An Other-Than-Human Being: The Archaeology of Bears in North America

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 82nd Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC (2017)

Ever since Irving Hallowell's classic 1926 ethnographic study of the special mythic status of bears in the Subarctic, anthropologists are generally aware that many peoples throughout the world have treated bears as far more than a subsistence resource, something more akin to another kind of human or an other-than-human being. Hallowell attributed that special relationship between Subarctic humans and bears to some striking parallels between bear and human behaviors and physiologies. If that were indeed the case, then one would expect to see similar relationships outside the Subarctic, although in fact Hallowell found little evidence for the special treatment of bears elsewhere in North America. Archaeological and historical research over the last nine decades, however, has produced a vast amount of as yet unsynthesized information on the roles of bears in Native American beliefs, rituals, and subsistence. Taking into account ecological variables of bear demography, reproductive rate, habitat use, seasonal availability, and trophic level, we invite participants in this session to draw on new and existing data to reconsider zooarchaeological and other evidence of bear hunting and use in light of the range of relationships that existed between bears and humans across the millennia in Native North America.

Resources Inside This Collection (Viewing 1-10 of 10)

  • Documents (10)

  • Bear Imagery and Ritual in Midwest North America (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Thomas Berres.

    The American black bear figured prominently in the visual arts, rituals, ceremonies, and cosmological beliefs of Native peoples inhabiting Midwest North America through antiquity. Bears are almost universally perceived as great Lower World spiritual beings possessing the power to cause or cure illness, maintain life, and change its form where bears become people and vice versa. Their remains and images are often found in mortuary ritual contexts – a powerful means of communicating emotions and...

  • The Bear in the Footprint: Using Ethnography to Interpret Archaeological Evidence of Bear Hunting and Bear Veneration in the Northern Rockies (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Michael Ciani.

    Archaeological evidence of prehistoric bear hunting and bear veneration in the northern Rocky Mountains and northwestern Plains is presented. Ethnographic documents and the writings of trappers, traders, and explorers are assessed in order to establish an interpretative framework to help decipher archaeological contexts in the region that include bear remains and rock art depicting bears. Examining prehistoric archaeological contexts in Montana and Wyoming within this framework suggests evidence...

  • Bear/Human Relationships in Southeastern Native North America: Creating Archaeological Models from Historical Accounts (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Gregory Waselkov.

    Historical accounts and ethnographic studies of the Indians of greater southeastern North America dating from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries contain abundant information on native people’s attitudes toward black bears (Ursus americanus). These records provide a basis for inferences about changes in subsistence exploitation of bear populations in the Southeast over the last five centuries, while offering clues about longer-term non-subsistence relationships between bears and humans that...

  • Black Bear Among the St. Lawrence Iroquoians: Food, Tools, and Symbols (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Claire St-Germain. Christian Gates St-Pierre. Krista McGrath. Keri Rowsell. Matthew Collins.

    Bear bones have been identified in the faunal assemblages of Iroquoian sites of the St. Anicet cluster near Montreal, Quebec. Three village sites will be the focus of this presentation: McDonald, Droulers, and Mailhot-Curran, with comparisons with other Iroquoian sites, especially Hurons and Iroquois. Bear bones are few in the St. Anicet faunal assemblages, but a ZooMS analysis indicates a high frequency of bear bones used in the production of bone projectile points. This unexpected result will...

  • Black Bear Use through Time in the Southern Appalachians (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Heather Lapham. Thomas Whyte.

    Historic accounts of Fort San Juan, a Spanish garrison built near the native village of Joara in the late 1560s in western North Carolina, inform us that chiefs from neighboring towns brought "meat and maize" to the soldiers on various occasions. Based on the high proportion of bear in the fort faunal assemblage, it seems likely that the foods gifted to the Spaniards included bear meat. A recent zooarchaeological study suggests that native peoples provisioned the soldiers with some prime bear...

  • Brother Bear: The Role of Ursus americanus in Cherokee Society (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Heidi Altman. Tanya Peres.

    Archaeological sites in the Southeastern United States often contain remains of the black bear (Ursus americanus), which, upon excavation, are placed into one of two general categories for further analysis: food or modified. The confines of these categories precondition interpretations of the bear remains, and limit possible crucial understanding of the roles of bears in the social life of the people who interacted with them. While the category of "food" can be further divided into quotidian or...

  • "Dear, Honored Guest": Archaeological Models of Bear Ceremonialism in Minnesota (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only David Mather.

    Archaeological expressions of bear ceremonialism in Minnesota include: ritual sites with dozens to hundreds of bear skulls, calcined fragments of burned bear paws, effigy earthworks, rock art and portable art. These were created by Siouan and Algonquian speaking peoples, including the Dakota and Ojibwe, who are still resident in the state. Some finds relate to the bear hunt, feast and funeral that are the focus of A. Irving Hallowell’s (1926) concept of bear ceremonialism. Others appear to...

  • Did Bears Make the Fur Trade Possible? Seasonal Resource Scheduling during Wisconsin’s Early and Middle Historic Periods (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Ralph Koziarski.

    Data have been found to suggest increased consumption of bear meat at Eastern Wisconsin sites during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While bear remains are rare at these sites, they occur at generally higher densities than at Late Prehistoric Late Woodland and Oneota sites in the same region. Ethnohistoric evidence, supported by zooarchaeological data from the eighteenth century Meskwaki Grand Village (Bell Site) indicate that ritualized disposal behaviors may have impacted the...

  • North American Late Pleistocene Bear: Diversity and Resource for Early Peoples (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Joaquin Arroyo-Cabrales. Eileen Johnson.

    North America had a large and varied bear diversity (Mammalia, Carnivora, Ursidae) during the late Pleistocene. At least seven species occurred from southern Mexico and Belize north, as far as Alaska and the Yukon, constituting the subfamilies Tremarctinae and Ursinae. Tremarctinae had at least four species: two short-faced bears pertaining to the genus Arctodus; the spectacled bear Tremarctos floridanus; and an undescribed species, probably within the genus Arctotherium. All of which are...

  • Unusual Elements, Special Contexts: Bear Ceremonialism in Context at Feltus, Jefferson County, Mississippi (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Megan Kassabaum. Ashley Peles.

    During the Coles Creek period (AD 700–1200), people constructed three earthen mounds at the Feltus site in Jefferson County, Mississippi. Before, during, and after the construction of these earthworks, Feltus was a location for ritual gatherings characterized by communal feasts and ritual post activities. Archaeological investigations at Feltus produced not only a large amount of bear bone, but a range of skeletal elements that are unusual at prehistoric sites. The nature of these remains and...