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By W. David Baird, Danney Goble
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Oklahoma's Ancient Communities
THE FIRST PEOPLE to live in Oklahoma arrived a long, long time ago. Where they came from and when they came are matters of conjecture or faith. Many American Indians believe that the Life Force of the World created their ancestors at a special place in North America. A prominent religious group believes that the first native Americans were ancient Hebrews who migrated to this land across the South Pacific Ocean. Scholars, who work with observed data rather than traditions or revelation, tell another story. That story is told here.
The first humans came to North America from Asia. Thousands of years ago during an ice age, small bands of them walked from one continent to the other across a "land bridge" that geologists call Beringia. Others crossed in small hide-covered vessels by following the coastline. These Paleo-Indians (ancient or first American peoples) hunted large animals and used tools made of stone and bone. From Beringia, they slowly moved southeast into the interior of the continent, following herds of prehistoric animals such as mammoths, mastodons, bison, horses, and camels. Others followed the Pacific coast, depending largely upon the sea to nourish their families and communities.
Several thousand years later the earth warmed and much of the ice melted. The runoff raised the level of the sea and flooded Beringia, creating the Bering Strait. The hunters, deep within the interior of the continent, and the fishermen along the coast probably took little notice of the event. They were too busy finding food. Isolated in a new land, they became the first Americans.
A people that archaeologists call Big-Game Hunters reached Oklahoma eleven thousand years ago, if not well before. Evidence of them has been found in a canyon near Stecker in southern Caddo County, where ancient hunters trapped and killed game. Digging carefully through layers of dirt, archaeologists uncovered the skeleton of a mammoth, which they named Domebo. Embedded within its bones were three large, man-made spearpoints known as Clovis points. Carbon dating tests subsequently established their age as eleven thousand years. Archaeologists have found this kind of point at other sites in Oklahoma, enabling them to assign a date to objects discovered there. A smaller type of spearpoint, called the Folsom point, is almost as old. It was found at the Cooper site in Harper County, where hunters trapped and killed herds of bison. These and other archeological discoveries have shown that early people in the western part of the state feasted on seeds, nuts, and roasted meat; told stories that interpreted the seen and the unseen; and slept snugly beside an open fire some six thousand years before the fabled Odysseus wandered the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
After reaching Oklahoma, the Big-Game Hunters stayed. Over time their descendants, the Foragers, developed a more complex society that was based on scavenging. Hunting remained very important, but the Foragers no longer followed migrating animals. Instead, they practiced what is known as centrally based wandering. The Foragers hunted in a smaller area, returning to certain sites again and again. During the spring and summer, they camped along creeks and rivers, usually near freshwater springs. In the fall and winter, they lived in caves and under rock ledges.
Archeologists have excavated some Forager camps in the Ozarks of northeastern Oklahoma, on Calf Creek in Caddo County, and near Kenton in the Panhandle. The materials they have found reveal much about the Foragers. Bone fragments indicate that they hunted modern species of buffalo and deer instead of mammoths and mastodons. Bones of smaller animals—turkey, raccoon, opossum, and squirrel—suggest that they were also more skillful hunters than the Big-Game Hunters. The invention of the atlatl—a wooden throwing stick—allowed the Foragers to hurl a spear or a dart farther and more precisely than ever before.
To their meat diet, the Foragers added nuts, berries, sunflower seeds, and roots gathered from the forests, streams, and grasslands. Some of this bounty they cooked in pits lined with rocks; some of it they stored in pits lined with leaves or stone slabs. They also began to manufacture baskets, nets, string, and even canoes. These items made it much easier to transport food and other goods. In a cave near Kenton, the Foragers left petroglyphs that suggest an appreciation of art.
Around the time of the birth of Christ, Oklahoma's Foragers became farmers. These people are now called the Early Farmers. Maize (corn), a plant native to the Western Hemisphere, had first been domesticated in central Mexico about 5000 b.c. About two thousand years later, Native peoples were growing corn in New Mexico and Arizona. From there, the cultivation of corn spread eastward and transformed other Native American societies.
At first, agricultural activity was limited in Oklahoma. In small fields along rivers and creeks, the Early Farmers planted a few hills with corn, along with beans, pumpkins, and squash. Now they needed to watch their fields, so they left their rock ledge and cave shelters and built semipermanent houses nearby. Usually these houses had a frame of poles driven into the ground and covered with grass thatch or cane matting. In the Panhandle, they used rock slabs for walls. Usually two or three dwellings were built at each settlement.
