Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Violence/Warfare in the Plains

Bamforth,  Douglas B.
Mar. 1994 Indigenous People, Indigenous Violence: Precontact Warfare on the North American Great Plains
Man , New Series, Vol. 29, No. 1 pp. 95-115

In this article, the author discusses how, while colonialism does seem to cause an increase in intertribal warfare in the Americas, there still was a fairly high rate of war and violence between tribes well before European contact. This article provides evidence of warfare in various pre-contact tribal locations throughout the Plains area including evidence of fortification of villages, severe skeletal trauma indicating violent death, evidence of whole village-community massacre, and even post-massacre village burning. The question that this article raises is why these communities would have reason to fight before the stress of European contact and influence? One theory presented is the expansion of Eastern tribes, such as the Cahokian, into the Plains area. This seems to be more evident in the Eastern Plains. In the Northern plains, however, the more likely reasoning behind intertribal warfare seems to be shortage of supplies. These shortages appear to have been periodic and unpredictable as evidenced by the variability in defensive constructions in these villages, such as Crow Creek as well as skeletal evidence of periodic malnutrition in these areas. This shows that violence and subsistence stress were fairly highly linked in these areas. However, there really is no single ‘cause’ to the presence of warfare and violence in the Plains area. There are many factors that can play a role such as societal structure, what constitutes the earning of honor, presence of supply, invading foreign people, both Native American and European and the intertribal relations and trading system. So as much as it would be nice to simplify the reasoning behind tribal warfare to “It’s all the European’s fault for interfering,” there is evidence backing pre-contact warfare among Plains tribes that have very complex roots in their reasoning.
Zimmerman, Larry J.  and Bradley, Lawrence E.
The Plains Anthropologist , Vol. 38, No. 145, MEMOIR 27: pp. 215-226

In this paper, Zimmerman and Lawrence discuss the various hypotheses describing possible motivators for the Crow Creek Massacre. These hypotheses seem to revolve mostly around likely food shortages in the area due to severe drought and lack of availability of arable land. One interesting factor that they bring in Is the immigration of other Native American groups from nearby areas coming in due to food shortages or displacement in their own areas. These groups would be relatively unaccustomed to the climate of the Middle Missouri area that they had moved to. This left them at a severe disadvantage as the fortifications that they would have built would not be very effective at warding off attack. Even in Crow Creek, the site shows that the fortifications obviously did not effectively defend its people from attack when food became short and a neighboring village came to kill and raid the site. Lack of planning in fortifications is also shown by an initial fortification, built around an inner part of the village assumed to be the village from the initial people of the site, which is then surrounded by other residential dwellings that are not very well protected. This seems to show that population growth was not really taken into account upon the building of the initial fortifications. The reason that food shortage and increasing population seems to be the most likely theory with the Crow Creek Massacre as well as for similar sites of extreme violence is due to simulations that are discussed in the paper as well. These simulations show that even with small groups of other Native Americans moving to the Middle Missouri area, with population growth in combination with arable land availability, the point of environmental stress would be easily reached by the time this massacre took place. With the environment being stressed to the point where it cannot sustain the population, it seems likely that the stressed populations would try to eliminate the stress on the environment by getting rid of some of the people causing the stress by killing them. Unfortunately, due to the inaccuracies and missing data that inherently come with trying to “predict” the past,  it is difficult to determine if this hypothesis is true, but hypotheses are only meant to find the most likely scenario when it comes to the past.


  1. I find your article by Bamforth very interesting. It seems that one of the major causes of warfare was the unpredictability of resources, particularly in the Northern Plains. An article that I found about faunal remains at a site in central Nebraska suggests that the Pacific climatic episode could have caused periodic droughts. These unpredictable droughts not only caused a decrease in bison herds, but they lead to frequent herd migrations as the bison searched for food. This is a possible cause behind the migration of people out of southwest Nebraska and into central and northeast Nebraska (Bozell 1991). Groups will travel to areas where resources are more available in times of stress. As suitable territories decreased due to the negative effects of drought, it makes sense that competition would have been intense for the limited resources.

    Bozell, John R.
    1991 Fauna from the Hulme Site and Comments on Central Plains Tradition Subsistence Variability. Plains Anthropologist 36: 229-253.

  2. In one of the books I read, there was a section dedicated to warfare and injury. In this section, the book describes in detail two separate cases from the Red Desert area of southern Wyoming, Robber’s Gulch and the Bairoil Skeleton. Both of these cases show signs of extreme violence, possibly related to warfare. The Robber’s Gulch skeleton was shot with at least 14 arrows, and then buried, possibly in an attempt of a cover up; this case is seen as an early Late Prehistoric period homicide. The second case, the Bairoil Skeleton, is from an adult male who actually survived his injuries; his injuries include substantial cranial trauma, as well as some post-cranial trauma. This skeleton was shot with an arrow or the same type as the ones from Robber’s Gulch, as well as struck with a sharp, heavy instrument. Between these two specimens, there is now convincing evidence for armed conflict during the Late Prehistoric Period.

    Frison, George C., with contributions by Bruce A. Bradley, Julie E. Francis, George W. Gill, James C. Miller
    1991 Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains. 2nd Edition. In Human Skeletal Remains on the Northwestern Plains, written by George W. Gill, pp. 431-447. Academic Press Inc., San Diego.

  3. I find the Bamforth article interesting as well. It gives me a new sense of appreciation for that of the Shea site that was likely expanded from a smaller area to a much larger one (Michlovic and Schneider, 1993). From the way in which my article presented information it seems that in parts of North Dakota, the Shea site in particular, may have had some of the same reasons that Bamforth mentioned in his article in the building and rebuilding of the sites fortifications. As to the implications of a food shortage mentioned by Brita, I would be surprised if that were a main reason for the construction of such time-intensive fortifications when it would be easier to move to a better location, so perhaps then neighboring areas were affected by drought more often resulting in tension with the people of the Shea site and their neighbors.

    Michlovic, Michael G. and Schneider, Fred E.
    1993 The Shea Site: A Prehistoric Fortified Village on the Northeastern Plains. Journal of Plains Anthropological Society 38 (143) 117-137.