (e.g., linguistic) differences that extend deep into the Holocene provided a barrier for technological exchange into Subarctic northwest North America. On the northern margins of the study area, Ives (2010) postulated that bow cognates (words having the same linguistic derivation) that are shared widely among Dene groups reflect interactions that Dene ancestors had with mid-Holocene Arctic Small Tool tradition (ASTt) neighbours (who had the bow and arrow), without Dene adoption of that technology before the divergence of the Athapaskan language family. If, as Dumond (2010) suggested, ASTt represented arrival of Dene-Yeniseian people in the New World, the cognate forms of bow and arrow terminology would stem from a deeper language family history, one in which ASTt ancestors brought bow and arrow technology from northeast Asia (cf. Flegontov et al., 2017). This does not appear to be the case, and it is supported by provenance studies that demonstrate a lack of meaningful exchange among ASTt people and Dene ancestors in N.W.T. (Kristensen et al., 2019).

    On the southwest margins of the study area, archaeologists have employed projectile point metrics and transitions of projectile point morphologies to argue that the bow and arrow reached the Pacific Northwest Coast from 3500 to 1600 BP (Carlson, 2008; Maschner, 1992; Morrissey, 2009; Rorabaugh and Fulkerson, 2015). This implies that bow and arrow technology existed in coastal southeast Alaska for several centuries to a millennium before movement into the interior northwest because it appears that the bow and arrow were largely absent from interior Alaska, the Yukon, and N.W.T. until after WRAe. Ice patch records of alpine hunting in southern Yukon indicate a rapid transition from atlatl to bow and arrow after the WRAe event (Grund and Huzurbazar, 2018; Hare et al., 2012). With the exception of one potentially anomalous radiocarbon date, all occurrences of organic projectile shafts in Yukon ice patches prior to the eruption are associated with darts while all occurrences after the eruption are associated with arrows (Hare et al., 2012). Dixon et al. (2005) and VanderHoek et al. (2012) present a similar pattern in interior Alaska with evidence there that the dart persisted after bow and arrow introduction.

    Technological conservatism may explain a lack of adoption of the bow and arrow in interior northwest North America; the atlatl and spear were successful for millennia. However, barriers between distinctly different nations may have been a more significant impediment to the transmission of technologies, particularly of a weapon system that could be employed on people. Even if relations were amicable, strong incentives and appropriate opportunities for knowledge exchange would be needed to willingly transmit a complicated new technology across linguistic and ancestral barriers. What does obsidian provenance data suggest about human relations that can inform models of technological spread?

    Obsidian data, namely the spread of Edziza obsidian, when combined with ethnohistoric records in the Yukon and Alaska, support a theory that economic patterns of exchange from coastal to interior groups were sufficient to bridge linguistic barriers for thousands of years but a catalyst was needed to spur the type of contact necessary to transmit a complicated weapon system. The residence of a First Nations group among southern or southwestern allies for a decade or two after the eruption possibly provided sufficient time and contact with new technologies to enable their spread. Sourced obsidian and changes to obsidian exchange patterns, when combined with ice patch records, point to an origin of the bow and arrow in coastal British Columbia or Alaska, which then spread north and east. Maschner and Mason (2013) advocate a coastal origin of bow and arrow technology and correlate its movement from Asia with escalating conflict. Our obsidian results suggest that we may instead associate the movement of the bow and arrow with prolonged positive contact with coastal kin and/or trading partners. Intuitively, this scenario would foster information exchange to a greater extent than violence, particularly the transmission of the complicated skill set required to manufacture and maintain bows and arrows (Wilson, 2011). In this context, the WRAe event may have been a stimulus that promoted cultural fluorescence by bringing neighbouring groups into an extended period of contact that in turn ushered new developments.

    Kristensen had another 2019 paper on clinker exchange and an article from 2020 with a somewhat broader scope.

    Kristensen et al (2020): Environmental and Hunter-Gatherer Responses to the White River Ash East Volcanic Eruption in the Late Holocene Canadian Subarctic, Arctic, Vol. 73 No. 2 (2020).

    The eastern lobe of the Alaskan White River Ash volcanic event of AD 846 – 848 blanketed portions of Yukon and Northwest Territories, Canada, in 5 to 50 cm of tephra. The eruption has been linked to concurrent changes among hunter- gatherers, including the spread of new technologies and the continent-wide migration of a group of Dene ancestors from Subarctic Canada to the United States. We use published palaeoenvironmental data (primarily pollen and charcoal profiles) as well as studies of modern ash fall ecology and human health hazards associated with eruptions to reconstruct effects of the White River Ash east event on northern hunter-gatherer subsistence. While many components of local ecosystems appear to have rebounded quickly from ash deposition, we deduce a more pronounced impact on the important game species of caribou and salmon, the seasonal migration paths of which were intersected by thick deposits of ash. A trophic model informed by palaeoenvironmental data and ethnohistoric records suggests that negative biological effects of the ash temporarily pushed hunter-gatherer populations to neighbouring and less affected kin groups for up to 100 years. This synthesis contextualises archaeological theories of human responses to ecological disturbance events in circumpolar landscapes.

