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  • Ian Thompson

Something from Deep Culture is Calling

Updated: Mar 3

One of the coolest Choctaw oral traditions describes something that comes out of the last Ice Age. According to the account, mammoths (known as Isht Ahullo "Makes Holy" in the Choctaw Language), used to travel in herds. They broke off the lower branches and stripped the bark from the trees, thus killing them. This action helped to create the Black Belt Prairie, whose remnants can still be seen in western Alabama and northeast Mississippi today. According to one of the accounts, these ancient animals ultimately went on to extinction as the result of disease.

As one of my favorite Choctaw oral traditions, I've been sharing this story for years. While researching the second edition of the Choctaw Food book, I took a little closer look at it. Does it actually communicate anything that couldn't have just been inferred thousands of years later when Choctaw people came across fossilized mammoth bones? Actually, yes it does. I learned that modern African elephants are landscape engineers. They strip the bark off of living trees, thus killing them and creating open savanna environments. This Choctaw oral tradition describes that same ecological role for mammoths. The Choctaw homeland is a long way from Africa, and stripping bark to create savanna / grassland is not something that most people would infer from coming across old mammoth bones. To me, the parallel with modern elephant behavior is evidence that this Choctaw oral history conveys actual first-hand encounters with these impressive animals that were passed down as a part of Choctaw group memory for more than 500 generations.

The title image is of a Columbian mammoth skeleton that I was able to see at the Florida History Museum last week. Standing 14-foot tall, it is impressive to say the least; the live animal must have been awe-inspiring. This 16,000-year-old fossil, 90% complete, came from a river in north Florida. It's just possible that it could have been part of one of the migratory herds described in the Choctaw oral tradition.

In what may be one of the coldest cases ever (pun intended), researchers recently completed a forensic analysis of 120 stone projectile points from the American Southeast dating to the end of the last Ice Age. Blood reside analysis indicated that several of the Clovis points came into contact with mammoth tissue, either through hunting or through scavenging fallen animals (Moore 2023). Clovis points were made 13,200-12,900 years ago, right at the end of the time that mammoths and mastodons lived in the Southeast. An estimated 10,000 Clovis points have been found across North America so far - 30 for every year they were being made. Of course, this is only a tiny fraction of the total number that must exist. A year ago, we did a post about learning how to make this special style of point. Over the past 12 months, that path of learning has continued. Many of the images in this post show pieces created through my efforts to re-learn this deep traditional art.

The same day that I walked under the shadow of this mammoth skeleton, I also had the privilege of handling collections of original stone points in the University of Florida collections that date to the Ice Age. Yes, I learned a lot about the technical details of making Clovis and especially the related Suwannee style of points, but how can I share that experience in a way might be meaningful to more than the three stone tool enthusiasts who are likely going read this post? Maybe like this - most of the stone points from the Ice Age are made with a lot of skill, going way beyond the basic requirements of function. Taking about an hour of someone's time to chip out, you can look at a stone point as a performance. The symmetry and balance, the overshots, the length of the flutes - all come from a skill in chipping stone that can only be obtained through years of practice. A skillfully made stone point is like a talented music concert, but rather than the final note fading into the air and then being gone forever, it is recorded in durable stone. Today, the performance is still there to be enjoyed even though the artist has been gone from this earth for 13,000 years. Every stone point is different; each is its own performance.

This is me the human talking now, not me the archaeologist. - Looking at any one of the old master works of flint is similar to the experience of being next to a stream or some other special landscape feature, and somehow sensing that it has its own spirit. It's like these old weapons and tools had to be imbued with enough of their own life force to momentarily counteract the force of a powerful animal in order to be able to harvest it. That life force came from the stone itself, from the stone-working traditions the community used to shape it, from the maker's own life force, and no doubt from ceremony. You can sense some of that in these pieces when you handle them, and that power still draws people - archaeologists, artisans and collectors - subconsciously to them.

When I was a kid, I loved listening to my grandfather's stories about growing up on a slightly more wild landscape than I knew. It seemed like he had lived more life than I had at the same age. Projecting that backwards another 500 generations in time, our ancestors lived on an incredibly vibrant landscape, where people weren't nearly as dominant as today. In addition to mammoths, the early Choctaw ancestors also shared their land with 10,000-pound mastodons, beavers as big as modern black bears, bears three times the size of today’s average grizzly (Giant Ursine Bear), helmeted musk oxen, 1,300-pound ground sloths (Jefferson’s ground sloth), bison 50% bigger than today’s (Bison antiquus), rodents weighing 120 pounds (ROUS), 130-pound dire wolves, and of course 500-pound sabertooth tigers. What was that like?

The blood residue analysis shows that people stopped making Clovis points when the mammoth and mastodon disappeared from the Southeast. Right at that time, the planet, which had been gradually warming up from a period of maximum glacial cold 6,000 years earlier, suddenly and drastically cooled down again in some places. One of the harder-hit areas was the US Atlantic seaboard. Last week, we saw all over the news that human-caused global climate change seems to be slowing down the Atlantic currents and that this could potentially force the same parts of the planet into a catastrophic cool-down like the one at the end of Clovis. The people who had formerly made Clovis points and interacted with elephants simply changed their way of living to match the new climate. Can our societies be as resilient if we are faced with the same?

Minutes after walking under the mammoth skeleton, I got to stand in font of something that I'd read about for years but never seen in person. It's a skull from an Ice Age Bison from the Florida panhandle with the tip of a stone spear head stuck in it. The above-mentioned forensic study showed that even before mammoths went extinct, bison were actually the main animal being hunted by ancient people in the Southeast. The early Choctaw ancestors were probably bison people to fair degree. Blood traces on the stone points indicate that bison persisted in some parts of the Southeast until maybe 7500 years ago, before moving onto the Plains. They returned to Choctaw country again 350 years ago. The bison became what a bison is during the Pleistocene, and it was one of the few giant Ice Age animals in the Choctaw homeland that didn't go extinct. At Nan Awaya Farm, when we interact with the bison herd, we're interacting with the Ice Age.

When I'm out with our little bison herd or chipping a Clovis point, something in the Pleistocene calls to me from just beyond empirical perception. I think what is calling is a freedom as profound as a person can possibly experience in this life. It's a freedom that came from a lifeway that consisted of spending every day with friends and family, working to directly provide for your loved ones, rather than abstractly amassing personal wealth. It was a freedom that came from living on a vibrant landscape. It came from such a profound level of community self-sufficiency that your group could go practically anywhere they wanted to live on the landscape. The people who lived in the Ice Age faced challenges. The may not have lived quite as many years as we do on average today, but they sure seem to have done a lot of living in the years they had. They enjoyed a quality of life fostered by a level of freedom that few people have experienced since our societies started settling down and making rigid confines for ourselves. It was a freedom of deep Indigenous culture. From today's vantage point, I think we mostly just get little fleeting glimpses of what that kind of freedom is actually like, but it still calls to us.

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