Shelf Life 07: The Language Detectives

I became fascinated by the idea of [molecular systematics] as a means for explaining the evolution of languages.

-Peter Whiteley, Curator, Division of Anthropology

From A(ztec) to Yaqui

This month’s Shelf Life details how Museum curators Peter Whiteley, an anthropologist, and Ward Wheeler, a computational biologist, joined forces to trace the evolution of Native American languages by applying gene-sequencing methods to historical linguistics.  

The researchers focused on the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, which have been spoken in Central and North America for millennia. Languages from this group were used in the bustling streets of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan—a city larger than 16th-century London—and spoken by nomadic groups tracking herds of bison across the plains of North America. Some Uto-Aztecan languages disappeared long ago while others, like Hopi, which Dr. Whiteley has studied for decades, are still spoken today. 

Colorful illustrated map of Tenochtitlan, depicting city at center of body of water, connected to land via multiple bridges.
This map of the Aztec city Tenochtitlan was printed in 1524 in Nuremberg, Germany. 
Wikimedia Commons/Newberry Library, Chicago

For a glimpse at the variety of cultures in which these languages arose, Whiteley picked 12 objects from the Museum’s vast North American ethnological collection.

The journey begins in what is now Idaho, the northernmost point where Uto-Aztecan languages were historically spoken, and, some think, the farthest point to which this language family spread from its origins in the south—a hypothesis that’s consistent with Whiteley and Wheeler’s analysis. 

This pair of beaded leather moccasins (below) from what is now Idaho represent the northernmost reach of the Uto-Aztecan languages. The style and craftsmanship are fairly typical of peoples from the Plateau culture area, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and hunted animals like deer and bison. They were likely made by members of either the Bannock nation, a Northern Paiute people, or the Northern Shoshone nation. 

Pair of moccasins with colorful beaded designs covering the shoe from the ankle down to the toe.
A pair of beaded moccasins from the northernmost region where Uto-Aztecan languages were spoken. Catalog Number 50/1181 AB 

The medicine bag below (left) was crafted by the Ute people of the of the Great Basin region, which lies to the south of Idaho between the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, encompassing parts of southern Utah, northern Arizona, southern Nevada, and southeastern California. After horses were introduced to the Americas by the Spanish and French, says Whiteley, the Utes became a formidable military force and dominated large swathes of the American Southwest. 

Small cylindrical bag made of hide with colorful geometric designs and tassels at the bottom. A hide medicine bag from the Ute culture. Catalog Number 50/1276 
© AMNH/Division of Anthropology
Family of nine, with two babies in cradleboards flanking five adults and one child posing in two rows. Ute Chief Sevara and his family. Photochrom print, 1885 
Library of Congress/96501843

The Great Basin was also home to the Southern Paiute, historically a nomadic culture of hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups. “Southern Paiute social organization would embrace maybe 40 or 50 people in a band,” says Whiteley. “To adapt to the environment, they lived in grass shelters that were very easy to transport.”

The war bonnet case pictured below would have held the headdress of a member of the Comanche people, a Plains group that followed bison herds throughout the year. Moving east across the Rocky Mountains in the early 18th century, the Comanches were known as the "Lords of the South Plains." By the 19th century, they had acquired many horses and wielded impressive political and military power.

Cylindrical hide case decorated with two brightly painted triangles and dots at the tip of the triangles.
This hide case, made by the Comanche people, would have held a war bonnet. Catalog number 50.1/4292
© AMNH/Division of Anthropology

The noted Hopi artist Nampeyo crafted the pot pictured below in the late 19th or early 20th century. In contrast to some of their neighbors who lived by hunting and gathering, the Hopi have long been farmers who live in stone houses and stay on the same land for generations. Hopi agricultural practices go back “at least a millennium and a half, and maybe longer than that,” says Whiteley, who has conducted fieldwork among the Hopi since 1980.

This basket, collected in 1901, originated with the Cahuilla people in California. This group was traditionally semi-nomadic, hunting and fishing but also traveling throughout the region to gather the acorns that formed a staple of their diet. 

