The curation of discovery: Part 4

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Mark Goodman

This week’s final serialized installment of “The curation of discovery” deals with not only the discovery and curation of the Mahaffy Cache, a collection of 86, reportedly 13,000-year-old artifacts currently on display at the CU Museum of Natural History, but also the history of Native American people and their importance to filling in the many gaps in our understanding of U.S. history via their oral histories. To read this series from the beginning, go here

Cache/Artifact/Element: Roger Echo-Hawk and Douglas Bamforth, Continued

One of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Roger Echo-Hawk says, “Is the transmission of information over long time periods. I can’t say there is a field of study that really addresses this topic in an organized, systematic way that has evolved over time. My thinking is sort of idiosyncratic on this issue, rather than a result of the sort of thing an archaeologist does, which is within a community; in which you put ideas out, there is critique of those ideas, and an evolution takes place that you hope is an improvement.”

Our conversation is taking place at a coffeehouse in downtown Longmont on a cold winter night. I am meeting with both ancient historian Roger Echo-Hawk and Douglas Bamforth, the CU archaeologist who was also the principal investigator of the Mahaffy Cache.

Echo-Hawk’s area of scholarship, ancient history, and his vision for a community of scholars within this realm, opens up possibilities into understanding the history and nature of humanity in this place — in what it means to be human here in the Boulder Valley. Specifically, this area of scholarship could be engaged to determine the Mahaffy Cache’s meaning in its yet unknown and unspoken insights. The stories that we tell about the past, in large part, create our culture. In this way, they create our future. The ancient stories that were born here live within us still. The formal coalescence of oral literature and archaeology will create a future more culturally rich. Echo-Hawk has written about the need for integrating Ancient oral literature and the archaeological record.

Roger Echo-HawkLinda Echo-Hawk
Roger Echo-Hawk

“I don’t think that people manufactured these things by not saying anything to each other,” Echo-Hawk says, remarking that the people who made the elements of the Mahaffy Cache talked about how and why they were making things in this way. As a result, he argues, the technology of the artifacts represents a kind of oral literature, as communication about them would have driven their idiosyncratic design; similar perhaps to the development of technology today. My interpretation of the implications of Echo-Hawk’s arguments is that these elements represent stories that are still speaking and being spoken. Conversations like Echo-Hawk mentions are still being had. Determining who is having those conversations requires deep listening and nuanced parsing. The implication is that the life of story is deeply ancient, has traveled on currents of voice and breath into today, and is therefore interwoven, as river currents with the air we breathe.

I find it to be accurate and correct to consider oral literature as historical; equivocal to written literature. In this way, the elements that emerge as most durable are breath, voice and story, which are apparently of the most fragile things. As heartbeats heard and learned in the womb, stories spoken between people continue. The heartbeats and stories of the ancient Native Americans that made the artifacts of the Mahaffy Cache are still speaking; still pulsing. Echo-Hawk’s scholarship awakens these facts.

Living words are etched into the elements of the so-called Mahaffy Cache that are suspended behind glass at the CU Museum. Information, traveling through time from person to person, changing all the while, is indicated by the presence of cultural elements like those flecked stones. Such a hermeneutic awakens in us etched tones that speak in our own voices of what it means to be human and here.

In order for the essence of the information to be meaningful, memorable and so communicable, it must find a site of reception. It must correspond. In this correspondence, it bears the mark of idiosyncrasy for the residual remnants of its context. As such, it’s distinguished in this moment from any other moment while being wholly of this moment. It is a paradox of polar opposites that cause the whole to spin in its orbit. Its frictionless flight is a motionless motion. This paradox is the fundamental nature of reality, in which individuals exist in a place. Each has their, her or his own ineluctable perspective, which is ever so slightly different from anyone else’s. A diverse equality is the nature of reality and we must synchronize ourselves with reality if we should want to stay here. In this way, the hierarchies that form the bases of cultural narratives of oppression and inequity dissolve.

Echo-Hawk continues, speaking towards his thoughts on oral literature in deep time: “This technology — these lithic materials — have a long record of usage, and in my mind, that is a useful way to get at the idea of the transmission of concurrent information.” As such, he argues, pieces of information from distant and differing points of time and space coalesce by virtue of their Baudelairean correspondance.

Echo-Hawk speaks about the kind of information that can travel through from deep time and how this occurs. He speaks to the fact that the technological information inscribed on the elements would be changing all the time. As he speaks, I sense the formation of a whole new field of research in academia, along with the creation of affiliations like the one John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, mentions, that will reach back further, more diversely and more cohesively into deep time by amplifying ancient historians, and Native American Tribal descendants. I see it as part of an interdisciplinary, culturally diverse weave entering the room with Echo-Hawk’s speech.

“It is to ask,” Echo-Hawk says, “What kind of windows can we find to glimpse the minds of the people in the past? What are they doing and who are they?”

