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Walking Into New Worlds

Native traditions and novel discoveries tell the migration story of the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Promontory Cave VistaAncient canyons, dry mesas, and high deserts form the iconic landscape of what is now called the American Southwest. To the Navajo, who call themselves Diné (“the people”), this is sacred land, a place they know as Dinétah. It’s the center of their universe, the place where Diné history began. The story of their emergence is passed from generation to generation through days of oral accounts that describe how their ancestors traveled through four worlds—black, blue, yellow, and white—moving through each at an appropriate time, aided by sacred creatures, usually animals or insects, to arrive at the present world. “I think this is a metaphor for the stages of development of our human consciousness and human spirit,” says Navajo archaeologist Adesbah Foguth. Foguth works as an interpretive ranger at Chaco Culture National Historical Park just to the east of the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. When she gives tours of the park, she shares Native histories and talks about the Navajo connection to this land. “We evolved here, we became distinctly Navajo people here,” she says. Her understanding of Navajo emergence also includes a sense of movement and change. “We were also literally migrating on the landscape, moving from place to place.”


Navajo is part of the largest indigenous language family in North America, known as Dene, which includes more than 50 languages spoken by Native peoples in the Canadian Subarctic, the Pacific Northwest, and the American Southwest, where the Navajo and their distant cousins, the Apache, are among its southernmost speakers. Currently, archaeologists are attempting to trace the epic 1,500-mile-plus journey the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache made across North America’s mountains and plains. This was one of the most consequential population movements in North American history, taking people from the Canadian Subarctic, among the wettest landscapes in North America, to the desert Southwest, its most arid region. At the beginning of the migration, the ancestors of today’s Navajo and Apache were foragers. Centuries later, many of their descendants had become farmers. This massive migration forever changed the cultural landscape of the Southwest.


Promontory Caves MapOne effort to comprehend this great migration is the Apachean Origins Project, headed by University of Alberta archaeologist Jack Ives and Brigham Young University archaeologist Joel Janetski. “Apachean” refers to a subgroup of Dene speakers comprising the Apache and Navajo. Ives and Janetski lead a team of researchers using archaeological, linguistic, isotopic, and paleoenvironmental evidence to study the links among distant Dene speakers. They also work closely with Dene elders to understand not just when the migration happened, but how the migrators interacted with people they encountered. “Migration creates an infinite number of scenarios for contact with new people,” Ives says. Those interactions can lead to intermarriage, shared cultural traits, and a coalescence of what previously were two or more distinct peoples.


Ives and Janetski have focused their work on a remarkable site, which, nearly a century ago, provided surprising evidence that a culture accustomed to life more than 1,000 miles north in the Subarctic also lived in the American West. How they got there and what happened along the way are a sometimes misunderstood, uniquely North American migration story.


A Nubian Kingdom Rises

Excavations at a city on the Nile reveal the origins of an ancient African power


Monday, August 10, 2020

Kerma Deffufa TempleAs the Nile slices through the barren desert of North Africa, it runs straight north, with the exception of one magnificent curve, reminiscent of a giant S. This stretch of the river winds through northern Sudan approximately 250 miles south of the Egyptian border. Known as the Great Bend of the Nile, it marks the southern boundary of Nubia, a region that stretches from Sudan into southern Egypt and has been home to the Nubian people for millennia.


Kerma MapThe modern Nubian town of Kerma sits at the northern end of the Great Bend. It is a bustling riverside community teeming with animated produce markets and fishing boats piled high with six-foot Nile carp. At the center of the town rises a five-story mudbrick tower, or deffufa in the Nubian language, which has kept watch there for more than 4,000 years. Consisting of multiple levels, an interior staircase leading to a rooftop platform, and a series of subterranean chambers, the Deffufa once functioned as a temple and the religious center of a Nubian city that was founded there around 2500 B.C. on what was once an island in the middle of the Nile. Also known as Kerma, it was the earliest urban center in Africa outside Egypt.


Below the Deffufa, archaeologist Charles Bonnet of the University of Geneva has spent five decades excavating Kerma and its necropolis. Much of what scholars know of early Nubian history comes from ancient Egyptian sources, and, for a time, some believed Kerma was simply an Egyptian colonial outpost. The pharaoh Thutmose I (r. ca. 1504–1492 B.C.) did indeed invade Nubia, and his successors ruled there for centuries, just as later Nubian kings invaded and held Egypt during the 25th Dynasty (ca. 712–664 B.C.). The ancient history of Egyptians and Nubians is, thus, closely intertwined. But Bonnet’s excavations are offering a markedly Nubian perspective on the earliest days of Kerma and its role as the capital of a far-reaching kingdom that dominated the Nile south of Egypt. His finds there and at a neighboring ancient settlement known as Dukki Gel suggest that this urban center was an ethnic melting pot, with origins tied to a complex web of cultures native to both the Sahara, and, farther south, parts of central Africa. These discoveries have gradually revealed the complex nature of a powerful African kingdom.


Bonnet began working at Kerma in 1976, some 50 years after Egyptologist George Reisner, the first archaeologist to dig at the site, closed his excavations. As the leader of the joint Harvard University–Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition, Reisner had spent many years directing excavations at the Great Pyramid of Giza and working in southern Egypt, where he developed an interest in ancient Nubian culture and in connecting its history to that of the Egyptians. “Reisner thought the place to find new Egyptian art would be in northern Sudan,” says Larry Berman, curator of Egyptology at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1913, by request of the Sudanese Antiquity Center in Khartoum, Reisner was directed to Kerma, which, at the time, was only vaguely known to Westerners from the accounts of nineteenth-century European explorers. He was completely unprepared for what was to come. “When Reisner arrived at Kerma, he accidentally discovered a civilization the scope of which was unknown to the Western world,” says Berman.

Kerma Sunrise preview
New Look at Ancient Nubia




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