FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
Campus research efforts now expend more than $67 million annually.
A rundown of science stories during the past year
THE OUTER LIMITS
New University research center studies the edge of human endurance.
THE ROOTS OF SOCIAL INEQUALITY
Digs in British Columbia offer a groundbreaking view of hunter-gatherer societies.
Research reveals another public health threat from asbestos contamination.
A young UM researcher studies flying rhinoceros beetles in Taiwan.
The Milltown Dam removal allows trapped sediments to travel.
How do prey species react when predators are returned to ecosystems.
THE NEW NOTE-TAKING
UM develops new software to aid college students.
A UM legal scholar reveals Constitution's original intent.
FLIP THROUGH CURRENT ISSUE
Cover: Jeff Cincoski, a triathlete and UM employee, puts a research bike through its paces in a 100-degree, temperature-controlled room at the Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism.
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|The Roots of Social Inequality
A groundbreaking view of hunter-gatherer societies
By Deborah Richie Oberbillig
|An artist’s rendition of pithouse life at Keatley Creek village around 1100 A.D. Note the stepped log that was used to enter the pithouse. (By UM anthropology graduate student Eric Carlson)
The sun blazing down between the lofty peaks of British Columbia’s middle Fraser Canyon falls on the archeology crew excavating housepits in the grasslands above the Bridge River. The pace is slow and meticulous. Charcoal ash floats in the dusty air.
“It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it,” says Anna Marie Prentiss, the UM archeology professor who led the National Science Foundation-funded dig from 2003 until its completion this past summer. Bridge River joins several exceptionally large and well-preserved ancient villages near the town of Lillooet. People inhabited the Bridge River village from 1,800 to 1,000 years ago, and then returned during the past 400 years. Their descendents live nearby.
Sifting through the layers, Prentiss and her team have unearthed compelling evidence that social inequalities likely originated in response to a decline in fisheries that ultimately would force the villagers to leave. She’s part of a revolution in attitudes toward the Archaic period of hunting and gathering, once thought to be the least interesting time in North America’s past.
“Even the plateau where I work is considered in between the exciting spots – with the Northwest coast on one side and the Plains bison hunters on the other,” Prentiss says. “It’s analogous to the whole view of the Archaic.”
Ask the local children who’ve toured the site and the word “boring” never comes up, but a certain name always does with an eagerly raised hand – Indiana Jones. While she laughs at the reference, in truth, Prentiss could easily slip into an archeologist role in the next movie installment. She’s tall and lanky, with long brown hair and blue eyes. In the field she wears a cowboy hat to shield the sun. Under the brim, her face often is smudged with charcoal.
Prentiss sets a grueling schedule on days when the heat can be blistering. The crew of primarily graduate students begins at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m., with a half-hour lunch break. The only complaint tends to be, “Why stop for lunch?” That’s the kind of obsession typical of the Bridge River dig. Compared with sites where archeologists sort endless piles of fire-cracked rocks, here the team discovered jade tools, soapstone ornaments and pipes, shell beads from the Pacific coast, obsidian, copper beads and copper fishhooks.
Using trowels and bamboo sticks, the crew excavated trenches that were strategically chosen to intercept kitchens and storage areas. They mapped projectile points and other obvious finds on each floor; calculated ratios of sand, silt, clay and charcoal; and scraped up sediments to shake through a mesh screen to pick out fragments.
“It’s not a spectator sport,” Prentiss laughs, “but this year we found neat stuff.”
In large storage pits, for example, they uncovered rolls of birch bark with fish bones inside, giving insight into domestic life. Just as we might clean a fish, wrap the bones in newspaper and toss it out, so the women used birch bark for the same purpose.
Every discovery helps build a view of life 1,100 years ago when Bridge River reached its zenith with as many as 1,000 people living in the village. Like most prehistoric sites, archeologists strive to recreate life from the ruins. However, here in the mid-Fraser villages they gain extra insight from a priceless source, a book titled “The Lillooet Indians.” It was written by ethnographer James Teit in 1906, just before many of the cultural traditions were lost in the wake of Euro-American settlement.
In the yellowed pages are the recorded oral history of the elders, whose knowledge extended back 400 years to the more recent period when the villages were smaller than during the first occupation. Teit wrote of fortified villages containing an elaborate hierarchy. Each household had a chief. A set of households formed a clan that was overseen by an even higher chief. Above that person might be a super chief presiding over multiple villages as clans split and moved. The path to a chief could be either hereditary or nonhereditary.
