A Prehistory of Western North America: The Impact of Uto-Aztecan Languages

Aug 20th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-1: Tribal College Communities, Media Reviews

prehistory-western-na-uto-aztecanBy David Leedom Shaul
University of New Mexico Press (2014)
377 pages

Review by Paul Gilon

David Leedom Shaul’s new book, A Prehistory of Western North America, employs linguistic data, together with archaeological and genetic evidence, in reconstructing North American prehistory. The emphasis is on the ancestors of present-day speakers of Uto-Aztecan languages. These include Ute, Paiute, Shoshone, and Comanche—all of which are Great Basin Numic languages— and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, which is spoken in central and southern Mexico. Shaul’s investigation covers a time span from 3500 B.C. to A.D. 1500, and includes a geographic area ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the llanos of Texas, and from the Athabasca region of Canada down to northern Mexico and Mesoamerica. The author’s goal is to locate the much sought-after homeland of the proto-Uto-Aztecan language and its people.

While Shaul’s emphasis is on the homeland and ethnicity of the proto-Uto-Aztecan language, the reader will also learn about the homelands and related ethnicities of the Zuni, Hopi, Athabascan, Tanoan, and Keresan languages. For those of us who have wondered about the language or languages spoken at Chaco, one fascinating possibility is that Keresan may have functioned as a “prestige code” or a trade language during the peak of the Chaco culture. Another interesting finding is that the current Zuni language consists of two languages, each with its own set of rules for the pluralization of nouns. Based on historical linguistic factors, Shaul is able to dismiss the putative but often discussed relationship between the Zuni and Penutian, an ancient language family of western North America.

In his efforts, Shaul succeeds in locating the much sought-after homeland of the proto-Uto-Aztecan language and its people. He also describes the societal characteristics of that culture, which he infers by analyzing words dealing with technology, agriculture, social organization, spirituality, and other terms pertaining to specific activities or functions.

One major criticism of the book is its organization. Related topics are often presented segmentally in different chapters. For the ordinary reader who is not a linguist, this breaks up the flow of information and logic. For example, in the last chapter Shaul makes a strong case for the distinction between “historical linguistics” and “linguistic prehistory.” To paraphrase the author, the tools and techniques of historical linguistics help the prehistorian to reconstruct the prehistoric past. In other words, these disciplines are not synonymous. Given this fact, the reader may wonder if this distinction would have made a difference in his/her understanding of what he/she just read. A brief chapter on the methodology of the study would have been useful.

To quote the author, “My intent is to show how the study of Uto- Aztecan prehistory can contribute to an overall understanding of prehistoric western North America.” Shaul has done this copiously and superbly. I believe this book will benefit students of anthropology and academic linguists, as well as those interested in the overall history of the American Southwest.

Paul Gilon, Ph.D., taught in the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Diné College and is Professor Emeritus at California State University, Long Beach.

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