    We discussed Felgontov et al in Ancient Indo-European Folktales:

    If I understand this correctly, Kristensen asserts that the late introduction of the bow-and-arrow to the inland Dene contradicts Flegontov’s argument for a Na-Dene arrival to North America with the Arctic Small Tool tradition. Instead, Dene groups learned the skill from their hosts in the years they spent on the coast after the 846/848 volcanic event. The bow-and-arrow completely replaces the atlatl in the repopulated areas, and arrowheads gradually replace darts in the regions further north,

    So what prompted the forest hunters to migrate south after the volcanic event? Maybe the interrupted migrations of salmon and caribou made some of the more southern Dene peoples more reliant on the bison. When their neighbours returned from the coast with the bow-and-arrow, they got what they needed to specialize further and hunt on a large scale on the open plains.

  12. Fascinating stuff, thanks!

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    The Kristensen et al. paper looking at a large patterns involving lots of objects from lots of sites and trying to match them to the aftereffects of a known and dated disruptive event is, shall we say, a different genre than the Metcalfe et al. paper trying to come up with the most likely (but still speculative) narrative that would account for a single anomalous object.

  14. Trond Engen says

    Very different, but still, anomalous objects are interesting and have something to tell. This far-travelled piece of leather tells that the Promontory Cave people had a wider horizon than just their local hunting grounds. That’s a rather trivial conclusion, and maybe they should have let it be with that, but I found the further speculations interesting.

    But not necessarily correct, so I’ll throw in a speculation of my own. I don’t think an adolescent would have been part of a scouting expedition. I suggest that the moccasin was worn by someone moving to the Promontory Caves from a Na-Dene settlement located further south or east, maybe most likely a young bride. (But what do I know? This could well be a specifically male design.)

  15. Stu Clayton says

    Dry conditions in the cave preserved what would usually be perishable goods, including about 350 moccasins

    This could be evidence for a powerful woman in the local society. Someone like Imelda Marcos.

    Or for a powerful man trying to corner the moccasin market.

    Or it could be the laboratory of an early scientist investigating the physics of shoe racks. Today mice are used.

  16. Trond Engen says

    Also cited:

    Yanicki, Gabriel M. (2019): Promontory–Fremont Contact and Ethnogenesis in the Post-Formative Eastern Great Basin

    It’s a monumental doctoral thesis (680 pages), and I’m not anywhere near finished reading. I’ll quote the opening paragraphs of the introduction to keep the subject warm and in the hope that somebody else will join me:

    Evidence from the ongoing program of research at the Promontory Caves, on a mountainous and sparsely settled peninsula projecting from the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, Utah, points to their inhabitation by a migratory population with ancestral ties to Dene from the Canadian Subarctic (Ives 2014). The remarkably well-preserved deposits of perishable and non-perishable artifacts in the caves, almost two meters deep in some places, form a nearly complete record of material culture for what Julian Steward (1937a) termed the Promontory Culture. At the largest cave, Promontory Cave 1, an extensive series of high-fidelity 14C dates points to a peak in occupation from AD 1247-1291, with earlier periods of habitation possibly dating prior to AD 1200. These are the earliest known dates for the Promontory Culture (Ives et al. 2014; Yanicki and Ives 2017), placing their arrival in the northern Great Basin at a time when the region was still inhabited by the declining—and, from a social, ethnic, and linguistic perspective, enigmatic—Fremont Complex (Coltrain and Leavitt 2002; D. Madsen and Simms 1998).

    Who were the Promontory? Who were the Fremont? The central thesis of the present work is that Promontory-Fremont contact in the mid-13th century AD represents a moment of ethnogenesis in both Proto-Southern Dene and Proto-Kiowa-Tanoan prehistory. In addition to identifying the conditions under which intergroup contact could take place and what evidence exists for it, this work explores the implications of association between members of the Promontory and Fremont cultural traditions and the possibility of linking them to descendant peoples in the present day. Through prolonged, positive interaction, changes to both cultural systems took place that were founded in the allianceseeking imperatives of communal bison hunters new to the Great Salt Lake region, and that were characterized by a high degree of member exchange and the coalescence of stylistic traditions. While intriguing hints of Promontory–Fremont interaction can be found in the oral traditions and archaeology of the Southern Dene as a whole, particular attention is given here to the historic association of the Kiowa Apache and the Kiowa proper, emphasizing the importance of Great Basin prehistory in the origins of these latter groups.

