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  • Sacred Water and Water-Dwelling Serpents:What Can Yuman Oral Tradition Tell Us about Yuman Prehistory?
  • Margaret Field (bio)

This paper brings a multi-disciplinary approach to bear on a consideration of motifs related to water as sacred in Yuman oral tradition, including the association of water with heaven, as well as the great ocean-dwelling serpent of the Delta-California and some River branches of Yuman, and various serpentine guardians of local water resources. As an anthropological linguist involved in documentating the languages and literature of Yuman groups in Baja California, who also teaches various courses in American Indian Studies, an inherently multi-disciplinary field, I draw on evidence from Yuman oral tradition, historical linguistics, rock art iconography, and archaeological work in support of the hypothesis that Yuman peoples brought these water-dwelling serpent deities with them when they migrated north and east out of their homeland in Baja California several thousand years ago. As discussed by Mathiowetz (2011), bringing together observations from multiple disciplines is crucial for understanding the history of nonliterate cultures:

In nonliterate societies, conceptual metaphors and more poetic forms of expression are ... embedded in a number of forms including speech, ritual, prayers, sacred narratives, and in the production, form, and use of artifacts ...

the study of metaphor in texts, language, material culture, and art gives archaeologists and art historians the theoretical tools to engage in an approach rooted in the humanities for interpreting and reconstructing the cultural meaning of archaeological and ethnographic material culture, artifacts, and symbolism.... Discerning shared metaphors in the material culture and symbolism essentially allows one to map the movement of ideas upon the landscape through time.

(2011:12) [End Page 2]

Yuman Prehistory: Archaeological and Linguistic Perspectives

Yuman prehistory is not well understood and a debate still exists in the anthropological literature today concerning the location of the Yuman homeland and the length of time that contemporary Yuman speech communities have been in their current locations (McGuire & Schiffer 1982, Laylander 1985, 2010, Mixco 2006). Archaeological evidence tells us that people have been living in the area now inhabited by Yuman peoples in Baja and Alta California (see fig. 1) for about 10,000 years (Moratto 1984). We know very little about the earliest inhabitants of the area, called the "San Dieguito" people, except that they hunted big game and depended largely on shellfish. In this regard they appear not to have been that different from the later La Jolla complex who occupied the area after them from 8,000 to 1,000 years ago. These same cultures also lived in Baja California, where shell middens on the coast date to 9,000 years ago (Moore 2006). Archaeologists believe that these early peoples spread out from the coast into the desert and to the Colorado River area beginning about 3000 BC1 (Rogers 1945, Irwin-Williams 1979, Schroeder 1979). Whether these early migrants into the Southwest share identity with Yuman peoples, however, continues to be a topic of much debate among archaeologists.

The linguistic evidence indicates that Yuman peoples emigrated out of Baja California (where the most diversity in the Yuman language family is found) and began diversifying into the three main branches of the Yuman language family—River Yuman, Upland Yuman (or Pai), and Delta-California Yuman—between 4000 and 2000 BC (Foster 1996). The fact that Baja California is the place where the most divergent languages in the family are found, including Cocopa, Kumeyaay, Ko'alh, and the most divergent extant variety, Kiliwa, in addition to Yuman's sister-family of Cochimian languages (which are now extinct), indicates that Baja is likely the Yuman homeland, from a linguistic perspective. Attention to the degree of geographically centered linguistic diversity in a language family allows historical linguists to postulate the location of initial divergence, with this early divergence subsequently leading to maximal diversity in and around the original homeland (Hale & Harris 1979, Foster 1996, Wichmann et al. 2012).

The Yuman language family belongs to the Hokan language stock, one of the oldest in California, dating to at least 8000 BC and probably [End Page 3]

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