Sport, as an expression of culture, has received little attention over the years and has only gained a foothold of legitimacy in anthropological studies over the past few decades. That does not mean that sports have not been noted by anthropologists the various sports, games and pastimes of the peoples all over the world have been noted in anthropological writings from the very beginning. However, sport – as a separate field of anthropological focus – has been relegated to the sideline in favour of the other aspects of cultural expression such as ritual and religion, subsistence and economics, or technology. This might seem a little strange to us who, in modern times, can easily view the almost ubiquitous role sports plays in our Western societies, but the modern conception of sport as we know it might be a fairly recent invention.
There has been a struggle with the anthropological definition of sport in trying to distinguish sports from games and games from mere pastimes or play. Does a shepherd who routinely knocks a rock about with his staff in his pasture while tending to the sheep constitute a past time or a game? Could it be a sport if two shepherds try to knock the rock into various holes in the ground in that pasture? The latter is suggested as the origin for golf and one can see the similarity between a shepherd innocently playing a shepherd’s pastime as one of the common ancestors to hockey too.
So what is sport, at least in terms acceptable to anthropologists? Practically all cultures display playful behaviours in both adults and children and this behaviour could be simple time passing activities invented on the spot, like the shepherd above, or it could have a simple or complex set of rules and provide competition between two or more individuals organized into pairs or teams. If we have arrived at rules and competition, we have at least agreed on a definition of games, that could include sports, but also checkers, chess and hide-and-go-seek. So what separates the higher forms of play such as games and sport? What most anthropologists will agree is there is a physical component to sport that distinguishes sport from games. There is a use of the body to compete.
For our purpose, it might seem like a little overkill to fit lacrosse into a definition of sport, such as Blanchard (1995, 59) writes, “Sport, then, is a physically exertive activity that is aggressively competitive within constraints imposed by definitions and rules. A component of culture, it is ritually patterned, gamelike and of varying amounts of play, work and leisure. “ Blanchard also makes the distinction between games and sports, by stating that games “…are competitive activities that involved physical skills, strategy and chance, or any combination of these elements.”
Such elementary distinctions are important because if we accept that lacrosse had its ultimate genesis in hunting using a particular blunt projectile weapon system, then it wasn’t always a sport or game and there must have been intermediary steps for it to move from a means of subsistence to the modern day sport we know today. When speaking of the origins of lacrosse we should recognize these intermediate forms and try and understand how they would have occurred in a way that is sensible to the records from the material and cultural remains. As we have seen, lacrosse has remained an important enough event to commemorate in the myths of the ancient indigenous people of North America and their material remains hint that the implements for the origin of the sport could very old. However, what is needed at this point coherently connects the dots, from the hunting method to the sport. Maybe one day, a long time ago, a group of ancient hunters simply played with their blunt projectile hunting gear while out on the trail. If we can envision the humble origins of golf as being result of a bored shepherd we might also see how this simple pastoral pastime evolved into various trajectories over the time and space of history to end up as golf, la soule, shinny or knattleikr. Why not assign the same plausible, but humble origins to lacrosse and leave it at that?
The problem with accepting a chance origin, as plausible as we can make it, is that it ignores the intervening thousands of years of development of the game which has culminated into the modern sport. Those dots along the way, from a means of subsistence in archaic times to a modern worldwide sport bring far more meaning to the game and it’s play than the mere rules and equipment. The discovery of those origins can tell us about the cultures that developed lacrosse and why there are certain attachments to the game as a modern spiritual medium that requires sharing by the participants. These ancient aspects of the sport influenced much of the modern game. Then, by discovering meaning in other cultural contexts – their structures and functions – we can also gain insight into our own and how we might see sport as fulfilling human or personal need of our own.
While anthropology wrestled with definitions, there are the other aspects of sports and games that gained their attention. The relationships between sport, games and ritual; the development and modification of sports and games over widespread regions and with different cultures; the view of the sports and games themselves, by the indigenous people who play them. By gaining insight into other cultural view of sport we gain our own sociological view of sport and its impact on our modern society from sport as physical fitness and education to sport as a group dynamic and economic driver.
