Apachean Origins

With archaeological, linguistic, isotopic and palaeoenvironmental studies, the Apachean Origins project is exploring the ways in which Canadian Dene or Athapaskan ancestors of Navajo and Apache peoples made their way south from Subarctic Canada during the last 1500 years. Much of our research focuses on the Promontory caves of Utah, where dry conditions led to the preservation of a great deal of perishable material culture, especially moccasins made in characteristically northern styles.

The departure of Navajo and Apache ancestors from Subarctic Canada ca. 1200 years ago formed one of

two key vectors in migrations through which Dene or Athapaskan speakers became the most widespread

of the language families in North America. Dene communities extend from Alaska to the Sierra Madres,

yet relatively little is known archaeologically about what is clearly an important story in New World

prehistory. This research explores a key facet of the Apachean expansion through renewed examination

of the Promontory Caves on Great Salt Lake, Utah. These dry caves were first excavated in 1930 by

prominent 20th century anthropologist Julian Steward, who found every manner of perishable item had

been preserved, including hundreds of moccasins, mittens, feathers, cordage and basketry.


Because the Promontory record preserves a broad range of material culture, it is well suited to

explorations of cultural identity. Steward concluded that this archaeological record was likely created by

Apachean ancestors who had formerly been northern bison hunters. He did not have the advantage of

several more decades of research concerning Subarctic, Northern Plains, and Great Basin prehistory in

which there are many indications that Apachean ancestors retained some northern heritage, but rapidly

assimilated ceremonial and material culture from neighbouring societies. This research is providing for a

 uniquely North American interdisciplinary project, unprecedented in uniting regional specialists who do

not ordinarily work together.