So, this entry is a bit different. It's an excerpt from the second chapter of my Masters Thesis. I had to re-read this for a paper that I am writing (which should be published this coming year), and I thought that this excerpt might be interesting for my blog readers. It details the sources of information that archaeologists often end up working with, and is not written in my usual bloggy style, but like the research document that it is from.
I wrote about archaeological and ethnohistoric research on the Chumash peoples of the Santa Barbara Channel region, and so the sources discussed are specific to them, but similar sources are used by archaeologists the world over, so this may give you a bit of insight into how we work.
So, I hope you find it interesting. If not, it may replaced Sominex as your sleep aide of choice.
Sources of Information
Although they have been fairly intensively studied by anthropologists throughout the 20th century, sources for information regarding Chumash peoples and their predecessors are somewhat limited, and often contradictory in the information offered. A brief discussion of the sources of data concerning the Chumash is presented here so that the reader may be better able to critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of the background scholarship upon which this research is necessarily based.
Much of the information available regarding Chumash religion, kinship, social and political organization, craft methods, myth, and folklore comes from the notes of salvage ethnographers, primarily J. P. Harrington. To a lesser extent, the notes of early archaeologists who gathered ethnographic data has proven valuable. Such archaeologists include Bowers, Cessac, and Yates (Benson 1997; Blackburn 1975: 55-62; Hudson et al. 1977a; Hudson et al. 1977b; Johnson 1988a: 11-22). These notes are absolutely vital to any attempt to understand Chumash religion and cosmology, and for making sense of some patterns visible in the archaeology of the region.
However, these sources of information are not without their problems. First, this information was compiled well after the traditional Chumash lifeways had come to an end. The idiosyncrasies of human memory as well as the fact that the stories were likely to become confused and convoluted when transmitted between individuals and through generations would have hampered the recovery of basic facts about the lives of the traditional Chumash. As Horne (1981: 11) puts it – “…most of the recent studies based on the Harrington notes ignore or minimize the implications of the assumptions about cultural stability which are inherent in any use of upstreaming technique to reconstruct pre-contact culture…Aspects of Chumash life and culture which are inferred from the oral narratives may actually reflect a system in flux.”
To illustrate the impact that European contact may have had, both directly and indirectly, on native peoples, it is useful to compare the information collected by Californian salvage ethnographers to that of ethnographers who documented the traditional cultures of Native Australians. Because Australia was colonized more recently, it is easier to see from written records that the lifeways and traditions recorded by Australian ethnographers and other early anthropologists were influenced as much by institutions and technology brought to the continent by Europeans as by unrelated and indirectly related changes within the various native cultures (P. Clarke 1991; Head 1994; Head and Fullagar 1997: 418; Michaels 1985: 508; Smith 1999: 199).
Additionally, because much of the ethnographic record was created through the work of Harrington, the problem of Harrington himself must be addressed. Horne (1981: 10) describes Harrington in this way: “His data collecting was assiduous, wide-ranging, and, because of the salvage situation, unselective. He seems to have been genuinely incapable of systematically evaluating the reliability of his informants.” Similar reservations are noted by Johnson (1988a: 14-15) and Blackburn (1975: 7). Nonetheless, Harrington collected a vast amount of information that would have been otherwise lost. As a result, as imperfect as it may be, Harrington’s work provides some valuable insights into prehistoric Chumash culture.
Ethnohistoric records are those records created by Spanish colonists and early Anglo settlers describing the protohistoric and historic Chumash. These records include the mission birth, baptismal, marriage, and death registers; diaries kept by priests, soldiers, explorers, and settlers; answer sheets from questionnaires sent to the colonies by the Spanish government; and other miscellaneous items such as newspaper articles or other early writings.