Historical and Ethnographic Analogy
The concept of using historical observations of lacrosse as an analogy for its prehistoric existence, while very useful in some respects, is a little problematic in others. Mainly the information we have about the sport in early historic times was not recorded with the preferred modern ethnographic perspective and we are left with a record that is somewhat vague, usually because of misunderstanding or lack of any long term exposure to the sport in a cultural context; or the descriptions are ethnocentrically biased and replacing the ‘emic’ view – that of the participants – with an overriding impression from the observer, usually to make a convincing argument about the primitive nature of the observed indigenous culture. The majority of historical descriptions of lacrosse, when we can determine that it is lacrosse the author is writing about, leave a general impression of lacrosse as being violent, immoral, a waste of time and so on. This perspective of lacrosse changes in the mid-19th century when a more scientific approach to ethnography was undertaken as anthropology in America was modernized through the establishment of the American Bureau of Ethnology in 1879 under the directorship of John Wesley Powell. This research institution allowed the likes of James Mooney to accomplish ethnographic studies of the Cherokee people and recorded many observations about their version of lacrosse called ‘toli.’ with Mooney, Stewart Culin was another ethnographer whose 1903 work, ‘Games of the North American Indians” is often cited as the most comprehensive study of games and sport among the indigenous people of North America.
This re-orientation of the historical information in relation to the grand works of Mooney and Culin shed new light on, not only indigenous sport but lacrosse specifically. Mooney was given intimate access to the whole Cherokee lacrosse experience, from the incantations and rituals before and after the games, to the actual play and rules. This allowed for illumination into the games of other indigenous cultures by way of comparative analysis and a clearer picture of the sport arose. Culin, by the sheer database-like listing of the sports, invited comparisons which denoted the different and similar aspects of ball games from practically all indigenous people in the entirety of North America. This also identified sports and games with lacrosse-like qualities or similar ritual content as revealed by Mooney in his study of the Cherokee. On the basis of this foundation, North American ethnology took this foothold regarding indigenous sport including a re-examination of lacrosse in context of the people that played the game. Unfortunately, by the early parts of the 20th century, lacrosse was dying out in some areas of the continent for many reasons including a significant change in lifeways as the indigenous people adapted to life on reservations and government Indian policy.
Mooney and Culin are the easiest ethnographers to cite since their work is so well known. However, in a wider sense, the contribution to refining the historical data regarding lacrosse belongs to many people since the early 20th century including some, as we will shortly see, those not examining lacrosse , but were tackling different topics of interest, but whose research can support the notions of where lacrosse comes from and why. While it might be necessary to filter some of the primary historical sources through a more modern view of the information originally recorded, we find that a fairly decent view of the history of lacrosse can be found. Thomas Vennum’s ‘American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War’ is such a work as is ‘Lacrosse: A History of the Game’ by Donald M. Fisher. The former deals with lacrosse in the earliest historical contexts, while the latter is more focussed on the game in its modern form. Both books are solidly researched and can be a good basis for an accurate historical illustration of lacrosse.
Historical or ethnographic analogy are familiar methods for archaeology and cultural anthropology when trying to determine the possible origins or meaning of a particular aspect of an indigenous culture. The concept behind the analogy is to take a particular feature or behaviour of a given indigenous culture, either known in the present or having been recorded in history, and transpose that feature or behaviour backward into time as a possible starting point of explanation of possible features or behaviours of cultures that existed in prehistoric times. Once this analogy has been made, the usual course would be to discover empirical evidence from the material record that would support the original analogic assertion. This empirical evidence, which could be in material remains, forms, patterns, symbols, statistics or other data types, is filtered through one anthropological theoretical model or another, to give an explanatory or interpretive structure to the information of focus. This analogizing and modelling process can be worked both ways in that one could also make a theoretical supposition based on the evidence at hand and then look for an explanation or interpretation in the historical record.
Using the historical record of the subsistence pattern of 17th century Iroquois, they grew corn. Using historical analogy, we can predict that the prehistoric Iroquois also grew corn and we should be able to find evidence of that corn growing in the archaeological record of known Iroquois-like communities. And there is evidence a-plenty that that prehistoric Iroquois grew corn. Another example pertains to an archaeological discovery of a round and flat stone object that had a small concave worked out on one side. The stone was about 4 inches in diameter and was found in context of other items of an ancient domestic site. By analyzing ethnographical data of other local indigenous people who used a similar object, the best explanation of the object was a seed grinding platform or dish.
