The Last Stone Age American


On his first walks wagons and cars did not startle him (although even the wheel lay quite outside his ken). But the railroad trains made a deep impression, for he was seeing them for the first time, although he had known of their existence. On his wanderings he had often heard them in the distance and regarded them as evil demons. Yet he now had no objection to using trains when accompanied and was soon riding on the trolley alone. The tall houses did not strike him as marvellous; the cliffs in the canyon had been higher, he remarked.

“Remarked” is the word, for in the course of time he learned English and soon possessed a vocabulary of about five hundred to six hundred words, not appreciably less than many European first-generation immigrants. There was only one time when he reacted with sheer horror. That was in the nearby hospital, where he had struck up a friendship with Dr. Saxton Pope, who regularly examined him and treated his frequent colds. By chance Ishi wandered into the morgue. He quailed at the sight of the dead bodies and stammered about spirits and evil demons.

Regular visiting times for him were set, Sundays from two to four thirty. At one of the first museum receptions he attended, a thousand persons showed up. Ishi was a model of dignified bearing; he shook hands with everyone who was brought to meet him, each time smiling pleasantly and carefully repeating the visitor’s name. He also made a great effort to recognize persons he had seen before. Interestingly, he applied his own tribal name, “Yana,” to a Chinese, whereas the whites remained “Saltu,” the “Others.” That might be taken as a convincing piece of evidence for the Asiatic descent of all Indians, but of course its basis could also have been quite superficial. Still, it is worth noting that Ishi, like the Chinese, could not pronounce the American r and substituted l for it.

All his friends, Kroeber, Waterman, and Pope in particular, had the impression that Ishi felt at home in the museum. But none of them had realized just how much it had come to mean to him. For when the plan arose to undertake a long journey of exploration into Yana country with Ishi, he was utterly dismayed. Far from wanting to see his homeland again, he belabored his friends with descriptions of the hardships they would encounter. There would be terrible storms. Snakes and mountain lions were a perpetual menace. They could expect hunger and thirst; there would be no soft beds for them at night. Were they going to subject themselves to all that just to get to know his wilderness? He pointed to the bath, to the heating, to the chairs and chests of drawers. It seemed to him insane to give up all these comforts, even if only for a few weeks!

At this point we must relate what Ishi taught and not only what he learned. He taught his friends everything he knew and could do. He began with his language, gradually dictating his entire vocabulary. But he also sang his songs and imitated the countless calls of wild animals and birds, a trick he used in hunting. He demonstrated the manual skills by which a Stone Age man was able to survive in the wilderness. For Dr. Pope’s records he narrated forty different stories, tales of the woodland world, a tissue of dreams and spirits, fear and love. In the museum garden he built a hut such as he had had in Yana land. But he did not make baskets, because he either could not or would not, for that was women’s work. A man’s task was to produce implements for hunting. In that realm he displayed abilities that were priceless to the scientists. Here was a chance to watch how a man chipped a spearhead out of a piece of obsidian one thousand or ten thousand years ago. Ishi needed thirty minutes to produce a perfectly formed, deadly, needle-sharp point. Before the scientists’ eyes he made harpoons, fishing tackle, and nooses and wove ropes out of milkweed fibers or deer sinews. And as his crowning feat he made a bow and arrow. This was a drawn-out task, for the wood had to be repeatedly dried at various stages of the work, and in addition certain mystic rites had to be observed. Dr. Pope became his eager pupil and subsequently published several treatises on the art of wielding a bow. Waterman was less fortunate. He watched attentively as Ishi produced sparks and kindled a fire by means of a wooden drill and a piece of softwood. Somewhat too hastily, Waterman told his anthropology students that they could not pass the course unless they learned to use a fire drill like Ishi. He would show them the technique, he said, whereupon he turned and turned the drill without producing a spark.

In May, 1914, Kroeber prepared the expedition to Yana land in spite of Ishi’s lack of enthusiasm for the trip. And now the scientists could see him in his own world. He led them to all the places he remembered because of some special occurrence—the site of a massacre during his childhood, the place where a cremation had been held, the spot made unforgettable by a lucky arrow or a battle with a cinnamon bear. And in Wowunupo, the grizzly bear’s hiding place, they relived the end of the last members of his tribe.