In the time before the invention of writing, communication was almost always person-to-person: people met with one another to transfer ideas, designs and technologies. It is one of archaeology’s great tasks to understand how this happened. By excavating artefacts, archaeologists can examine the spread of a new pottery design, say, or the flourishing of a particular type of stone tool. Here, archaeologists might refer to ‘diffusion’ among the groups, a vague 19th-century term suggesting that the movement of cultural practices between peoples was an uncomplicated process, like ink moving across blotter paper. But this is far too simplistic.
The fact is that archaeology lacks a well-developed body of theory for understanding how beliefs and technologies spread from one group to another: the grey and monolithic idea of ‘diffusion’ masks what actually happened. Real people had to meet in order to transfer real cultural practices. Who were these people? What was their motivation for travelling to, meeting and interacting with other groups of people? When strangers appeared, why were locals interested in the objects, dress styles, tools or languages they brought with them?
My ‘aha’ moment about these questions came 20 years ago. I was visiting a small museum in southern Arizona and saw on the wall a 19th-century photo of a white woman with a tattooed face who had been captured by local Native Americans, who themselves traditionally tattooed their faces. For a long time, I stared at her and wondered about what archaeologists call ‘cultural transmission’. Clearly, she must have (willingly or not) adopted the dress and habits of her captors. But did the exchange of ideas and cultural practices go both ways? Might a young, frightened white woman leave some of her own ‘ways of doing’ with the Native Americans who captured her, changing their culture in the process? Ways of preparing food? Methods of making or repairing clothing? New ideas or religious practices?
Olive Oatman (c1837-1903) photographed c1863. Oatman was captured and later tattooed on the chin, a custom common among members of the Mojave tribe. Photo courtesy the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
It was a number of years before I had the opportunity to undertake a study of captives. But, when I did, I found evidence that captives were indeed very likely one way in which technologies, ideologies, styles and more were passed from one society to another. My early investigation of captive-taking was one of the most exciting times of my professional career as I found similar patterns over and over again in who was taken, how they were treated, and the effect they had on the societies they joined. Archaeologists hadn’t realised that the societies they studied almost certainly contained many ‘foreign’ people, nor had they wondered what effect these people had on the groups they joined. Captive people provided a new explanation for cultural transmission.
I limited my search of the global literature to ‘small-scale’ societies, such as those often labelled ‘chiefdoms’ or ‘tribes’. This is partly because I work in North America where small-scale societies are the most common form, and partly just to limit the vast amount of data that I was finding. Small-scale societies rely primarily on kinship ties (real or fictive) as the basis for their social and political organisation. Some archaeologists call them ‘middle-range societies’ because they’re not small bands or complex states (in state-level societies, classes are the organising principle). My focus on small-scale groups was partial, however, because captive-taking enmeshed societies at a variety of social levels (for example, powerful states plundering tribal societies for captives). The groups I studied ranged from horticultural societies in the Amazon, to complex hunter-gatherers of North America’s northwest coast, to chiefdoms of the pre-contact North American southeast and Africa, to Viking raiders and Germanic tribes in Europe, and to island groups of Southeast Asia. And because some captives became slaves, I also studied slavery around the world. In his transformative book Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982), the great Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson says ‘[Slavery] has existed from before the dawn of human history right down to the twentieth century, in the most primitive societies and in the most civilized. . . . Probably there is no group of people whose ancestors were not at one time slaves or slaveholders.’ In studying this global practice in small-scale societies, I mean to honour the people who experienced captivity or enslavement wherever and whenever they lived.
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In small-scale societies, captives are mostly the result of raiding and warfare. For a long time, archaeologists believed that violence was rare in societies of this size, but the book War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996) by the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley changed that, presenting abundant archaeological and other data to show that early small-scale societies were as aggressive as societies today. Archaeological studies since have proved Keeley’s point.
My notions of slavery were initially biased by slavery in the United States, when hundreds of thousands of adult men and some women were kidnapped in Africa and brought to southern plantations and other parts of North America. But, to my surprise, I found account after account showing that, when small-scale societies attacked one another, the captives they took were mostly young women and children. Men were likely to be killed because they were dangerous to transport and difficult to incorporate. Some captives were adopted into captor culture, others were enslaved, and still others occupied intermediate positions: concubines, wives, second or drudge wives – marginal positions of that sort.