When using the historical or ethnographical method as a default way of explaining prehistoric cultural phenomena, we ought to be wary of the fact that no one really knows for sure without an acceptable authentic and authoritative record. The best we can hope for in such cases is to achieve a “best explanation” or a best ‘fit’ interpretation. This is helped along by applying consistent analogies from similar and limited sources and using sound theoretical models to filter the results. This means that when we have a set of data that has a best fit to a set of phenomena, the thee probably very data sets can explain or suggest other aspects of the material record not under direct observation. For instance, the growing of corn implies a certain behavioural requirement on behalf of the growers and those behaviours usually require certain tools which, depending on their composition, may be observable in the material remains, items such as hoes and axes. There might also be suggestions how those prehistoric people charted their growing season, how their selection of the corn fields affected the landscape and the location of their living areas. Similarly, using a seed grinding platform gives us insight into the stone working capabilities, the diet and possible gender division of labour among those people. While we might only direct our attention to one object or piece of data, the suggestion of other whole other sets of data ought to be congruent with historical or ethnographical analogy .
Sport As Ritual
Sports have various origins ranging from leisurely pastimes and games such as golf to intentional design, such as basketball. One possibly source of origin for a sport could be ritual, the sport grew out of a ritualized activity. La soule is an example of a ritualized activity. The contest over a ball subject to much religious and political attention as far back as 1100 AD, to eventually pass through the ages and end up as an ancestor to football and soccer. La soule was likely more of a pagan pastime assimilated into the Christian religious schedule and ritualized to provide a means of legitimacy of the Church over all aspects of society in those times. “The potential significance of ritual for the sociological analysis of sport may, therefore, be appreciated when it is conceived of as a form of expression and specific statuses, and their shared values. Such a form of communication is , however, very condensed and is, therefore, dependent upon a shared social context to be meaningful and significant.” (Goodger, 1986, 220-221)
That sport arises out of a ritual activity – whether that ritual is for secular or non-secular purposes – can be observed in the ethnographical record from all over the world, even into modern times. Some cultures have ritualized games to mark the passing of youth into adulthood or to denote some other social milestone; some are games that mark the passing of particular times of the year such as the solstices or equinoxes or they might be associated with fertility rites. “In some important way, then, sport is a legacy of ritual. Over time, the religious meaning of sporting activities may have been lost, yet the form of those activities remains, ready to take on new meanings.” (Birrell, 1981, 354)
It might be useful to clarify what we mean by using the word ‘ritual.’ Susan Birrell partly relies on the definition of ritual developed by Emile Durkheim taken from his book ‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life’ which was written in 1912. Durkheim was the father of modern sociology and his ideas still resound in modern anthropological thought. In developing his thesis on religious life, Durkheim studied the ‘primitive’ Australian Aborigines as an example of the “elementary notions” of religion and how they might relate to more ‘civilized’ religions. Durkheim first distinguishes between belief and ritual: “Religious phenomena are naturally arranged into two fundamental categories: beliefs and rites. The first are states of opinion, and consist in representations; the second are determined modes of action.” (36) Durkheim sees that the rituals are the actions upon the objects of the beliefs, themselves which are expressions about that object, be it soul, gods, some animal totem or other special phenomena. This special-ness of the object is defined by how that object relates to the sacred and the profane, which is “a classification of all things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups” which result in a “division of the world into two domains.” Durkheim defines the difference of these two domains by defining sacred as “par excellence that which the profane should not touch, and cannot touch with impunity” while rites are the “are the rules of conduct which prescribe how a man should comport himself in the presences of these sacred objects.” (41) Birrell expands on this definition by adding that through “…ritual treatment of symbols of the sacred, the individual places self in respectful relationship to sacred things. Gradually, rituals become stylized patterns through which individuals express their respectful relationship to those objects or values designated as special or sacred.” (357)
If we look at modern western sports we might envision the religious aspects of those sports: a congregation of people observing the special handling of a scared object by a select group of initiates, usually all presided over by an authority with special dispensation to conduct the ritual within a specified set of instructions. If the sacred object is correctly manipulated, it can be brought to a end meaning for the both the congregation and initiates, usually mediated by some symbol or symbolic requirement. Replace ‘congregation’ with ‘crowd,’ ‘sacred object’ with’ ball’ or ‘puck,’ and ‘an authority’ with ‘a referee’ and you can see why the association of sport and ritual is a fairly popular notion within anthropology and sociology. Durkheim sees ritual in terms of religion whereas Birrell bridges the gap between a relative definition of sacred. As sport may have lost the purely religious aspects, the notion of the sacred remains, even if in a somewhat secular sense.