Excavations of these hamlets, especially along Fourche Maline Creek (LeFlore County) and the Red River, show that these early farmers did not totally abandon their former lifestyle. They continued to hunt and to gather in the forest and prairies near their fields. In their trash pits are remnants of atlatls, spearpoints, animal bones, and seeds. But something new is there too: pottery shards. Early Farmer pottery was probably made by women. It is distinctive for its oval bottom and for the coil method to make it. The potter hand-rolled clay into strips, stacked them in coiled layers, and then smoothed the clay with fingers or a shell.
Pottery revolutionized early societies in Oklahoma. It helped with preparing and storing food, and it made it easy to carry water. But it was also a means of artistic expression. For these people, the pots were containers for food and water. For us, they are some of the first clues to the personality of these early Americans.
About eleven hundred years ago (a.d. 900), the life of early farmers in Oklahoma became more complex. They entered what some have called the Golden Age of Prehistory. A striking development was that people became social; that is, they began to live together in community. But the farming societies on the plains in the west differed from those in the woodlands and on the prairies of the east.
Along the Washita River and its tributaries, archaeologists have found the sites of more than two hundred villages, each with at least twelve dwellings. The houses were square. Their stick walls were plastered with a mixture of clay and grass, and their roofs were of grass thatch. The sites also have yielded artifacts that were not made locally, showing that the villagers—called the Plains Village Farmers—traded with people who lived in distant communities.
The people living along the Washita and other western rivers, especially in the Panhandle, were much more proficient agriculturally than their ancestors. The villagers planted a greater variety of crops, including tobacco, and tended them with improved bone, stone, and wooden tools. Large storage pits indicate that the villagers had bountiful harvests.
The Plains Village Farmers also were more effective hunters, mainly because they had mastered the bow and arrow. The greater accuracy of this technique allowed hunters to stalk not only the large game (bison, deer, elk, and antelope) but smaller animals as well (rabbit, squirrel, wolf, raccoon, beaver, opossum, turkey, duck, and crow). Of these the bison was the most important, judging from the large amount of remains found. Its skin furnished material for clothing, bedding, fibers, and containers. Its bones could be fashioned into tools and household items. The villagers also fished, collected mussels and other shellfish, and gathered more types of plants for foods, dyes, and medicines. Among the plant items they used were hickory nuts, walnuts, hackberry seeds, wild cherries, plums, and persimmons.
Clearly, Plains Village Farmers also began to both celebrate and contemplate the mysteries and meaning of life. Archaeologists have discovered that these people created undecorated pottery and small figurines. Cemeteries next to villages contained "grave goods." These small objects, which the living believed the dead would need in the next world, suggest a spiritual life of increasing sophistication. But their simplicity shows that these people did not have elaborate ceremonies or a society of classes. Nor did they build mounds.
The productive lifestyle of the Plains Village Farmers lasted five hundred years, or until a.d. 1400. About that time, Oklahoma experienced a drier climate, and crops failed. The villagers abandoned farming altogether and, with it, their former way of life. They became full-time bison hunters instead. Their homes and fields soon fell into ruin. We know of these early villagers now only because they left behind some "diaries in the dirt."
Meanwhile, on the other side of Oklahoma, Native people organized an even more complex society. It was part of a culture that had developed in the Mississippi River valley and spread east and west. These people are called Mound Builders because of the huge earthen mounds that dominated some of their communities. Generally these mounds were foundations for temples, public buildings, or the homes of chiefs. In Oklahoma they were also used as burial sites for wealthy leaders of the community.
Craig Mound at Spiro is thirty-three feet high and more than four hundred feet long. Williams Mound on Fourche Maline Creek is only five feet tall, but it covers seventeen thousand square feet. How did people build these mounds without bulldozers and dump trucks? The first Spanish explorers to the southeastern part of the United States saw some Mound Builders at work and supplied the answer. Native workers carried dirt to the construction site one basketful at a time.
Archaeologists have identified numerous sites in eastern Oklahoma built by a group known as the Caddoan Mound Builders. The most important of these is Spiro, a great ceremonial center of eleven mounds on the Arkansas River in northeastern Le Flore County. Private excavations there in the 1930s yielded a fabulous treasure of artifacts, including baskets and objects made of wood, cloth, copper, shell, and stone. These items reveal much about the lives and culture of the Spiro people and their neighbors between a.d. 900 and 1450.
The Caddoan Mound Builders lived near streams and rivers in villages that either surrounded their mounds or were some distance away. The number of permanent houses in each settlement ranged from several dozen to several hundred. In small communal fields, the people raised the same crops as the Plains Village Farmers did, using the same kinds of tools. They even hunted the same animals with the same weapons, although they did not depend on bison as much as their western neighbors did.