Of primary importance are the records kept by the early Spanish explorers and the Spanish priests at the missions. These have provided information regarding native social, ritual, and economic activities at the time of contact (C. King 1976; Gheiger and Meighan 1976), relationships between aboriginal corporate groups based on marriage ties (Johnson 1988a), population trends within and outside the missions (Cook 1976; Jackson 1987, 1990; Johnson 1999; Walker and Johnson 1994), rates at which native Californians may have chosen to enter the missions (keep in mind that early missionization was largely voluntary[Cooke 1976: 58, 73-74]) (Larson et. al 1994), and the ability of missions to care for neophytes or else send them back to their native villages (Coombs and Plog 1977). For the Santa Barbara Channel, probably the best recent synthesis of ethnohistoric information, especially as concerns inter-village marriage ties, is Johnson’s dissertation (1988a).
However, these records are also prone to their own set of problems. Political and economic conflicts of interest between the military and religious authorities, as well as between the colonists and their opponents, often colored the way that events were recorded, resulting in distortions, inconsistencies, questionable “shifting-of-focus” to justify activities, and perhaps outright lies (Cook 1976: 96-98; 123-134). The outlook, interests, biases, experiences, and goals of observers working to colonize California also impacted what was recorded and how it was described (see the responses to the questionnaires sent out to the missions by the Spanish government in Geiger and Meighan  for examples).
Even the more objective records, such as those for baptisms, deaths and marriages, are not without problems. Johnson (1988b) lists the following as being of concern as regards these records: Omissions, misunderstandings, and other clerical errors; inconsistent renderings of the names of people and villages; changes in names after baptism; confusion on the part of the priests regarding the identity of the individual being written about; Spanish patrilineal bias which caused some confusion in geographic origins because the Chumash tended towards matrilocality, except for chiefs, who tended towards patrilocality (Johnson 1988a: 153-161); and Chumash taboos on providing personal names to strangers.
An additional issue may be mentioned with regard to the desire to project information gleaned from ethnohistory into the past. As noted above, this is essentially a “upstreaming” practice, and conclusions based on this data may not accurately describe many aspects of the lives of the people of the Santa Barbara Channel region prior to the arrival of the Spanish because of social changes resulting from climatic change (Larson et al. 1994) or the possibility of disease-driven depopulations and internecine warfare (Erlandson and Bartoy 1995; Preston 2004).
Even prior to the appearance of the Spanish in California, there is the possibility that Old World diseases may have moved along trade routes and decreased populations (Erlandson and Bartoy 1995; Preston 2004), which may have, in turn, increased internecine warfare and political instability. This possibility is suggested by Engelhardt’s description of internecine warfare caused by the outbreak of contagious disease (Engelhardt 1932, cited in Johnson 1988a: 124-125; 2006), although Cook [1976: 28-29] disagreed with such conclusions. While there is historic evidence that the spread of diseases such as smallpox was likely to have been patchy and the above-cited researchers may be overstating the likelihood of prehistoric disease pandemics (Cook 1976: 273; Walker and Johnson 1994: 118), the fact that disease epidemics appear to have occasionally moved rapidly and violently through less-dense (and presumably somewhat more immune) populations in California during the mid-to-late 19th century (Cook 1976: 14-18) indicates that the possibility of the early spread of such diseases existed. That being said, population reconstructions by Walker and Johnson (1994) indicate a society with a normal population period, suggesting that if earlier pandemics had occurred, the population had rebounded.
Regardless of these problems, ethnographic and ethnohistoric records also provide a treasure-house of data regarding marriage and settlement patterns, Chumash ceremonial and economic life, as well as the ways in which the Spanish and the Californians interacted. These records are extremely valuable not only to Californian archaeologists, but also to the general study of culture contact and resulting culture change.
Archaeology and Physical Anthropology
The primary benefits of archaeology are that it allows a region or culture to be studied over a long period of time. Furthermore, changes in material culture, settlement patterns, and other physical manifestations of behavior indicate changes in the lifeways of the people using the items being studied. Archaeologists are able to study certain aspects of the lives of past peoples, although with varying precision that is dependent upon preservation biases, types of behaviors being studied, and their exact relationship to the material remains being examined.