When did such a social hierarchy evolve and why? Prentiss believes the answer lies in the heyday of the mid-Fraser villages and shortly before the period of abandonment. Today’s Bridge River village descendents, the Xwisten people, are thrilled to at last see the housepit excavations after years of attention devoted to a nearby village at Keatley Creek. They are anxious to retrieve missing links in their history.
Prentiss’ Bridge River findings suggest that differences in social rank arose from savvy families struggling to keep households together as the salmon runs dwindled and their food source collapsed. To survive, one family might invite another to join them under their roof, but there was a price. That new family would not inherit the same rights. The inequality came about because the heads of houses were trying to preserve their families and compete with others in a time of resource stress.
“Just before 1,000 years ago, you find that some houses were higher ranked than others,” Prentiss says. “They were bigger, with more storage pits in the floor.”
Her work at Bridge River helped explore the doubts that had plagued her since the 1980s when she researched her dissertation at Keatley Village under the guidance of archeologist Brian Hayden, who continues his excavations today and proposes an alternative view of how social inequalities developed.
Hayden asserts that social inequality existed at Keatley Village when the salmon fishery was plentiful for all. He believes that certain individuals stepped up to hoard more supplies and offer superior potlatches – the Northwest coastal tradition of hosting feasts and giving gifts to gain prestige.
“It made no sense to me,” Prentiss says. “Why would people allow themselves to go into debt to others if everyone had the same access to resources?”
Supported by three National Science Foundation grants totaling $348,000, Prentiss focused on Bridge River for a fresh perspective on the mid-Fraser Valley Archaic. The clincher for her resulted from the arduous task of carbon dating to affix time periods in the Bridge River village. That dating showed the village expanding by 400 percent from 1,800 to 1,100 years ago. As it grew, the pattern shifted from a random scattering to a clearly planned design featuring two arcs containing big and small houses.
The time of changing house sizes and arrangements tied closely to the fishery that sustained them. A worldwide phenomenon known as medieval warming caused the salmon fishery to crash as the ocean warmed. As the fish dwindled, the social hierarchy blossomed, but ultimately even those efforts to consolidate resources failed.
Here, in the remote mountainous interior of British Columbia, archeologists are finding relevance to worldwide events that shaped human history. Prentiss is fascinated by those connections and to the larger questions of cultural evolution that she explores as lead editor on a new book to be released in fall 2009, “Macroevolution in Human Prehistory: Evolutionary Theory and Processual Archaeology.”
While her fieldwork at Bridge River has ended, her curiosity remains insatiable. She would like to return to delve into one certain housepit that’s not actually one house but 14 – all built on top of one another in about 15-year cycles. Traditionally, when a house wore out, the family burned it down and built a new one on top of it. Here, each floor is sealed and preserved. Within the clay lies the story of change from a pre-ranked to a high-ranked village. Prentiss lights up as she describes this gem of finds. Archeology is an obsession for her that dates back as far as she can remember.
“You can still see my scribblings of cave drawings and dinosaurs at age 3 on the underside of my parents’ coffee table,” she admits.
She took her first college anthropology class in Florida and never looked back, soon joining an underwater excavation of a Paleo-Indian mastodon site, followed by a dig at a 3,000- to 7,000-year-old Archaic village, also in Florida. Her field and academic studies have led her to Louisiana, Wyoming, British Columbia and Montana.
In every field site, a new story always emerges. During a 2006-07 excavation for the Chippewa-Cree tribe in Montana, Prentiss and students sifted through 3,000-year-old fire-cracked rocks of prehistoric sites slated to be flooded by a new reservoir. They found little else for clues, but analysis in the lab revealed the faint traces of blood and plants, the remains of sheep, bison and yucca roots. A vanished people of the Bears Paw Mountains came to life from the rocks.
Archeology digs may fall short of Indiana Jones-style drama, but the painstaking work can lead to revolutions in thinking. The Archaic period turns out to be a far cry from a simple life of hunting, fishing and gathering nuts and berries. While the ancient people of Bridge River may not have created elaborate pottery or farmed the land, their intricate social systems give us food for thought about our own system of rank, prestige and wealth.
|UM anthropology Professor Anna Prentiss (By Duggan Backhouse-Prentiss)
|Digging deep: UM doctoral student Lisa Smith looks up from her excavation at the Bridge River village in British Columbia. The former housepit was first occupied 1,600 years ago, and layers of roofs and floors can be seen in the walls. Many students will spend six weeks carefully digging one such hole.
|A nephrite jade adze found in Housepit 25. The woodworking tool is 300 years old.
|Students work on Housepit 20 at the Bridge River excavation site.