Underlying these questions, Echo-Hawk says, are the reasons we should be looking at oral literature, asking and imagining what kind of information from the ancient past we can gather by systematic and scientific inquiry. 

Echo-Hawk turns from his discussion to Doug Bamforth, and on the basis of Bamforth’s scientific research asserts, “Without protein residue analysis, [the Cache] could have fit into a site eight-hundred years ago as well as twelve-thousand years ago.”

“We haven’t done the kind of work that could really show that,” Bamforth says. “We got a date from the soil above, so they have to be younger than the soil which is about a thousand years old.”

In fact, the three radiocarbon dates put the soil above the supposed in situ location of the Cache at about six-hundred-years ago. This discrepancy was pointed out in the CU Museum Exhibit as well. In talking with Pete Birkeland, the geologist consulted on the Mahaffy Cache, I was told that it could not be proven that the ancient soil wasn’t simply dug through, with artifacts being buried much more recently. Bamforth confirmed this.

“That’s pretty general” Echo-Hawk says. “Your paper has been out now for a year and you’ve been talking to colleagues. Have you heard criticisms or gotten input that has caused you to re-think things?”

“Dave explicitly rejects the [CIEP] protein residue,” Bamforth says. “He doesn’t find it reliable. Dave Meltzer.”

Cache/Artifact/Element: The science behind the story of the Mahaffy cache

Essentially, the determination that the Mahaffy Cache is thirteen-thousand-years-old relies on the following evidence: one of the eighty-six artifacts very closely resembles a large Clovis biface that is part of the Fenn Cache, which is believed to be of similar age; radiocarbon dating of soil samples above the cache are younger (further back in time) than the modern-day presence of camelids; camelid protein was found on one of the eighty-three CIEP-tested artifacts; and, camels are thought to have gone extinct on the North American continent about thirteen-thousand-years ago. Therefore, the artifacts are supposed to have been buried around that time.

The test that was done to determine the presence of camelid protein was CIEP, or “Cross-over immunoelectrophoresis,” which is used in this case, “To detect positive reactions on stone tools to antisera of the relatives of now-extinct Pleistocene mammals, and in particular to those of elephant, camel, and horse,” according to Donald Grayson and David Meltzer.

Dave Meltzer, whom Doug mentioned as rejecting the CIEP findings, is an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University, and writes about CIEP as it relates to the Mahaffy Cache in a paper co-authored with Donald Grayson, entitled, “Revisiting Paleoindian exploitation of extinct North American mammals:”

“[W]e are concerned about the possibility of false positive reactions, including the fact that proteins found in rodent urine can apparently induce false positives to proteins from distantly-related mammals. Most disturbing, however, is the experimental evidence showing that CIEP can produce results that are inconsistent and incorrect. It is difficult to have any confidence in a technique that reports the presence of bovine protein on experimentally produced stone tools that were actually used to process yucca or rabbits… If commercial laboratories analyzing modern tools cannot return valid and reliable results, there would seem to be little reason to trust the results returned by such labs on stone tools that are 10,000 years old or older, including those at the Mahaffy Cache, Colorado… Unless methods independent of CIEP analysis itself are available to verify the validity of a CIEP-identified residue, we are unwilling to accept the results of these analyses.”

Doug Bamforth responded with, “There have been some experimental results that have not been successful with the CIEP technique. We had one false positive because we had rabbit on one test, and it never came back so it’s not counted. Doing it once and getting a result that’s wrong is one thing, but if you get the same results three times, I feel better about it.”

It became clear that the scientific findings of the Mahaffy Cache, which were presented at the CU Museum are in fact under scrutiny; are in fact rejected by some experts in the field. In turn, this calls the story that the science tells into question. The narrative of the Mahaffy Cache on offer at the CU Museum is now laid bare.

Cache/Artifact/Element: Roger Echo-Hawk’s continued thoughts on Oral Literature in Deep Time

“One of the bits of information that I’ve gotten interested in,” Echo-Hawk says, “And have done some research on over the last couple of years, has been looking at information about flint, and the connection in oral traditions worldwide between flint and lightning. That story is very widespread.”

Echo-Hawk says that the widespread nature of a piece of information is one of the elements he looks for in arguing for great time depth for a work of Oral Literature. He is essentially back tracing the path of the story.

“In the case of this cache,” Echo-Hawk says, “We find that same connection between flint, Mountains and lightning.” The cache was unearthed near a creek at the foot of a very prominent group of mountains.

“I think that it’s worth making the argument and considering,” Echo-Hawk continues, “That this might be one of those stories—that there is a celestial meaning that has to do with the celestial nature of lightning, which comes out of the sky, and flint, and why that should be.”

