The Last Stone Age American

PrintPrintEmailEmail

As an epilogue to his forthcoming book on the archaeology of the United States, C. W. Ceram, the author of Gods, Graves and Scholars, has chosen to tell a symbolic tale—the story of lshi. Chronologically, the story is quite modern; culturally, it reaches back to the Stone Age. Mr. Ceram’s new book, The First American, will be published later this month by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents his moving epilogue—the end of “a chapter m History.”

The story begins at the fence of a slaughterhouse two or three miles outside the town of Oroville, California, at dawn on August 29, 1911. Oroville, then a town of some 3,800 people, is about seventy miles north-east of Sacramento.

The dogs began barking so madly that a few sleep-sodden butchers came out to see what was the matter. Leaning against the fence was a man whom they at first took to be a drunken tramp. Then they saw that he was almost naked; only around his shoulders was there a scrap of cloth resembling a poncho. And his face was obviously that of an Indian, but of a type they had never seen before. The poor creature’s black eyes glittered with a hunted look of terror.

The baffled butchers could think of nothing better to do than to summon the sheriff. He arrived, approached the stranger with drawn gun, and ordered him to come along. The response was a series of incomprehensible sounds. To be on the safe side, the sheriff handcuffed the fellow—who meekly accepted whatever was done with him but continued to show signs of intense fear—and took him to the Oroville jail, where he locked him in a cell normally reserved for the mentally ill.

At this point the sheriff realized that his prisoner was utterly exhausted. The man was undoubtedly an Indian, but his skin was somewhat lighter than that of the tribes the sheriff knew. All attempts at communication proved fruitless, even when a Mexican tried Spanish and a few Indians were fetched who spoke several Indian dialects.

The sheriff was unhappy about the whole affair, for within a short time word of the “wild man” had got around, and more and more curiosity seekers kept coming to have a look at him. At last the reporter of the local newspaper arrived. The “wild man’s” picture appeared in the newspaper next day, and the next day the story made banner headlines in the San Francisco papers. There, at the Anthropological Museum of the University of California, Professors Alfred L. Kroeber and Thomas T. Waterman saw them.

It was lucky for Ishi—we may as well give the wild man his name—and lucky for science that Kroeber and Waterman not only read the newspaper articles but also guessed at once that this might represent a unique case. If the strange man actually spoke an unknown language, might he not be one of the last survivors of a supposedly vanished tribe? That seemed a totally fantastic hope on the part of the two anthropologists. Nevertheless, on August 31, two days after Ishi had appeared, Kroeber sent the following telegram to Oroville: “Sheriff Butte County. Newspapers report capture wild Indian speaking language other tribes totally unable understand. Please confirm or deny by collect telegram and if story correct hold Indian till arrival Professor State University who will take charge and be responsible for him. Matter important account aboriginal history.”

The reply came promptly, and on that very day Waterman set out for Oroville and Ishi.

The anthropologists’ hope had but a single and perhaps flimsy basis. It was known that the country around Oroville had formerly been the territory of the Yana Indians, who had spoken various dialects. The languages of the two northern tribes had been preserved. The last survivors, a man named Batwi and called Sam, and a woman named Chidaimiya, Christianized as Betty Brown, had dictated an extensive vocabulary. But not a word of the language of the southern tribe, the Yahi, had ever been recorded; the tribe was considered extinct. If by a miracle Ishi were a Yahi, there would certainly be difficulties in communication, but what a coup for science it would be.

We can imagine the suspense with which Waterman, his Yana word list in hand, first approached Ishi in his cell. He opened the “dictionary,” pointed to objects, and pronounced the words, repeating them with varying intonations because he could not be sure about his pronunciation. Ishi sat hunched, impassive, weak; he had refused food because, as came out later, he thought the white men were trying to poison him. He merely stared at Waterman with an unfathomable look. Waterman began to lose heart; he was approaching the end of his list. Finally he pointed at the wood of the cot and said, “ Siwim ” which means yellow pine. And suddenly Ishi straightened up. “ Siwim ,” he repeated. And then the two were seized by excitement; they wildly tapped the wood again and again, exclaiming with beaming smiles, “ Siwini, siwini! ” They understood one another.