Woven basket with interior pattern of human figures wearing long dresses in darker color than the rest of the basket.
A basket crafted by the semi-nomadic Cahuilla people, whose diet centered around gathering acorns. Catalog number 50/2766
© AMNH/Division of Anthropology

The effigy pot below, which depicts a person or figure, is from the Tohono O’odham, a Piman people once known as the Papago who practiced a mixed economy of foraging and agriculture, cultivating crops including maize, beans, squash, and melons in the Sonoran Desert. Pots like this one were particularly common at the prehistoric ruin of Paquimé (Casas Grandes) in Mexico. Whether the Tohono O’odham continued that tradition or independently developed their own is not known. 

Effigy pot shaped like a person or other figure, with painted features and geometric designs.
This effigy pot was crafted by the Tohono O’oodham people. Catalog number 50.1/4049
© AMNH/Division of Anthropology

This item originated with the Yaqui people, whose historic homeland is along today's border between the U.S. and Mexico. It would have been used in Matachines performances, spectacular masked dances that were adopted from Spanish colonists and are still performed in some villages today. 

Object with square shaped head, protruding nose and ears painted with a bug, painted eyes and mouth, and white fur for facial hair.
This Yaqui object was used in Matachines performances, adopted by the Yaqui people from a Spanish tradition. 

This seed necklace was crafted by the Tarahumara (also known as the Raramuri) people, who live near Chihuahua, Mexico. Unlike other Uto-Aztecan-speaking groups, the Tarahumara did not have much contact with the outside world until the middle of the 20th century. Today they maintain more aspects of their indigenous culture than other contemporary Uto-Aztecan groups.

Necklace made up of three strands of lightly colored seeds.
This necklace of seeds was crafted by the Tarahumara people. Catalog number 65/1226 
© AMNH/Division of Anthropology

This beaded deer comes from the Museum’s large collection of Huichol artifacts. Native to the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of central Mexico, the Huichol are an agricultural society perhaps best known for their “peyote hunts.” When collecting the fruits of the peyote cactus, which the Huichol consider a sacrament, the Huichol shoot the first cactus with an arrow, the same way they would hunt a deer. 

Stylized, colorfully beaded deer figurine with a long body and paper label on neck.
A beaded deer figurine, crafted by the Huichol people. Catalog number 65/518

To the west of the Huichol are the Cora, who crafted the rattle pictured here. The Cora are traditionally farmers and live near to what is now considered the origin of New World agriculture. At the time of first contact with the Spanish, the Cora occupied a large area on the western slope of Sierra Madre Occidental range. Their language may have been among the first of the Uto-Aztecan group, says Whiteley.

Wooden rattle with floral design on top portion and a small label tied to its handle.
A rattle crafted by the Cora people, whose language may be closely related to the earliest Uto-Aztecan languages. 

Finally, the second of the cultures that provides this linguistic family’s name: the Aztec, who spoke Nahuatl (as do their modern-day descendants, the Nahua). “If Southern Paiute is on one end of the continuum of cultural complexity, Aztec is on the opposite end,” says Whiteley, contrasting the tiny, nomadic bands native to the Great Basin with the complex city-states that formed Mesoamerica’s ancient empire. 

This piece of Aztec art, called the Lienzo del Chalchihuitzan, dates back to around 1570 AD and illustrates the social status and inherited rights of the individual depicted at its center, through connections to ancestors and allies. Made in the decades following the conquest of Aztec civilization by the Spanish, Whiteley says, this artifact could represent an attempt by a lord—who likely commissioned the piece—to assert and defend his traditional privileges under a new authority. 

“He’s laying out the terms of his chiefly privileges,” says Whiteley. “It’s kind of like his Magna Carta.”

Cloth painting depicting two central figures connected via lines in all directions to illustrations of many other people.
A painting on cloth depicting aspects of Aztec genealogy and political life. Catalog number 30.2/4558 
© AMNH/Division of Anthropology

Farmers and hunters. City-dwellers and nomads. The 12 groups named above—and dozens more not represented here—are bound together by an ancient linguistic tradition that may help researchers learn more about how people and cultures spread throughout the Americas.