Apachean (Southern Athapaskan)

Culture Name: Apachean (Southern Athapaskan)

First posted by C. Dean Wilson 2014
Revised by Deni Seymour 2015

Athapaskan constitutes the most widely distributed native language family in North America. Five separate subgroupings of Athapaskan languages have been identified including Alaskan, Northern Interior (British Columbia/Yukon), Mackenzie Basin, and the noncontiguous Pacific Coast and Southwest groups. Most of these groups now or once lived in the Canadian or Alaskan subarctic, where they were highly mobile hunter-gatherers. The Apachean languages are the least diverse grouping of Athapaskan-speaking groups and linguistic research indicates that Navajo and Apachean groups derived from northern roots during the late prehistoric or early historic periods (Foster 1996; Ives 1990; Sapir 1936). The Southern Athapaskan speakers that historically resided in the Southwestern United States and extreme Northern New Mexico are commonly divided into 7 linguistic subgroups including the Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Kiowa-Apache, Lipan, Navajo, and Western Apache.

Pottery known to have been produced by Southern Athapaskan groups is found in areas across most of New Mexico and Arizona as well as a vast area covering other western states and Northern Mexico that includes wide areas of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, Chihuahua Desert and Colorado Plateau, and Sonora. In the Southwestern United States, the character of pottery differs substantially between those above about the 33 parallel and those to the south. Pottery occurs at sites occupied by Athapaskan groups during the protohistoric period, as dates have been obtained on pottery from the A.D. 1400s (Seymour 2002, cite FB dating chapter, 2004). When pottery is present at such sites, it is usually rare, very simple and is many find it difficult to distinguish and classify. As Seymour (2008) states this relates in part because of the lack of focus on plain wares in previous studies.

This pottery often resembles forms known to have been produced by nearby sedentary groups (Seymour 2008). Important and related issues concerning pottery produced by Southern Athapaskan groups involve the timing of the introduction of this pottery as well as whether the basic technologies represented are ultimately related and the result of core ceramic technologies adopted by these groups prior to the entry of their entry into different areas of the Southwest. One view is that ceramic technologies were independently adopted by different Apachean groups from different formative neighbors at a late date that may have been as late as the late seventeenth century (Baugh and Eddy 1987; Brugge 1982, Seymour 2008). Another scenario is that Apache groups who entered most of the Southwest possibly as early as the fourteenth century (Seymour 2013). These groups may have already possessed ceramic technologies geared to the needs of a mobile life-style. This view seems to be supported by evidence of distinct manufacturing conventions reflected by pottery known to have been produced by different Apachean groups in the Southwest. It is also supported by recent dates indicative of a relatively early arrival for Athapaskan-speaking groups (including the Navajo and the ancestral Chiricahua and Mescalero) into the Southwest (Seymour add others, 2012, 2013, Wilshusen 2010). Thus, while surface finishes may reflect influences from their ceramic producing neighbors as well as the adoption of techniques suitable for local clay and temper resources, one possibility is that t such techniques were added to a core technology that continued to be employed by Apachean groups. Seymour disagrees with this idea and suggests that ceramics for each of the sub-regions differs from each of the others and is so similar to neighboring groups that the technologies were likely borrowed. Ceramics from Colorado differ significantly from the earliest specimens found in southern New Mexico and southern Arizona. Those in the southern reaches of these two states differ from the types found in in the northern sectors of the same states. This suggests that not only were different clay sources in play but that different techniques of construction and finishing techniques were in use. This may indicate that pottery was adopted after arrival in the southernmost Southwest.

The eventual documentation of evidence for either the presence of absence of blending of these influences may be the key to the often extremely difficult task of identifying Apachean pottery found in different provinces of the Southwest. Situations may often be encountered where it may not be initially possible to readily distinguish pottery produced by Southern Athapaskan and groups with which they had contact, and it may be necessary to define or use more general descriptive categories to define pottery reflecting similar manufacturing technologies associated with more than one distinct group (Seymour 2008). Further data relating to either the nature of ceramic technologies associated with different Southern Athapaskan groups may result in major modifications in the organizational scheme presented here.

Related Branches