Comparing sport and ritual is an insightful process since it not only allows us to gain information about the sport itself, but also allows us to gain a better understanding of ritual. We might see rituals as tightly controlled events performed in a particular sacred space with well-known and expected ends. What sport-as-ritual reveals is that the rituals themselves, even highly regarded religious rites, have room for ‘play’ and experience ‘surprises’ from time to time, even though the ‘goal’ is the same each time the ritual is re-enacted. If you observe a wedding ceremony or funeral service, they are not always as austere an event as we imagine them to be since they have to deal with social circumstance, human emotion such as humour and the variances of the environment in which they are conducted. Not that there are no rituals not conducted to perfection, but that in some , even some of the most important, there is room for this aspect of play and this can be compared to play in sense of the word referring an acting event on a stage – themselves somewhat ritual in their repetition of words and actions. What we learn from ritual is that, as a species, human beings are very adaptable, as is our nature. This ability to adapt and play, while playing at adaptation or adapting while we play is one of the most important evolutionary facts of our species whether in ritual, sport or work. In some individuals, such as the professional athlete, these abilities are present as all three forms at once.
In the Introduction to ‘Games of the North American Indians’, Stewart Cullin writes, “In general, games appear to be played ceremonially, as pleasing to the gods, with the object of securing fertility, causing rain, giving and prolonging life, expelling demons, or curing sickness.” (Cullin, 1975, 34)
While we could likely agree this description could be applied to many sports and games throughout the world, does it apply to lacrosse?
That lacrosse had ritual or religious roots at one time are often recognized when we hear contemporary descriptions such as ‘the Creator’s game,’ or the ‘spirit’ or ‘medicine’ game. When we review the instances of lacrosse as mentioned in indigenous myth there are usually some sacred association either with a god or cultural hero endowed with sacred powers or purpose. This association between lacrosse and ritual is persistent and is often cited by the indigenous people involved in their game before any other descriptions of the game are offered. First and foremost, this game has a sacred component.
Insight into the sacred component of lacrosse by the indigenous people is nowhere better illustrated than by James Mooney’s ethnographic observations of the ritual and ceremony involved in the Cherokee lacrosse game. All players were in the custody of a shaman-like figure who prepared and presided over his ‘team’ in specific rites such as ‘going to water’ to cleanse themselves before a game and ‘scratching’ which entailed players being scratched with sharp objects as a ritual bloodletting. This overseer also prepared special foods and medicines and prescribed proper conduct for the players before, during and after the game. To an outsider, these rites and ceremonies may have appeared bizarre such as the ceremonial bloodletting as experienced by British naval officer Basil Hall who, in 1828 witnessed the ceremony on the night prior to a game “For my own part, I scarcely knew how to feel when I found myself amongst some dozens of naked savages, streaming blood from top to toe, skipping and yelling round a fire, or talking at the top of their voices in a language of which I knew nothing, or laughing merrily as it were the best fun in the world to be cut to pieces.” (1830, 295). George Beers, the Canadian dentist from Montreal considered the father of modern lacrosse, wrote, “In the early history of all countries we find their recreations to have been of a rude and barbarous nature.” (1879, 7)
As the exposure to indigenous lacrosse increased, so did the specific rites and ceremonies surrounding the game draw attention for anthropologists, culminating in Mooney’s and Cullin’s observations which support most of the insight into that ritualism and ceremonialism. However, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, a change happened in both anthropology and lacrosse which backgrounded those sacred aspects of lacrosse in favour of a more ‘scientific’ view of the people and applying ‘scientific’ rules to the modern sport. In many indigenous communities, struggling to survive in a rapidly changing industrial world which brought them great disruption to their social order, the game of lacrosse lost it prestige and priority in the community and became a distant memory in the minds of elders, only to eventually disappear entirely. This phenomenon was noted most among the indigenous people in the north and west of the continent, once sources of much lore about lacrosse, now their original game appears to be little known to them.
The historical information we have about the ritual aspect of lacrosse is limited and likely not applicable to all indigenous people in all historical times, but can we use the information we have as an historical analogy to try to determine the origins of lacrosse? Do the rituals of lacrosse, as described by Mooney and others, provide us with any insight into the game regarding its past and ultimately it’s origin as a ritualized form of hunting?
