A couple of years ago, I received an unsigned
letter. Typed. No postmark. No return address. Among other things, the
letter writer described the discovery of some unusual wooden implements
in a remote part of the canyon. The anonymous author recognized there
might be some scientific interest in these items but did not want me or
anyone else to know where they were located for fear that the nps would
find and remove them.
The letter included several color slides, each view carefully selected
to prohibit any recognition of the setting or photographer. The slides
showed three hand-carved paddle-like objects. One had a long, curving,
tapering blade about 30” long and a slim cylindrical handle of similar
length that ended in an oval knob. The other two were stubbier, with long
straight blades and stout cylindrical handles terminating in unmodified
blunt ends. The letter stated that the author had found these tools on
the north side of the Canyon more than a mile from the river. (That certainly
helps to narrow down the possibilities!)
I had never seen anything like them, and I did not know what their original
function could have been. They did not appear to be designed for paddling
boats, and the setting they were found in—over a mile from the river—supported
this impression. They did not resemble typical prehistoric farming implements
either, which usually consisted of simple hardwood digging sticks about
four feet long, with sharpened, fire-hardened, chisel-like tips. The author
of the letter thought that they might have been used for digging mescal
roots, as they showed slight wear on the edges and resembled implements
reportedly used for that purpose in Baja Mexico today. However, I had
never heard of this particular type of tool used for digging mescal (Agave)
in the Southwest, and to my knowledge, no similar tools had been found
in the Canyon, despite the importance of Agave harvesting to the prehistoric
and historic Native occupants of the region. Certainly some type of function
related to food procurement seemed most likely, but what?
For help in solving the puzzle, I went to the library and dug up the oldest
ethnographies I could find. Fortunately for us, during the late nineteenth
century and first decades of the twentieth, numerous young aspiring anthropologists,
convinced that traditional Native American cultures would soon be extinct,
took it upon themselves to record the everyday items and customs of so-called
“vanishing” Native America. The individuals who compiled these
reports didn't always appreciate what they were being told, but
they dutifully wrote down the information, for the benefit of you and
me and the living descendants of those traditional cultures. We should
be grateful for their foresight, blind though they may have been.
As I paged through Alfred Kroeber's Walapai Ethnography (1935),
Leslie Spier's Havasupai Ethnography (1928), Isabel Kelly's
Southern Paiute Ethnography (1964), and rummaged farther afield in Spier's
Yuman Tribes of the Gila River (1933) and Julian Steward's Ethnography
of the Owen's Valley Paiute (1933), I came upon a lot of fascinating
information, including many descriptions of wooden tools and their uses,
but none of them fit the images in hand. The closest approximation I could
find was Spier's description of a Havasupai hoe, “a wooden
spade-shaped affair with a disproportionately long narrow blade with a
handle in the same plane… used to scrape up the sand into ridges
when irrigating and for scraping out weeds.” Many library hours
later, though, I struck real paydirt in Castetter and Bell's Yuman
Indian Agriculture (1951). A sketch illustration in the chapter on “agricultural
implements” closely matched the slide image of the tool with the
long curving blade. Later, I discovered an original version of this illustration
in Forde's Ethnography of the Yuma Indians (1931), and a similar
photograph in Kroeber's Handbook of California Indians (1925).
From these books, I learned that the tools with long, curving blades were
common among the Yuma, Cocopa and Mohave along the lower Colorado River.
The Yuma Indians called them “analtahau'k”. Castetter
and Bell called them “side-scraper hoes” and reported that
they were used exclusively for weeding. According to Castetter and Bell,
“The operator worked in a
kneeling position, making sidewise thrusts
by which he cut weeds at the ground line or loosened soil around hills
of plants.” I never did find a good illustration of the straight-bladed
tools, but from Omer Stewart's Culture Element Distribution of the
Ute and Southern Paiute (1942), I learned that the Shivwits and Kaibab
Paiutes used hoes with “spatulated ends” for weeding, probably
quite similar to the two shorter implements in the slides. From these
scraps of archival information, I tentatively came to the following conclusion:
these were agricultural implements, probably used for weeding in the manner
described by Castetter and Bell, possibly cached by Shivwits or Kaibab
Paiutes (based on their location north of the river), perhaps sometime
in the 1800s. The dating is highly speculative, based purely on the fact
that this was the time when mounting pressures from Spanish slave raiders
and later Mormon settlers forced the Southern Paiute out of their prime
farming areas near today's Utah-Arizona border and into the remote
reaches of inner Grand Canyon. The cache could be much older, however.
Without being able to examine or date the implements directly, it is difficult
to say anything more conclusive. One interesting implication of this reconstruction
is the possibility that Southern Paiute gardeners acquired their agriculture
know-how from lower Colorado River Yuman-speaking tribes, rather than
from the Hopi, as anthropologists have previously assumed.
For the longest time, I couldn't decide what to do with these scraps
of esoteric speculation. The anonymous letter writer clearly did not want
the implements to be found, nor did he/she seem to want me to do anything
with the information other than know they were there. On the other hand,
after looking through the catalog records and archives at Grand Canyon
National Park and the Museum of Northern Arizona, I could find no record
of any similar tools having ever been collected or reported from the Canyon.
Ultimately, it seemed important to write this down, so that others may
know that such tools were once used and cached in the Canyon, and so the
person who found these unusual artifacts can learn a little more about
Sometimes I pull out the slides and stare wistfully at those old tools,
thinking how incredible it would be to examine them more closely someday.
I would like to identify the wood (hard or soft species? local or imported?),
find out how old they really are, whether there is pollen embedded in
the wood that could reveal what plants were growing in the fields when
the tools were used, whether there is wear or polish on the blades that
could confirm their function, or other marks that could tell us more about
how they were made. Mostly, though, when I stare at those celluloid images,
I just feel thankful that the canyon is still big and wild enough to hide
such rare and fragile things, carefully stashed where their owners left
them, cradled in the canyon's folds, full of stories still untold.
Castetter, Edward F. and Willis H. Bell. 1951. Yuman Indian Agriculture:
Primitive Subsistence on the Lower Colorado and Gila Rivers. University
of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
Forde, C. Daryll. 1931. Ethnography of the Yuma Indians. University of
California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnography 28(4):
Kroeber, Alfred L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau
of American Ethnology 78. Washington, dc.
Kroeber, Alfred L., ed. 1935. Walapai Ethnography. Memoirs of the American
Anthropological Association. Menasha, Wisconsin.
Spier, Leslie. 1928. Havasupai Ethnography. Anthropological Papers of
the American Museum of Natural History 29(3):81–392. New York.
. 1933. Yuman Tribes of the Gila River. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Steward, Julian H. 1933. Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute. University
of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnography. 33(3):233–350.
Stewart, Omer C. 1942. Culture Element Distributions: XVIII, Ute-Southern
Paiute. University of California Press, Berkeley.