But the Mound Builders were much more than farmers and hunters. They were industrious traders too. Artifacts found at Spiro came from as far away as northern Wisconsin (copper), southern Florida (conch shells), central New Mexico (cotton cloth), and northwestern Nebraska (painted pottery). These items suggest that Spiro, located strategically on the Arkansas River, was the gateway for an extensive commerce that linked people in the Mississippi Valley with those on the Southern Plains. Some of Spiro's leaders made profits as middlemen in that trade.
The Caddoan Mound Builders were talented artisans who influenced the works and ideas of people living elsewhere. Shell and copper jewelry (they had no gold or silver), pottery, and stone pipes found at Spiro are elaborately decorated with scenes of dancing and games and with images of warriors and mythical creatures. Early designs of a feathered serpent, a horned serpent, a spider, and a catlike monster decorate objects recovered from sites east of the Mississippi River. Craftsmen there probably saw the Spiro designs, liked them, and copied them.
No doubt these foreigners understood and believed what the designs represented. They even passed those beliefs on to their descendants among American Indians in the southeastern United States. The Cherokees, for example, believed in a horrible monster that had a snake's body, a deer's horns, and a bird's wings. Known as Uktena, this monster had been ordered to kill the Sun, the most sacred god of the Cherokees. When it failed to do so, it became angry at all human beings and spent its days creating trouble for them. Objects decorated by people at Spiro suggest that they were fascinated by a similar creature long before the Cherokees.
Some of the designs used by the Spiro artisans (a feathered serpent, a cross in a circle, and a human eye highlighted by a zigzag line) are often associated with the native people of Mexico. After finding the designs there and in the southeastern United States, many archaeologists concluded that Spiro had been in contact with Mexico. Recently scholars have challenged that conclusion. They argue that the designs—and the beliefs represented by the designs—originated with the Spiro people.
The Spiro treasures show that the Oklahoma Mound Builders were a fervently religious people. The images on their jewelry expressed their faith much in the way that the star of David and the symbol of a fish express the faith of some other peoples today. The objects that the Mound Builders buried with their dead indicate that they believed in life after death. Because the relics in certain graves are so elaborate and are associated principally with one particular mound, it is clear that the Spiro community also honored and followed a wealthy class of priests.
For two to three centuries Spiro and its satellite villages flourished as centers of trade and religion. But by about a.d. 1250 the same drought that had transformed the Plains Village Farmers into nomadic hunters affected the Mound Builders too. The large community around the mounds dispersed, although the priests still used the mounds as ceremonial centers and burial sites during the next two hundred years. Smaller communities also were abandoned. By a.d. 1500 the people whose sophisticated culture had once influenced populations far to the southeast were gathered in hamlets along the Grand and Arkansas rivers. They lived in small, less substantial houses, and supplemented their meager harvests with meat from buffalo hunts. Today the ceremonial center of their community, the Spiro Mounds, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and operated as an archaeological park by the Oklahoma Historical Society.CHAPTER 2
The First People
AS THE STORIES of the Plains Village Farmers and the Caddoan Mound Builders demonstrate, people lived in Oklahoma long before the first Europeans arrived. When Europeans did appear, Native peoples already had successful economies that combined farming, hunting, gathering, and commerce. They lived in fortified towns, architecturally unique houses, made functional pottery, and designed beautiful body tattoos. Their social and belief systems were remarkably complex.
The Europeans, who dared to believe they had "discovered" these early Oklahomans, called them by various names. Among those were Wichita, Tawakoni, Waco, Kichai, Panipiquet, Taovaya, and Jumano. The Native people, who themselves could have claimed to have discovered the wandering Europeans, preferred to be called Tawehash or Kitikitish. Either name meant the same thing: First People.
Today the First People are known collectively as the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes and live generally near Anadarko in Caddo County. Descending directly from the Plains Village Farmers, they are Oklahoma's oldest historical community. To appreciate them fully is to have a better understanding of the true genesis of the state.
Anthropologists organize Native peoples into major language groups. This helps them study migration patterns and relations among tribes. The Wichitas belong to the Caddoan language family. In early historical times, other tribes in that group were distributed over the Great Plains. Those tribes included the Arikaras in North Dakota, the Pawnees in Nebraska, and the Caddos in Texas and Louisiana. Because their languages and cultures have common traits, anthropologists consider those three tribes as if they were close cousins of the Wichitas.
Excerpted from Oklahoma by W. David Baird, Danney Goble. Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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