Going to Water
In ‘Cherokee Ball Play’ (1890, 105-132) Mooney relates the ritual bathing that the Cherokee players under go, a ritual known as ‘going to water.’ This ritual occurs with players during the progress of their pre-game dance the night before a game and during the next day, especially if there is a journey involved to play an ‘away’ game. On such a journey, Mooney describes four stops in the journey, each accompanied with a ceremony and ritual bathing in a stream or lake. In his book, ‘Sacred Formulas of the Cherokee’ Mooney give us a more detailed description of the ritual:
Bathing in the running stream, or “going to water,” as it is called, is one of their most frequent medico−religious ceremonies, and is performed on a great variety of occasions, such as at each new moon, before eating the new food at the green corn dance, before the medicine dance and other ceremonial dances before and after the ball play, in connection with the prayers for long life, to counteract the effects of bad dreams or the evil spells of an enemy, and as a part of the regular treatment in various diseases. The details of the ceremony are very elaborate and vary according to the purpose for which it is performed, but in all cases both shaman and client are fasting from the previous evening, the ceremony being generally performed just at daybreak. The bather usually dips completely under the water four or seven times, but in some cases it is sufficient to pour the water from the hand upon the head and breast. In the ball play the ball sticks are dipped into the water at the same time. While the bather is in the water the shaman is going through with his part of the performance on the bank and draws omens from the motion of the beads between his thumb and finger, or of the fishes in the water. Although the old customs are fast dying out this ceremony is never neglected at the ball play, and is also strictly observed by many families on occasion of eating the new corn, at each new moon, and on other special occasions, even when it is necessary to break the ice in the stream for the purpose, and to the neglect of this rite the older people attribute many of the evils which have come upon the tribe in later days. The latter part of autumn is deemed the most suitable season of the year for this ceremony, as the leaves which then cover the surface of the stream are supposed to impart their medicinal virtues to the water.
The indigenous practice of frequent bathing, whether in ritual or non-ritual form was often mentioned by the early writers, especially those not accustomed to the attention paid to such hygienic measures. While water itself could have magical properties and is frequently a spiritual medium in ancient indigenous myth, there is a specificity of the ‘going to water’ ritual in context of the game of lacrosse. Mooney again mentions the ‘going to water’ ritual in ‘Cherokee Ball Play:’
This ceremony of going to water is the most sacred and impressive in the whole Cherokee ritual, and must always be performed fasting, and in most cases also is preceded by an all-night vigil. It is used in connection with prayers to obtain a long life, to destroy an enemy, to win the love of a woman, to secure success in the hunt and the ball play, and for recovery from a dangerous illness, but is performed only as a final resort or when the occasion is one of special importance.
As we can see, ritual bathing was a significant part of indigenous life and had a similar function as non-ritual bathing in that the ‘pollution’ of the profane world was washed off to in order for the individual to participate in the sacred ceremonies or receive sacred information. With lacrosse, the participant bathed often and, at each bath, received special instructions and knowledge to help him in the game.
Of games and war
Many authors writing about lacrosse see the game in terms of warfare, including the instruments of play and their resemblance to a war club or some other prehistoric weapon or through the movements of the players and the resemblance of this movement to martial training such as the wielding of the sticks or dodging an opponent. This association naturally leads to the comparison of warfare rituals with similar rituals in lacrosse such as fasting, ritual bathing, the isolation of the participants and so on. One is likely to find many similarities between such rituals in historic times and this was just as likely true in prehistoric times. That games of lacrosse were used to settle disputes, substituting for warfare, only makes this association more apparent. However, we need to make two points here while minimizing the risk of generalizing.
Warfare amongst the ancient indigenous people did not resemble the warfare generated among their contemporary Europeans. This bears out in the archaeological record. The early Spanish and French military incursions into North America drastically changed the small scale ‘contests’ of limited fatalities of the indigenous methods of war into the larger, bloodier affairs known throughout history. Not that there were no large scale battles or massacres in ancient North America, there were, but not to any degree as a de facto method of conflict. A good example of the warfare conducted by the indigenous peoples is the concept of the Iroquoian ‘mourning war’ in which raids were conducted against an enemy to avenge a death in a previous conflict or raid. This warfare more resembled a chronic feud in which prisoners were captured and either tortured and killed or adopted into the community to replace the individual previously lost. Such small scale military forays between reciprocal foes were the norm in ancient times.