Echo-Hawk says he doesn’t know the answer, but imagines that the people who left the cache could have carried, and relayed this story in some form, and that it is worth arguing that the Mahaffy Cache is interwoven with this story. That is, Echo-Hawk is arguing that the Ancient Native Americans who buried the Cache beneath what we now call the Flatirons may have done so in accord with an ancient story — a piece of historic oral literature — about lightning, mountains and flint. My interpretation of his argument is that this story is still living today.

“In Pawnee origin stories,” he continues, “One element is the association of flint, lightning and mountains.” In offering this correlation between a very old Pawnee story and the Cache itself, Echo-Hawk is suggesting that the Pawnee story and the Cache may be anciently linked, and in fact concurrently linked to global stories of similar nature. Implicit in this argument is that the people who buried the Cache communicated with the originators, or descendants of that ancient Pawnee story, and that such a story has its roots in the deepest reaches of humanity’s history.

“I think it comes from deep time,” Echo-Hawk says. “When we look at these items,” he says, “We think about the hands that made them and I think it’s also useful to think about the minds behind the hands.”

At this point, there was a long pause in what Echo-Hawk offered. I remember how captivated he looked. He seemed beholding what he had just spoken in his mind. He was seeing the world through the eyes of ‘the minds behind the hands.’ As such, Echo-Hawk brought ancience into presence in a direct and palpable way. He demonstrated history’s living and immanent nature.

He later sent me the Pawnee origin story about lightning, flint and mountains in which lightning animates the gifts the gods gave the first people of earth. In the story, lightning revealed the arrow with the flint arrow-point.

Cache/Artifact/Element: Roger Echo-Hawk, Protecting and Repatriating the Body of History

There is the sense that humanity has a memory that stretches back further than anyone alone can remember. Collectively, when the stories combine, there is yet greater reach into deep time as perhaps the constellation of satellites boosts their reach when combined together. As such, more ancient constellations appear — the ancient light from their stars just perceptible because of our joined hands. Together, we can remember further, deeper and more fully what it is to exist, be alive, human, and as Echo-Hawk says, to “Learn more ways of being ourselves.” In his thought, the pronoun, ‘ourselves,’ or ‘we,’ appears to refer to a diverse panoply of like beings.

It bears noting that the foundations of the argument in Echo-Hawk’s article, “Ancient History in the New World: Integrating Oral Traditions and the Archaeological Record in Deep Time,” are drawn from the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). This Federal act covers human remains and funerary objects, but not artifacts believed to have belonged to ancestors of modern day Native American People.

In essence, Echo-Hawk argues that because oral literature is used as evidence for making determinations under NAGPRA, it should also be considered as archaeological evidence. He details the complexity of this and offers a systematic approach by offering insight into integrating the disciplines of archaeology and oral literature.

One thing I find interesting in this juxtaposition is a critical distinction, which is that NAGPRA recognizes only the funerary — the deceased Native American person. But, in some sense, all authentic Native American artifacts, created before a certain time period at least and discovered by anyone on this continent, belong or belonged to Native Americans. Why the boundary then, between artifacts and human remains in how we perceive and academically interpret ancient Native American elements?

In this vein, under NAGPRA, if non-funerary elements were considered to be the property of Native American people, those artifacts would bear history, ancient and recent into modern day Native Americans. This echoes what John Echohawk says about such artifacts as those in the Mahaffy Cache belonging to the descendants of ancient Native American people. When such elements are interred across the entire landscape of what is now America, a significant shift in awareness occurs. Each element in its context marks a distinct human story that occurred in history. When viewed in this way, it becomes clear that the history of human beings on this continent is similarly vast and complex as ancient European history, or any other ancient history for that matter. Could such a way of seeing the history of this continent lead us towards the repatriation of the Body of History?

I imagine a coming together of voices — a kind of community of diverse voices — in which all people who have valuable knowledge to contribute offer equally their voice in the conversation that defines the history of this place, and that history’s connection to the culture that inhabits this place today. I imagine the view of history being perceived as stars perceiving river water in a mutual conversation on the nature of each.

Such a conversation includes everyone, even and especially when what is said by one appears to conflict with what is said by another, or doesn’t fit into the hermeneutic, or system of understanding maintained by any hegemonic narrative.

On a larger, societal level, such a story will shift the cultural narrative to make it standard practice to include everyone relevant to stories of the near and ancient past to include all people in the conversation of what it means to be a human being who belongs to this place on earth that we love and depend on for life.

In my mind I see a room. The room is dimly lit and full of faces. When one speaks, each listens. Each tells a story explaining where we are, how we came here, who we are who are here, and how we came to be. Each story contains similarities and differences. Each marks a flowing point of orientation. None of these stories is the same, though all are akin.

Paradox ensues and unity flows into the diversity of the room. Each person constellates different ranges of depth, brilliance and intimacy in their explanations of history and identity. Each story in the room is related as you and I are related. Within each person in the room is a room of similar nature, which falls into infinite regress.

The end