The American Wild West had been wild for thousands of years
America’s Wild West may have been just as wild before the white man arrived with horses, guns and liquor. Analysis of more than 16,000 skeletons of Native Americans buried across 2,500 years shows about 1 in 15 people in prehistoric central California sustained some type of wound.
A case in point is a study conducted by University of California-Davis professor of archaeology Jelmer W. Eerkens of an apparent mass homicide from 850 AD. Professor Eerkens analyzed the remains of seven men killed and dumped in one grave and concluded they were a war or raiding party.
Professor Eerkens and other researchers say interpersonal violence and territorial warfare were common in California over a long period.
“We suggest that inter-village warfare or raiding was responsible for their early deaths,” Professor Eerkens wrote in a 2015 paper published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
Eerkens added that researchers used to romanticize hunter-gatherers as peaceful, but “recent archaeological and anthropological research has challenged these notions. The ancient hunter-gatherers of California have played an important part in this shift in thinking. Osteological (bone) studies show that violence often played a role in mortality.”
The seven men, likely from the San Joaquin Valley, were buried several days’ walk away in the Amador Valley near San Francisco. They died of blunt trauma to the head and wounds from sharp points. The locals, who lived in a small village, killed the men and dumped their bodies in a mass grave that had no grave goods and differed in other ways from 200 other burials at the site. Workers uncovered the bodies in 2012 during construction of a shopping mall.
The men ranged from about 18 to 40. Isotopic analysis of their teeth and bones shows they were not local to where they were buried. These men died, but Eerkens points out that evidence of a wound on a skeleton does not necessarily mean the person died from the wound.
Professor Eerkens, in an e-mail interview with Ancient Origins, says violence was even more prevalent in central California than in Europe during the medieval age. He wrote:
“I don't want to paint the picture that native Californians were super violent. But it's also not the case that they were peaceful hunter-gatherers, ‘in harmony with nature’ as is commonly said. That is a common stereotype that people want to paint for political reasons. Neither extreme is correct (super violent or super peaceful). Native Californians, like all humans and all human societies, were violent and occasionally killed each other. This is a human universal. They expressed that violence in a different way than we do (and it's true that we have quite low homicide rates today, due to laws and police, I would argue).”
Professor Eerkens performed another isotopic analysis on the remains of three native men found in 1964 in a pit with four bodies. The remains of one of them were disturbed, so he studied only three. All three were killed violently during a raid, he wrote in 2014 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Researchers reconstructed the position of the three men found in a grave in 1964. (Image by Jelmer W. Eerkens)
Those men were killed around 1450 AD. He speculates the men and their tribe were forced out of the region by environmental conditions caused by the Little Ice Age or because another tribe forced them out. They may have been poaching in their old stomping grounds, or, Eerkens and his co-authors speculate, they may have returned to retaliate for violence against a member of their own tribe.
In an e-mail, Professor Eerkens cited a study by archaeologist A.W. Schwitalla, who did a survey of wounds on more than 16,820 burials of central California natives. Dr. Schwitalla wrote in 2014 in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology: “Overlooked and under-reported for much of the latter half of 20th century, violence among foragers has been a growing focus of archaeological research in California and beyond in the last two decades. As put most aptly by Keeley (1996) a certain de-emphasis on inter-group conflict and warfare was a hallmark of many anthropological studies from the 1960s through 1980s as researchers sought consciously or unconsciously to minimize the occurrence of ecological and/or social problems in pre-industrial societies.”
Dr. Schwitalla wrote that the most common type of violence in central California, as shown in the 16,820 skeletons, was caused by sharp projectiles at 7.4 percent of the bodies studied, followed by blunt force to the face and head at 4.3 percent, and then trophy taking and dismemberment at 0.7 percent. Two periods showed more violence: the Early Middle period of 500 BC to 420 AD, and the Protohistoric/Historic period of 1720 to 1899 AD. Violence was more common among males, though the evidence shows plenty of females had wounds, which Dr. Schwitalla and his co-authors speculate may have been caused in part by domestic violence.
Ancient Origins asked Professor Eerkens to compare rates of violence in the New World to Europe. He wrote in his e-mail response:
I think the nature of warfare and homicide was different in Europe than in pre-contact California, but was probably just as prevalent or more so in California, on a per-capita basis. … [A] recent survey of skeletal trauma in California suggests that about one in 15 people suffered from an injury that is consistent with interpersonal violence (such injuries include arrows embedded in bone or cut marks on bone left behind by arrows or knives). We can’t always know if they died from that injury, but that is a high number. Estimates for homicide rates in Medieval Europe, for example, are typically 1 per 5000 to 10,000 people (but that is using historical records, not archaeological ones, so are we comparing apples and oranges?).
Featured image: An obsidian point is embedded in prehistoric human remains from a burial in central California. (Photo by Randy Wiberg)
By Mark Miller