The second point is a little more complex, but it will help us understand the association of war and lacrosse within worldview that confounded the early Europeans and likely sparked a revival of political organization in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. It will also help us understand the similarity between the ancient indigenous rituals pertaining to war and lacrosse. Again, the idea here is to avoid generalizing and stereotyping, but to present a broad view of some basic concepts that, when practiced by particular cultures in ancient times, had forms particular to that culture.
We read in early historical accounts that the indigenous people had a view of the world much different from that of the early European they encountered, especially those on religious missions. This led to some interesting commentary from both sides, but it also caused much confusion and misunderstanding which has filtered down into modern times. In the indigenous world, the landscape was a sacred landscape filled with inhabiting spiritual forces that determined the path in one’s life and community. These forces could be found in practically any form from animals to features of the landscape itself, to phenomena of the weather such as winds or directions. They were also found in mundane elements such as trees, stones or specially created symbolic objects such as a copper plate, obsidian blade or lacrosse stick. These forces shouldn’t be confused with the religious pantheon, those special beings that existed for ancient indigenous peoples, who usually inhabited or visited the landscape temporarily from their homes elsewhere. When we refer to the spiritual forces of the landscape, we are referring to the elements of the landscape itself, the animals, rocks, trees, etc.
In modern times these forces are often confused by using the term ‘spirit’ which is appears as a personification of the object itself as some animistic ghost. A better understanding of these inhabiting spiritual forces is to think of them in terms of ‘nature.’ it is the nature of the stone to be hard, the wolf to be swift and cunning or the eagle to fly to great heights to see. In the indigenous world, all the elements in the landscape possessed a nature of these sorts, the value of each dependent on the particular culture. By possessing a nature, these objects could pass on ‘messages’ that one could learn to gain an understanding of the environment which, in ancient times, one was ultimately dependent on for their survival. This ability to pass along these messages about themselves imbued the object with a ‘life’ which one could associate themselves with, usually through some special rite such a vision quest or naming ceremony. A large and burly man might be associated with a bear spirit through a personal totem or name; a lithe young woman might be associated with a willow spirit. In this way, these associations also gave messages about the individual and provided a connection with that individual back to the environment.
That the environment could ‘speak’ to the people in a community provided the impetus for a sense of sacredness about that landscape and destroying that environment would also inhibit the ability of the people to receive the messages they depended on for their survival and, above all, the survival of the people was the most sacred message of them all, as it is with all humanity from all over the planet. However, the indigenous people took from their environment and they destroyed parts of their environment for food and shelter. Since they were taking from the sacred this led to high ritual and ceremonialism in practically all cultures. In the terms of Durkheim above, such rites and ceremonies were the rules of conduct of the people within their sacred landscape which provided them with food and shelter and material goods to survive. The respect paid through these rites and ceremonies provided a balance between the sacred and the profane worlds in which they lived and resulted in custodianship over the living landscape which was sustainable.
Not all ancient indigenous culture groups throughout time paid the same respect to the same environmental elements nor did they all have the same configuration of views about their environment. However, there were likely events in their remote past that gave rise to this indigenous conservation that can be directly tied in with the blunt projectile weapon system that was to later form the game of lacrosse and why the rituals between warfare and lacrosse were similar in proto-historic times.
We surmise from our archaeological record that North America was peopled, in part, by hunter-gather people who followed the big game across the land bridge at Beringia. This journey, during the hostile conditions of the last Ice Age, would have been a perilous journey that proceeded over centuries of time in an unforgiving environment. The ancient peoples depended on the big game for their survival and learned to hunt along animal migration routes and likely processed most of the animal’s carcass for food, shelter and tools, some of which tenuously survives in the archaeological record. When we talk about ‘big game’ we are referring to mammoths, mastodons, horses, ground sloths and other megafauna of the Pleistocene age which occurred roughly from 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago . However, the migration of humans and subsequent population of the Americas coincided with two other episodes, the stabilization of the continental climate to what we experience today and the extinction of the large megafauna on the continent. Both occurred near the end of the Pleistocene and early Holocene periods.