The youngest children were easiest to incorporate into captor society, at least among those groups willing to ignore their foreign origin. Older children and adults were actively reprogrammed into a new identity. Those destined to be slaves were stripped of their home identity (what the sociologist Orlando Patterson in 2018 called ‘social death’), given new clothes (or no clothes), their hair was cut to indicate their status, and they wore other marks of servitude. At the other end of the scale of incorporation, adoptees and wives would learn the captor’s language and cultural practices. Some managed to fit in, sometimes quite successfully, although it seems likely that their origins were never truly forgotten.
Captive-taking was not an occasional occurrence. There were many of these people in small-scale societies. How could my fellow archaeologists and I have overlooked them? Getting actual numbers was, of course, not easy. In trying to assess the proportion of captives in small-scale societies, accounts reported numbers of slaves (rather than captives) because of scholars’ widespread interest in slavery and because, as a separate social class, slaves are easier to see. But slaves in small-scale societies can be assumed to have originally been captives. In societies where captives become slaves, their children are generally born free; unlike the American South, slave status isn’t usually passed on. Where efforts have been made to assess slave numbers, those numbers are remarkable.
The groundbreaking study Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life (2009) by the anthropologist Fernando Santos-Granero explored slavery in six small-scale societies in ‘tropical America’, an area extending from southern Florida to the Gran Chaco of South America. He found that slaves ranged from 5 to 19 per cent of the population in these groups. The anthropologist Leland Donald’s careful and detailed Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America (1997) found that, although the number of slaves in any one village varied over time, they composed about 10-20 per cent of the population of Northwest Coast groups. (The Northwest Coast is one place where slave status was passed through generations, but slave reproduction was low.) Among the maritime chiefdoms of Southeast Asia, proportions of slaves ranged from 10 to 30 per cent. I found similar proportions – even up to 50 per cent – in other small-scale societies around the world. In other words, captives made up significant proportions of many small-scale societies. Their effect on their captor’s societies must have been substantial.
The work captives did created an opening for them to contribute new ideas about how to do things
That leaves the crucial question: what factors were involved in allowing captives to transmit new cultural practices to their captors? The sorts of new ideas and practices that captives were able to contribute depended in part on their age at capture and the tasks they were assigned. The youngest children might quickly forget the culture they were born into and adopt that of their captors. The numerous accounts of Europeans ‘redeemed’ from Native American groups in the 17th to 19th centuries attest to the rapidity with which children and even teenagers can lose their original language and culture: many were so completely incorporated by their captors that their ‘redemption’ was yet another traumatic wrenching from a home that they had grown to love. Naturally, adults were far less likely than children to forget their original home and the knowledge and practices they learned there.
Captives performed a variety of labour for their captors that gave them opportunities to pass on the expertise they’d arrived with. They were often assigned the most tiresome and difficult tasks (hauling water or wood, carrying loads, paddling canoes) but they also frequently laboured at producing crops, making craft goods, building houses and other activities that gave their owners greater wealth and status. In fact, captives in small-scale societies were primarily held by the highest-status males in the group as extra wives, personal attendants or slave labour. The work they did created an opening for them to contribute new ideas about how to do things.
Because small-scale societies didn’t have writing, accounts of their captive-taking practices come mostly from 16th- to 19th-century explorers and colonists. European contact had devastating effects on small-scale societies around the world, depressing populations and destroying Indigenous cultures. I used the earliest accounts available wherever possible. Of course, the European authors of these accounts had their own preconceptions and biases, which I had to sift through to discern how captives fit into captor societies. The most difficult thing to understand is what captives might have taught their captors. Once a group adopts a new practice (food, clothing style or language, etc), it is theirs. They have little reason to remember that it was introduced from another group, especially by a lowly captive. So much of the evidence for that kind of relationship tends to disappear. But, with careful study, it can be noticed.
One of the most useful types of accounts for studying cultural transmission is the captive narrative. Captive narratives are largely written by Europeans who are captured and held by Indigenous people, and then return to write about their experiences. Captives have various reasons for exposing their experiences, and their accounts can be expected to be as biased as those of any outsider. The accounts show that captor societies were interested in different ways of doing things and sometimes attributed special powers to non-local captives, even as they might have abused and reviled them. In many cases, captors actively mined their captives for useful information despite enslaving them or holding them in low regard.
The Spanish explorer Álvar N&ugr
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