  17. Dmitry Pruss says

    Oh, that Promontory! I can see it right from the neighborhood trails but it takes two hours of driving to actually get there. A terribly desolate place indeed. The first transcontinental railroad went over the Promontory, with the Golden Spike site near the crest of these hills, only to be abandoned several years later due to the extreme desert conditions. The steam engines consumed too much scarce water on the inclines for this rail line to survive. No human habitation there now, but the remoteness of the area became a draw for a secret rocket factory, tucked into the folds of the hills away from the spy’s eyes in the age before the satellites.

  18. And of course the Lair of the Illuminati. But I’ve said too much.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t think it was so much the extreme conditions of that bit of additional railway going over Promontory Summit that caused its abandonment as much as the eventual availability of an alternative route that was objectively more desirable because straighter, shorter, and involving fewer changes in elevation. That alternative (operational from 1904) had presumably not been pursued back in the 1860’s because running trains straight across the Great Salt Lake on a twelve-mile-long trestle had seemed too ambitious for the trestle-producing technology of the day. Although maybe the Illuminati pitched in with the advancement of trestle-producing technology in order to keep snoopers farther away from their lair?

  20. Dmitry Pruss says

    They just needed to find a large grove of centuries-old larches to build the salt-resistance trestle, and it took a while to find it.

    In the pandemic-rearranged travel, the Promontory suddenly got so much traffic that even the first public restroom appeared there. All these people are traveling on the same dirt road to the Spiral Jetty on the far side of the hills. While the peculiar design of the jetty may have been inspired by any kind of the secret-knowledge systems, there is too much open, dusty semi-desert for the traffic to go anywhere else unnoticed. So no secret-lore monks there, guaranteed.

  21. The Lucin Cutoff trestle running across the Great Salt Lake was still an important and/or impressive enough piece of infrastructure in 1940 that thwarting a terrorist attack on it was the focus of the very first story arc of The Adventures of Superman radio series.

  22. Utah Natl History Museum ran a number of exhibits on Promontory Caves finds. Here is a story on gambling gamepieces found in abundance in the cave, of the types still known in the First Nations of British Columbia today

  23. Trond Engen says

    Yes, games (or high-stakes gambling) is a major theme of Yanicki’s thesis too, but I haven’t got that far yet. I’ve been stuck in the Uinta Mountains for days!

  24. David Marjanović says

    Let me know when you stumble over Uintatherium ^_^

  25. Dmitry Pruss says

    The old lizard bones are relatively far from here, by the Eastern end of the Uinta range. The main quarry is fairly impressive, with hundreds of animals of all sizes deposited by a torrent right on top of one another. As they tumbled down the deluge, many lost heads or extremities. A snapshot of one catastrophe.

    @Trond – there are also references to Deni Seymour who claims to have uncovered Dene objects in the itinerant camps dating back to the 1300s. Haven’t checked the references

  26. Trond Engen says

    @Dmitry: I didn’t notice, but I’ll have another look. I was hoping to learn that we’re at a point where Dene (and other) migrations are becoming identifiable by archaeology.

  27. John Emerson says

    At the time of the Promontory culture, was the Great Salt Lake less sterile than it is now?

  28. Dmitry Pruss says

    The amount of salt in the lake grows over time, very gradually, while the levels fluctuate one a few years’ time scale depending on the arid conditions. The overall amount of salt in 1300 may have been as low as 3/4 of what it is now. But the climate wasn’t particularly wet for any prolonged period after about 900 CE, so the lake levels tended to be low, and the salinity, very high.

    Ultimately it was the sustained drought conditions which drove the Fremont out of their cliffside dwellings, right?

  29. John Emerson says

    Mark Twain wrote an amusing and , as far as I know, accurate piece on the ecology of Mono Lake in CA, a salt lake much like GSL. Tiny shrimp , shrimp-eating flies, fly eating gulls..It sounds hellish.

  30. Mono Lake is a beautiful gem.

  31. Dmitry Pruss says

    The brine shrimp / brine fly ecology is pretty standard. Harvesting brine shrimp eggs is an industry which sort of replaces the nonexisting fishing on the Great Salt Lake (there is fish in Willard Bay East of the Promontory where the water is largely fresh). And the seagull is the Utah state bird, enshrined after saving the Mormon pioneer crops from Mormon cricket infestation. There is bison in the prairie even now, and porcupines are up there in the lakeside trees, and fat beavers in the creeks. It’s paradise, the land of milk and honey, if you miss the blackflies (Mark Twain must have missed them). The little ones are there for only about a month, but they make the place hell.
    The brine flies swarm but don’t bite. After windstorms the shores are covered by the beached shrimp ankle-dip and the rotten piles stink pretty bad but it’s easy to get used to “the Lake smell”.

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