The Quaternary extinction event began in the late Pleistocene period, about 15,000 years ago and was more or less complete 10,000 years ago. This event saw the extinction of most of the megafaunal mammals in the Americas. There are a few theories on the main cause of this extinction event and the coincidence of the increasing population in the Americas has given rise to a controversial theory that animals became extinct due to over-hunting by the indigenous peoples. Since this was also the time of rapid climate change and a recession of the Ice Age climate to a more temperate one, the event was likely the result of a conjunction of several causes: overall climate change and the resultant change in regional flora and fauna and over-hunting by humans and the increasing competition from large predators such as lions and wolves over the dwindling populations of large mammals; and finally it is advanced that the extinction event may have included disease. Whatever the ultimate causes of the quaternary extinction event are, one thing is likely very certain and that is the impact on the populations that depended on those animals for a main source of subsistence.
No doubt that such an extinction forced the surviving populations into different modes of subsistence and this change would have affected and changed their psychological and material culture as the populations adapted to new hunting strategies and weapon systems that focused on the smaller mammals, birds and fish and a higher integration of plant materials into their diet. Even though written records do not exist from this period, it can we well imagined that such a drastic change in means of subsistence would have been recorded in the oral lore of the surviving people with this lore informing cultural ethics which included a form of self-interested conservancy similar to the hunting taboos observed in the historical ethnographic record of peoples all over the world when faced with a need to conserve their means of subsistence. That the quaternary extinction event was a gradual process, over several millennia overall, some regions may have experienced a sudden depopulation of their primary food source resulting in noteworthy famine. It is not atypical for such events to be noted such as the near extinction of the prairie buffalo within a small time frame of 70 years which has resulted in a modern conservatory effort towards that species.
The suggestion here is that the historical notion of conservancy amongst the ancient indigenous people had a root in the extinction of the large megafauna during the end of the Pleistocene carried forward into the Holocene period to eventually evolve into a widespread belief in the environment-as-sacred by later indigenous peoples. No doubt this belief was also informed through several iterations of similar events all over the Americas at different times, all of which only added to the necessity of the ethic, especially where the cause was attributed to the people themselves through over hunting or wasteful subsistence practices. If smaller community groups were witness to a destructive force in their environment that caused great harm to their community through famine and starvation, declining birthrate or general poor health, the result of this ‘message’ would likely be a change of behaviour adapting to the prevailing situation. Sometimes this might mean an adoption of taboos on hunting during certain times of the year, in the Spring when prey is pregnant and giving birth to their young; it might mean not killing the females of a particular species; it might mean not hunting certain animals except in a limited, sustainable way during a small prescribed time period.
If the destruction of favoured food source was complete enough, this would mean the wholesale adoption of alternative subsistence strategies that originated elsewhere. A historical example of this adaptation is given by the indigenous peoples on the Plains after the destruction of the buffalo in the mid to late 19th century, a significant event in their history which resulted in starvation to where the peoples signed treaties with the U.S. authorities, were placed on reservations and began a different existence. With this change in subsistence pattern, was the subsequent adoption of the Ghost Dance which was founded on the premise that the world – and its life sustaining game – would be renewed through observing special ceremonies and rituals.
The widespread exchange and adoption of ideas in indigenous North America are evidence by the spread of horticulture and agriculture among diverse groups or the adoption of a certain mortuary complex from the Ohio Valley thousands of years ago to the widespread adoption of the Ghost Dance on the Plains at the end of the 19th century. Such an idea exchange is a likely route for the adoption of environmental conservancy initiatives, including the use of innovative weapons to hunt new types of game and the rituals and ceremonies associated with teaching these new ethics.
Conservation ethics require restraint and this restraint is the equilibrium to be maintained otherwise the well-being of the community is threatened. Conservation is also a powerful message stemming from the after-the-fact awareness of one’s harm to the environment and this provides a rational impetus to view the landscape as sacred – life giving, while viewing oneself or community as profane – life taking. However, this leaves a psychological dilemma – that to survive, it is necessary to kill. Killing is seen as an imposition of the profane within the sacred – spiritual pollution – which required rules of conduct to maintain the practical aspect of restraint. It is through the mediation of the relationship between the life giving environment and the life taking people we see the enactment of rituals and ceremonies that reflect the environmental conservatory ethics of the indigenous peoples from practically every corner of the Americas.