Physical anthropology can be used to study a much narrower range of topics, but the links between the research questions and the human remains studied by the physical anthropologist are typically much stronger and less prone to interpretation errors. These would include chemical analysis of bone to study diet (Walker and Deniro 1986), bone trauma as evidence of violence (L. King 1982: 147-187; Walker 1989), and bone pathologies as evidence of stresses (Lambert 2004).
Although archaeology can reveal important patterns, it also has problems that should be kept in mind. A very serious issue within California in general, and in the Santa Barbara Channel mainland and Santa Ynez Valley in particular, is that taphonomic processes – both natural and anthropogenic – can alter the archaeological record. Bioturbation, hydrologic activity, soil movement and removal due to land use and development, and other forces that disturb soils and sediments can cause the movement of cultural materials, deflation of site deposits, and general destruction of stratigraphic associations between materials within an archaeological site. Additionally, differential real-estate development may mislead the unwary researcher into believing that variability in settlement densities and patterns exist when what truly are being observed are differences in site destruction and visibility caused by construction.
Additionally, some materials are more likely to be preserved than others. Bone, chert, and shell tend to preserve in Southern California, while basketry, hides, cloth, and seeds typically do not. As a result, the importance of animal foods and stone tools tends to be exaggerated in the archaeological record. In a study such as this, where the goods imported into sites tended to have durable remains while those exported may not, this can create the illusion that there existed an exchange imbalance or tributary relationship between sites where a balanced exchange relationship actually existed.
Additionally, the research interests, goals, and methods of each individual researcher or research group will impact the types of information recovered and the ability of subsequent researchers to compare their work with that of others for inter-site comparisons and synthetic research. Problems of this sort can include a disinterest in a type of material that is important to other researchers. Harrison (1965), for example, did not even bother sorting faunal remains from his excavations at the coastal village of Mikiw (SBA-77), and Rogers (1929) focused so much on burials, as was the common practice at the time, that important information from middens was often only mentioned in passing. Even the equipment used has an impact, as can be shown by the differences in data generated by excavations performed prior to the 1970s (such as those described by Bowers [Benson 1997], Rogers , Baumhoff , and McRae ) and those performed now.
Also, there exists no standard for reporting the types of data generated. So, to use faunal remains as an example, one researcher may report only bone counts (Hildebrandt 2004), another only weights (Colten at al. 1995), and the types of fauna represented may or may not be reported (Colten et al. , for example, did not report the types of shell found at SBA-2464). This causes further confusion when inter-site comparisons are attempted.
There exists also a variant of the “boundary error” in Santa Barbara archaeology. It is easy to find similarities that seem important if one only examines a small number of sites or sites within a limited geographic zone. As long as the phenomenon being examined was limited to or centered on the geographic zone being examined, this is not a problem. However, when one attempts to extrapolate into other regions or zones, this can become a problem. For example, while locating the causes of complexity on the islands and coast may be useful in discussing complexity in these areas, it is open to debate how such models describe social complexity in inland areas.
Finally, and of special importance here, is the fact that often the early work in the Santa Ynez Valley was based on the assumption that all sites that were visible were roughly contemporaneous, dating to the Late Period. The most egregious example of this comes from Tainter (1975), who devised village territories based on the locations of undated sites. While the assumptions that led to his conclusion regarding site contemporaneity are understandable and seem reasonable, the conclusion itself is simply wrong (Glassow 1979; 2005).
While each of the research avenues has problems, each nonetheless provides some advantage that the others lack. Reliance on any one source will provide a picture of Chumash culture and life that is incomplete at best, deeply flawed or just plain wrong at worst. However, taken together and used critically and judiciously, they allow for strong research programs to be developed. Each line of evidence can suggest hypotheses that might be examined with evidence from the other approaches.
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