Similar rites were performed for hunting and warring, both killing events, which introduced pollution into the environment due, in part, to the spilling of, or exposure to, blood. There are plenty of examples of the pollution effect of blood. When hunters returned from the hunt, or warriors from the war, they were polluted individuals since they had removed, usually by force, a life from the sacred environment and had spilled blood. Cleansing had to remove this pollution before the hunter or warrior could be integrated back into the community. This cleansing often took the form of ritual bathing, to remove not only the grit and grim of the hunt or battle, but also the blood. This ritual sense to the cleaning of blood was also apparent in many menstrual ceremonies including female isolation from the community and frequent bathing. Ritual bathing prior to the killing event was also undertaken and this was to purify the participant for them to participate in the event, but also had a practical application of removing the profane body scent to move within the environment and not be detected by the prey.
Similarly, so was bathing accorded the same purification status prior to, and after, a game of lacrosse, another event considered to have sacred value even though a lacrosse game was not a killing event. As we saw from Mooney’s description above, sometimes there was also ritual bloodletting, an intentional form of polluting, in scratching prior to important games. How do we explain this? We might that say that the game represented a contest between two entities in which one was figuratively killed by losing the game. Or, sometimes a dispute to be settled by the game, was symbolically killed. It might be explained that the killing event referred to the goods frequently wagered on historical indigenous lacrosse games and that the losers gave up the ‘life’ or ownership of their goods. This is possible. However, there was such cleansing and bloodletting rituals before any contest or game, which simple does not appear to be the case. The rituals of lacrosse are specifically tied in with the rituals associated with real killing events like warfare or hunting.
As we have seen, the exchange of ideas, through adaptation, adoption or acculturation, from one indigenous culture group to another was a fairly established phenomenon in ancient times. The exchange of ideas included the knowledge and adoption of technological ideas which are keenly exampled by the diffusion of the bow and arrow weapon system discussed earlier. Another highly documented example is the spread of ceramics in the prehistoric peoples of North America introduced from the south-eastern region of North America 5,000 years ago and rapidly spread throughout the continent over the ensuing millennia. There is a suspicion that the ceramic technology may have had its origins in South America at a much earlier date, where it was eventually diffused through some cultural exchange network into the American south.
Prior to the extinction event, the archaeological record shows that the primary weapon system likely comprised a thrusting spear or lance. This weapon would be launched near the game which would fall when a critical amount of damage was done to its body by the wounding. However, such weapons would not work well on smaller, faster game and there would need to be a change to make in this weapon system. It is only after the extinction event does the archaeological record reveal the modification of larger projectile points into smaller points with the eventual wide spread appearance of points that would be suitable for the atlatl dart.
Also making a widespread appearance were bolas, which were a weapon system comprising weights attached by chords thrown at the prey to wrap around the legs of the animal and bring it down where it would be dispatched by spear. The bola is an interesting weapon system attributed to cultures all over the Americas in ancient times and still in use in South America and the Arctic in historical times. ‘Bolas’ is the Spanish word for balls, which indicates the type of weights that were used in the weapon system. Round stones were modified with grooves around the circumference to affix the chords, which could be of any length and made of tough plant fibres or animal sinew. This weapon was in use at the end of the Pleistocene and could have been used in the hunt for the remaining big game animals.
It is easy to see how the development of the blunt projectile weapon system that gave rise to lacrosse could have happened during this period. Blunt projectile-like weapon systems were already known through the bolas and possibly the sling, and the concept of a mechanical aid to throwing was also in development in the example of the atlatl. Throwing rounded stones from one’s hand was already weapon system of some renown even in historical times, with some culture groups being very proficient in its use. As a hunting technology, the blunt projectile weapon system mimicking a projectile thrown from a hand would have been ideal for smaller game animals from the deer to the rabbit and could, in the hands of an expert, no doubt cause a fatality in a single blow. For all of the reasons the blunt projectile weapon system was associated with hunting rituals and, in a larger sense, those rituals ascribed to killing events.
It is interesting to note, in relation to the bolas weapon system, the widespread existence of a particular indigenous game called ‘double-ball’ which was played with a set of balls or weights, attached by a length of chord, that was tossed back and forth using sticks. This suggests that the bolas weapon system somehow ended up as a game long after the weapon system itself had gone out of practice. So how does a hunting method, using a particular weapons system, end up as a game?
NEXT: 6. The Sacred Game
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